Thomas Schumacher Q & A. Broadway will have to rebuild again

“Out of all this madness, and out of all this pain, will grow some opportunity for new voices, new creators.”

So says Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions and current chair of The Broadway League, who discussed Broadway’s future and its past, what it will take to reopen, issues of diversity, the Tony Awards, the new streaming, and the need for kindness, in conversation at the Theatermakers Summit on Saturday with Broadway publicist Rick Miramontez

Below are edited highlights, and the full video at the bottom:

Rick Miramontez: I know that you’re supposed to talk about the future, but I just have to ask, where are you right now?

Thomas Schumacher: I’m in the future because it’s Sunday, live from Sydney, Australia, actually, in quarantine no less. They’re serious about quarantine. I’m finishing day 14, I get liberated tomorrow morning. This is government run quarantine run by the military. It’s very strict you never leave your room you don’t have access to any other humans, you can’t open your window and escorted from the airport to an unnamed hotel until you arrive by military escort. So they take it very seriously but of course the infection rate is is virtually nil here, the buildings around me are office buildings, I can see that they’re not full. People are not in there but the streets are busy and Sydney is functioning.

My goodness. What brings you to Australia and quarantine?

This is exciting because when I get out of quarantine tomorrow morning I’ll drop my stuff off in a new location and head into the first day of tech rehearsals for Frozen here at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, a full blown, full on first international mounting of Frozen.

What can you tell us about the West End right now?

What they’re wrestling with right now is obviously the same spiking that we’re having…There’s lots more direct dialogue and government guidance of when venues are going to open than we’re getting.. They depend on tourism too and that means people moving around Europe and that’s the biggest question. When will it be easy to move between countries, because many of us who are trying to get our shows back up, need to be able to travel freely. But the UK is being very aggressive and very thoughtful about how we get back.

What’s going on here? When can we expect to be back?

Everyone wants to ask that question…This has been said quite a bit: We’ll be the last to open… We’re trying to gather in theaters with 1500, 1800 people. That’s a lot of people to get into the building. It’s not just about the sitting.   How do you get in, how do you get out… But then we also have to recognize, which I think gets ignored a great deal in the press,  the safety of all those people who work in the theater …beverage people, ushers, merch people, ticket takers, backstage —  this extraordinary community. How do we safely protect everybody?  What’s happening in dressing rooms? What’s happening in hair and makeup rooms? What’s happening with sound? We need protocols followed, we need to be comfortable and safe. There’s an enormous amount happening to make that happen.

Many people are thinking that their shows are going to open in the Fall; and there are people who are very hopeful that some shows will be able to open over the course of the summer. But we’re going to get guidance both from state and city guidance as to how we do that, and have to follow that guidance.

What has the interaction been like between Broadway and the major’s office and the governor’s office?

Governor Cuomo stepped in rather immediately last Fall and assembled a group of people who are leaders in sports and film and hotels and restaurants, and many of us from Broadway gathered. We were all in a big Zoom call. During that call, it was determined they would break Broadway out from everybody else because we are unique. ..So the governor broke us out and gave us a lot of access to experts. And we created a dialogue that goes back and forth, The mayor is very good as well.

One of the challenges is that everybody wants access to information, but the information is complicated, it’s nuanced, it’s very layered…In an effort to make sure that nothing gets out of control, it’s been a relatively small circle who gets the information and shares it with the membership at large. . That is a necessary but very complicated process, as we try to manage information in a world where everything you say is amplified and broadcast, and often misinterpreted

Now that we’ve had the election, what can you tell us about the (provisions for the arts) like Save Our Stages  in the stimulus bill?

I’ll tell you first off that although I am chairman of the League there’s a Government Relations Committee…We’ve never really had to deal with something this big and we did seek out some very high profile lobbyists who connect us in in DC, and it’s proven very useful.  The Save our Stages bill is a nationwide bill that essentially is going to provide stimulus money and payments to various organizations, whether they be music organizations, comedy clubs, lots and lots of people are part of it. I can’t give you the nuance of it, not because it can’t be shared, but because it changes every day. It’s part of the stimulus package and certainly (Senator) Chuck Schumer has been fighting for us to be part of that, from the very beginning.

What does Broadway look like to you when we come back and what should we be prepared for as theater professionals?

