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Whistle while you direct

Eric Schaeffer has gone from staging Sondheim at the Kennedy Center to 'Snow White' in Fantasyland. What will they say on Broadway?

February 22, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Eric Schaeffer won the theatrical equivalent of a Super Bowl two summers ago by pulling off one of the biggest stage events of the young century, the Sondheim Celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. With Schaeffer as artistic director, the six-show, $10-million retrospective played to great acclaim -- not least from Stephen Sondheim himself.

As co-founder and artistic director of Signature Theatre, a 136-seat black box in Arlington, Va., Schaeffer had staged title after title from Sondheim's canon, bringing alive the demon barbers, conflicted artists, unfulfilled yearners and divided souls who inhabit a musical theater realm where art isn't easy and endings aren't happily ever after. Crossing the Potomac with the playbook well-mastered, he quarterbacked the Kennedy Center's risky and unusual enterprise to a touchdown with the theater world watching.

Even before the accolades started rolling in, Schaeffer knew he was going to follow the path of Super Bowl heroes. He was going to Disneyland.

Now, a year and a half later, it is his first day running rehearsals in the Fantasyland Theatre -- a tented, 1,850-seat open-air venue next to Mickey's Toontown and It's a Small World. Every few minutes the bell of a train ride dings, or Gadget's Go Coaster rumbles by with a load of screeching kids.

Schaeffer stands on the wide stage, wearing faded blue jeans and an untucked work shirt. He is peering through thick-framed glasses with small lenses, trying to picture Snow White in the moment before she meets Prince Charming.

"I'll put you here, Trace. Try this," he says, and taps one of the boulders that form the wall of Snow White's wishing well, the perch for her first big songbird moment. But actress Tracy Miller can't get comfortable.

"It felt better there," she says, pointing to a spot a little higher on the wall. Schaeffer is agreeable. For Snow White, he decides, meeting her prince shouldn't have to be a pain in the rear.

If close associates of Schaeffer are to be believed -- and an array of them are unanimous on this point -- the 41-year-old director from the farming town of Fleetwood, Pa., may be the most agreeable man in show business. They say his enthusiasm and happy disposition set the tone for a show, that he always listens to suggestions but knows how to make up his mind and keep a production on course. To hang with Schaeffer, they say, is to be reminded that putting on plays is fun.

"People fall all over themselves to work with him," says actress Donna Migliaccio, who founded Signature Theatre with Schaeffer in 1989, when each kicked in $500. "He makes whatever he's doing sound like it's going to be different and fun, that you're going to be accomplishing something unusual."

Sondheim includes himself in the fan club. The composer was closely involved in rehearsals for all the Kennedy Center shows, including "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Passion," the two Schaeffer directed himself.

"I warned Eric that if I talked with you I would sound like his agent, but none of this is [blarney]," the composer said over the phone after delivering a fast-paced spoken aria in praise of Schaeffer's artistry and temperament.

Sondheim sings praises

Sondheim says that Schaeffer's knack for visualizing how a production should look reminds him of Hal Prince, the most celebrated director of his work. Schaeffer, the son of a high school teacher and a nurse, honed his eye as a graphic artist -- the day job he began right after college at Kutztown State and didn't quit until five or six years ago, when Signature finally was well enough established to pay him a living wage.

As for the results at the Kennedy Center, Sondheim says: "I couldn't have been more pleased. The shows were done wonderfully well."

He sees no shame in Schaeffer turning his skills to a theme park attraction -- a condensed, half-hour version of the animated film musical "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" that opens Monday and will play at Disneyland five or six times a day.

"I'm sure he's got a lavish amount of money to spend on the production, and I think that would be fun for a director."

Schaeffer is the latest in a line of highly credentialed theater artists whom Anne Hamburger, Disney's head of theme park entertainment, has hired to put on shows and parades. Hamburger was artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse for a season before coming to Disney. Before that, she was a leading producer on New York City's avant-garde theater scene. Hamburger says she chose "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" with an eye toward next year's 50th anniversary celebration at Disneyland. The 1937 film was the first full-length animated feature ever produced, and the soundtrack is packed with standards by songwriters Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, among them "Whistle While You Work," "Heigh Ho" and "Someday My Prince Will Come."

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