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From big time to play time

Peter Schneider was a major player at Disney. Now he's directing a musical on a little stage in Burbank. It's a new spin on the Hollywood ending.

October 17, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Peter Schneider is thrilled. Peter Schneider is exhilarated. Peter Schneider is happier than he's ever been and completely relaxed. These are the words he uses to describe himself, replete with the verbal italics of Industry patois. And they seem accurate enough, except perhaps the last.

Relaxed does not describe a man who has spent much of the past five weeks hopping on and off (mostly off) very hard folding metal chairs in a very small room, walking and talking actors through endless rehearsals of "Grand Hotel: The Musical." It does not describe a man who has NutraFit meals delivered to him because otherwise he can't keep his hands off the salty snacks.

And there is nothing relaxed about a person who can be in the middle of a heads-down, murmuring-intensely conversation with his music director and still feel the silent yet troubled gaze of an actor on the other side of the room. "What?" Schneider says, raising his head, his hand still on the score, fully prepared to carry on two conversations, one of them apparently telepathically.

Standing next to a piano that looks like it was swiped from a church basement, in a room filled with the smell of overdone coffee and way too many fidgety actors, Schneider looks the quirky English teacher who has once again been "persuaded" to oversee the community production of "The Music Man." Or maybe a longtime local stage director who passionately refuses to go to New York because he believes in L.A. theater.

What he doesn't look like is the former head of a major motion picture studio who as recently as three years ago had an executive bathroom the size of this rehearsal room and the power to make or break a career with a well-placed italicized adjective. A man who, admittedly, was rarely thrilled or exhilarated and never ever totally happy.

Nor does he resemble a man doing a job he hasn't done in more than 20 years, a man not only trying to create a memorable theatrical performance, but also publicly testing a popular Hollywood myth and a personal reinvention.

But here in the rehearsal room of the Colony Theatre in Burbank, that is exactly who he is.

In 2001, Peter Schneider, now 53, walked away from his job as chairman of Walt Disney Studios, the Industry equivalent of Apollo cashing out on immortality for a dame. A theatrical producer and director "discovered" by Hollywood during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, Schneider worked at Disney for 16 years, many as head of feature animation during the glory days of "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King." He led the studio's extraordinarily successful foray onto Broadway with "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Aida," and was eventually promoted to oversee live-action film as well.

Then he left. Quickly. Unexpectedly. (Or as unexpectedly as these things happen.) With a carefully worded farewell letter from Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner and intentionally vague plans to return to his "Broadway roots."

In Hollywood, when a major player leaves the table, a mythology quickly rises, like mist in a graveyard, to explain the departure -- family trouble or a deep need to finish that memoir. Whatever. As with most myths, the issue is not whether the explanation is true but if it assuages the communal anxiety such a departure inevitably creates.

Schneider's mythology is one of the more popular variations: He had become too far removed from the creative process to be happy. Sitting in The Chair and playing red light/green light made him feel -- and occasionally act -- frustrated and angry. What he enjoyed most was working directly with the artists, and studio heads don't get to do that.

Most people in such a position are content to let their assigned mythologies stand, pleased enough by the fact that they warrant a mythology. Some might push it a bit -- start their own production company (Joe Roth), head another studio (Jeffrey Katzenberg) or a modest television network (Dean Valentine) -- working out their personal definitions of "more hands-on."

But when Schneider says he wants to work more closely with artists, he means it. In a 276-seat theater, there's only one way to work: closely.

So here he is, in his Hawaiian shirt and bright red Nikes, the man who helped reignite the animated feature and Disney-fy Broadway, with nothing but a few inches of overly air-conditioned, fluorescently lighted space separating him from those very artists he missed so much.

Now what?


"Wait a minute, wait a minute," says Jason Graae, who plays Otto, tentatively waving his script in Schneider's direction. It's about four days into rehearsals and in the midst of several blocking and choreography decisions that have jumped around a bit scene-wise, Graae has had to deliver a long, emotionally difficult speech.

"Are we really here yet?" he asks Schneider, who looks at him quizzically. "I mean, have we really blocked all the way up until this point?"

"Oh no," says Schneider, understanding now. "Not at all."

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