Keep in mind that last year 14.7 million people came to Broadway and eight and a half million of them were tourists. And those are domestic tourists, as well as international tourists.  It tells you how dependent we are on tourism and how interlinked we are to the city. That load of tourists needs to be part of this if we’re going to have 40 Broadway theaters filled…Without those tourists, it’s going to be a challenge to get both the capacity targets and the average ticket price that people want. Can I predict what’s going to happen? No.

How does this compare to what you’ve had to deal with over the past twenty years?

Well, the one that comes up over and over and over again is 9/11. When we reopened, which we did quickly, the theaters were half filled. People were afraid to come. But it also then became an act of heroism to come, people wanted to be there. And it was a slow build back as we got theaters up to capacity. We were able to build back a really big audience, but it was very different than where we are today.

Then the next big hit we took was in the financial crisis, 2007 into 2008, when there was a hit both on the ability to raise capital to mount shows, as well as what audiences were coming to see.

There has been a huge growth in audience in the last few years. We’re going to have to rebuild again. To imagine that the faucet just turns on isn’t a healthy way to approach it. It’s going to take some building at every level with everyone participating.

Will the comeback be dependent on actually having a vaccine?

An audience that is substantially vaccinated is a big piece of this. Rapid testing is also going to change how people feel about this, and there are many methods of tracking that we could do both for workers backstage, as well as for the audience. It’ll take a long time for the entire culture to be vaccinated. How long will it take for the traditional Broadway audience and the international audience and the tourist audience is another matter. There are also protocols in place. We’re going to rely on science, technology and medicine.

There are things that are coming that may not be public yet about protocols that we could do that will be valuable. We’re going to learn more and more about how this works.

It has been an extraordinary year. What is the future of Broadway vis a vis diversity?

it’s an essential topic. Three years ago when I stepped into the job as chairman of the Broadway League I, there were two issues that I raised in my first annual meeting. One of those issues was safety and what would happen if the audience ever felt unsafe in the theater; clearly that’s happened. The other one was that we had a crisis in that our offices and backstage did not reflect the diversity seen on stage in many of our productions.

If we would like the diversity in our workforce to match what we can do on stage and to also then encourage a much more diverse audience to come, then we have a lot of work to do.

The awakening and the reckoning that came this Spring, although poised at a really difficult time for Broadway because we’re not working, has allowed for some astounding conversations. The Broadway Advocacy Coalition is really sensational. What the Black Theatre Coalition wants to do is very focused on employment. There’s Black Theatre United. I’ve been very fortunate to have lots of conversations with those groups, and the League is in active conversation with all the groups.

Keep in mind the League doesn’t pick the shows, doesn’t pick the creative teams, it doesn’t employ very many people. All the League can do is speak to its members ,and give them the opportunity to get training, to have awareness, to host seminars and do all of that. The hard work needs to be done by the producers, directors, writers, working together to really build this community, I think in partnership with all the organized labor that’s on Broadway. Actors Equity has been very eager to be in these conversations.

Different producers are meeting on their own, some of them meeting collectively, some of them under the umbrella of the media committee at the League. The League is hiring someone to go on staff as an EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) specialist. The League has rewritten its bylaws that will allow diversity into the Board of Governors

So there’s a lot happening. And this period of downtime has allowed those conversations, which have been frank and and will continue. We’re at the very beginning of that process, but it’s been active and powerful, and for me very moving.

What can you tell us about the Tony Awards? We’re a little off our rhythm.

I get lobbied so much about the Tony Awards and no matter what person I align with, or what point of view I align with,  there are three other people who are unhappy about it. As you know, we did go through the nomination process. We did elect to have a Tony Awards coming out of the halted season, because there was some 16 plays that weren’t going to be seen for a very long time, and would have been forgotten. It was a complicated process in partnership with the American Theatre Wing….. I have ideas about how we’re going to move forward but I don’t have any surprises to give you today on the Tony Awards. i do think of all the things people should be anxious about, the Tony Awards might slip a little further down on that list, while we try to get back up to full employment in our community which would be my big goal.

If we have to look at 2021 and the years that follow, what good out of this will come to Broadway

I don’t mean to sound like someone who’s not recognizing the extraordinary hardship and trauma that people are experiencing. To be out of work this long and to see that the work horizon is far off is devastating…I have many many many friends whose lives have been profoundly compromised by losing their employment. So I don’t want to in any way gloss over that.

