Plans are firming up for the London preem of the stage musical “Mary Poppins” 14 months from now. The project marks the first producing collaboration between legit heavyweights Cameron Mackintosh and Disney.
Thomas Schumacher, prexy of Disney Theatricals, is a 45-year-old American who works for a billion-dollar conglom; Mackintosh, a Brit who just turned 57 is hugely wealthy and is his own boss.
But the two are peas in a theatrical pod.
Mackintosh with reference to Schumacher: “For me, dealing with Tom is like dealing with another me.”
“Mary Poppins” will go into rehearsal next July, do a seven- or eight-week out-of-town season — Mackintosh’s first ever in Britain — in September, and open Dec. 15, 2004, at the Prince Edward Theater, one of seven West End playhouses in the Mackintosh property portfolio.
The creative team is fully set.
As Schumacher puts it: “We like the same people.”
Making his bid for the sort of international musical franchise many of his colleagues (Nicholas Hytner and Trevor Nunn, among them) long ago achieved, Richard Eyre will direct, with co-direction and choreography by Matthew Bourne, a double Tony winner for the Mackintosh-backed “Swan Lake.”
Assisting on the choreography will be the ubiquitous Stephen Mear (“Anything Goes,” “Tonight’s the Night”), while the design team includes sets and costumes from Bob Crowley and lighting by Howard Harrison.
(Before rehearsals start next summer, “Iris” helmer Eyre will have delivered his latest film, “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” with Claire Danes and Billy Crudup. Ditto “Poppins” book writer Julian Fellowes, who is finishing “Away Through the Woods,” his film writing-directing debut, starring Emily Watson).
Buttressing the Sherman bros’ Oscar-winning score from the 1964 film, the separately Oscarred “Chim Chim Cher-ee” included, will be six new songs from the London-based team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, whose National Theater entry “Honk! The Ugly Duckling” had the audacity to scoop the 2000 Olivier for best musical from Disney behemoth “The Lion King,” one of numerous titles Schumacher has shepherded into existence.
The 30-strong cast has yet to be signed, but a recent Old Vic workshop of the piece, held Sept. 15 for Disney CEO Michael Eisner, starred two-time Olivier recipient Joanna Riding as the magical nanny, Mary Poppins; Alex Jennings and Claire Moore as her employers, Mr. and Mrs. Banks; Julia McKenzie as a former Banks family nanny, Miss Andrew, who appears in the Pamela Travers books but not in the movie; and lyricist Drewe in Dick Van Dyke’s screen role as Bert.
“It’s a funny thing when your material is exposed to the gaze of the multitude,” muses Fellowes, the actor-turned-Oscar-winning scenarist (“Gosford Park”), who has gone back to the Travers books in writing the stage “Poppins.”
How did the reading go?
“It was a delightful event,” says designer Crowley, who has won Tonys working both for Mackintosh (“Carousel”) and for Disney (“Aida”).
The project is sure to attract a level of industry interest without parallel of late.
“The actual combination of experience and skills between us is something that has never been put together in a theater before,” Mackintosh says.
“There’s a degree of marketing, worldwide penetration, and my knowledge of people, having been doing this for 20 years around the world” on such defining 1980s blockbusters as “Cats,” “Les Miz,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “Miss Saigon.”
Schumacher, seated beside him at Mackintosh’s Somerset country estate (two dogs, 500 cattle, more than 1,500 acres), chimes in.
“In a sense, on Broadway” — where Disney has three shows running — “my division is seen as ‘that other version’ of Cameron. For years, it was the Brit invasion, and everyone would send up Cameron; now they send up us.”
Not that the two men’s clout, separately or together, is anything to laugh at, even if Mackintosh hasn’t had a barnstorming global hit since “Miss Saigon” in 1989.
Subsequent Mack-backed West End premieres “Martin Guerre” and “The Witches of Eastwick,” however long their runs, went belly-up financially. His Broadway “Oklahoma!” got disappointing reviews, with biz to match.
With a personal wealth estimated in the region of $400 million-$500 million, Mackintosh might seem the last person who would want to get into bed, creatively speaking, with Disney — just as Disney, a corporation with total revenues for fiscal year 2002 of $25 billion, could be thought not to want to cede any sort of control to Mackintosh, whose office turnover last year was in the realm of $50 million.
Schumacher — first with erstwhile Disney colleague Peter Schneider, now on his own — can be said to have taken the model of international stage production pioneered by Mackintosh and run with it, allying it to a film library unavailable, for obvious reasons, to Mackintosh.
(The 10th “Lion King” — the sort of rollout Mackintosh has long been used to — opened Oct. 19 in Sydney.)
Mackintosh, in turn, has for a decade owned the stage rights to the P.L. Travers books, which required Disney to come calling, as Schumacher did late in 2001.
The two had met before — “over a jolly lunch,” says Schumacher, in St. Tropez in 1997, where Schumacher recalls fussing long distance with Mackintosh over “The Lion King,” which at that point was having its out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis.
But it was Schumacher’s sense of a theatrical “Poppins” that led him just over two years ago to arrange the initial business meeting with Mackintosh.
“I said to Cameron: Look, there’s all this deal stuff that is obviously never going to work. What no one’s talked about is what the show could be.”
Mackintosh had been around the block with Disney on this topic before — in the Mouse Corp.’s embryonic theater days of “Beauty and the Beast” when Schumacher, part of Disney since 1987, had yet to be part of Disney’s stage side. (He began that task in 1994.)
What made the difference with Schumacher’s visit to Mackintosh was Schumacher himself.
Says Crowley, who knows both men well (Mackintosh describes Crowley as “absolutely the glue, the go-between”): “I knew, if this was going to work, it was because of Tom. He’s not just a man in a suit from Burbank: He loves the theater.”
Each side, of course, needs to accommodate the other: The show, for one thing, is being financed internally, so there will be no investors, which must displease the usual Mackintosh retinue of angels.
But Mackintosh’s office will general manage the show, at least in Britain, even as Mackintosh allows for possible further collaborations: “It would be surprising if we didn’t find something else that absolutely fitted what Disney Theatricals should be doing, and what I like to do. But it will happen for the right reasons, not because of a deal.”