But at the same time, when I step back, and I look at what what has happened historically, I think there are aspects of this that are going to be an accelerator.

In the case of Frozen I elected not to reopen it on Broadway. I know people were surprised about that, but when I was looking at how many tickets we would have to sell to keep three shows running. I knew that we couldn’t. I could take the assets of that production and deploy them around the world, and still protect Aladdin in our own theater and of course the Lion King…So we made a very very hard choice. It accelerated that show rapidly years and years.

I think it will be an accelerator for young people. ..I think this is going to be an accelerant and allow an extraordinary amount of big thinking, rethinking, opportunities for theater creators, for theater writers, I think there will be a shift. It may not be the immediate shift people are looking for. But  never in the history of the world has something like this brought everything to an end.

I like to quote my friend Phil Birsh, who owns and runs Playbill. He says everybody you know can identify an image from the Roaring 20s, but until last March, most people had never heard of the Spanish Flu of 1918. It’s a vaguely glib remark but it’s also truthful, because things move on.

I was in Pompeii a few years ago, which was destroyed in the year 70, and we were in the remains of a theater that had completely blown up. And yet the world continued. The theater was already a thousand years old, and that was two thousand years ago that happened.

Out of all this madness, and out of all this pain, will grow some opportunity for new voices, new creators

(questions from participants)

Belinda Aber: With theater reframing shows to be filmed to be streamed, will these two separate industries, theater and film, attempt to find some sort of symbiosis? And are there models that you can apply?

Let’s just look at history.  I just watched the film The Philadelphia Story the other day; it began as a play.  Broadway was the feeder for Hollywood, long before that path went in the other direction.  Broadway was where things were created and started, and then those things were filmed. Those of us who watch old movies all the time, are very very familiar with that model. We’ve filmed a show for streaming; we have a really beautiful version of Newsies that you can see on Disney Plus and it was on Netflix for a couple of years, and it played in cinema. I don’t think that replaces the Newsies experience (on stage). If you frame the economics of it correctly, it can be supportive. It doesn’t replace it.

The live event is not going away. To think this moment of time is going  to bring the end of 1000 year old tradition to people gathering is is frankly just irrational.It’s going to take us time it’s going to take science technology and medicine to get us back in venues, but we’re going to be back in venues again, and people are going to be gathering to watch things live. Could there be a symbiotic relationship? Yes, because it’s existed for years and years and years. The National Theatre has been doing this forever…The history of this is decades and decades and decades old

Brian Moreland: What is the Broadway League doing to improve diversity at the League and for Broadway? How is Disney helping?

Unconscious bias training and anti racist training are giant priorities at the League. The League also has intern programs, probably 13 or 14 initiatives on equity, diversity and inclusion that have been in place for a long time.I think those are going to get amplified.

Now, how is Disney helping. We too are shifting in terms of employment, to have an EDI specialist to oversee it.

I’ve been approached repeatedly to do a revival of Aida.. It won five Tony Awards. But when I look at it today, I think both its gender politics, and its race politics were uncomfortable. And so before we would commit to doing a revival. I sat down with Shelley Williams who had been in the original production and had become a director, and we began a vibrant conversation about what would have to change in the piece…I think we all have to bring some of that fresh point of view, some of that clear eye to how we work, what we do.

Rick Miramontez: If you just had to dispense a little Tom Schumacher advice to all of us, what on earth would that be?

A little kindness….Recognizing that we can grow as a community and be stronger and more thoughtful, more engaged with the audience that we would like to see come…I think in general recognizing the trauma and stress of the people in our community is extraordinary…recognizing the extraordinary efforts that people are making…to try to help …You see that this community wants to take care of itself. And you also see that people around the country want to,

I was auctioned off at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, to have a conversation with someone. They paid many thousands of dollars. It was a beautiful conversation with a woman who lives in Missouri.  Her passion for bringing Broadway back and supporting the Actors Fund and Broadway Cares was shocking to me. We are loved and we are wanted. And we need to recognize that and find a way to use what is strong about our community and build on it, to try to clean up things that weren’t working right and to move forward, but to bring kindness and grace and a certain acceptance that we’re going to have to work together before we can flourish.



Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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