Whistle while you direct

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.”

Hamburger didn’t know Schaeffer’s work. But Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, a composer-writer team doing theme park projects for Disney, touted him to her, having worked with Schaeffer on Signature’s 2000 world premiere of their show “The Rhythm Club.”

The offer came while Schaeffer was immersed in preparations for the Sondheim Celebration, but he quickly grabbed it. Among the juicy inducements, he says, are that “Snow White” is likely to be seen by 10,000 people a day and has the potential to turn a bunch of video-age kids and parents on to live theater. Working for deep-pockets Disney, as Hamburger notes, provides a nice vacation from the imperative to scrimp that governs most nonprofit theater. “We pay artists a good wage and give them the resources to create on a grand scale.”

Schaeffer brought in choreographer Karma Camp, who has worked steadily with him for more than a decade. They affectionately call each other “Cocktail,” after their custom of adjourning for drinks together after rehearsals. Schaeffer’s domestic partner, playwright Norman Allen, created the script along with Darrah Cloud; Hamburger brought others to the team, including scenic designer Tom Butsch, a 17-year Disneyland veteran. Butsch says that Schaeffer, all good-nature aside, pushed him to come up with a fresh, inventive look for the dwarfs’ cottage after deciding that his initial sketches hewed too closely to the look of the film. Fidelity to the original movies often has been the object of Disneyland’s live shows, Butsch says, but the mission this time was modernization, not preservation.

That meant turning Snow White, on screen a delicate, all-aflutter specimen of un-liberated femininity, into a heroine with whom today’s audiences could identify. “We really tried to give her more of a spine,” Schaeffer says. “She’s got to be sassy.”

New zip for an old classic

One of the toughest challenges, he says, was creating imaginatively stylized but clearly discernible stage personae for the dancers who play Snow White’s retinue of friendly birds and forest animals. Schaeffer thought that puppet animals -- a fresh approach when Julie Taymor introduced them in Disney’s Broadway version of “The Lion King” -- were old hat and out of the question. There also was the imperative of zipping the show along at a kid-friendly pace. Otherwise, the director says, “these little boys in the audience are going to be like, ‘Oh, come on. Let’s get to the dwarfs.’ ”

It should be noted that Schaeffer does not whistle while he works. Instead, he uncorks a whooping, high-pitched laugh: “Heee-heee-heee-HOOO.” While directing “Snow White” has given him many occasions to cackle, he says it hasn’t all been a walk in the theme park. “People would think this is really easy. There’s a movie, all you have to do is throw it up there. But it’s one of the harder challenges I’ve had.”

Still, Schaeffer’s Disneyland sojourn must be a welcome decompression after the killing pace he kept until recently. In December, he decided that discretion was the better part of exhaustion and left his three-year post as creative director for the theatrical division of Clear Channel Entertainment -- a job that required him to hop a train for New York City at 5 a.m. every Monday and return late Tuesday night to his full-time gig running Signature. Schaeffer says he liked the work, which involved scouting new writers and composers, helping them develop new musicals and sometimes jetting off to troubleshoot touring shows that were misfiring on the road.

“It was a lot of wear and tear,” he says, and he came to realize that what he really wanted was to direct. Having put up a drastically revised version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rarely seen 1947 show, “Allegro,” that opened just before he left for Disneyland, he has two more musicals to direct this year at Signature -- Paris Barclay’s “One Red Flower: Letters From ‘Nam,” and the world premiere of “Highest Yellow,” a treatment of the final days of Vincent van Gogh that Schaeffer commissioned from composer Michael John LaChiusa and playwright John Strand. He also has helped shepherd Kathie Lee Gifford’s first show as a writer-lyricist, “Hurricane Aimee,” about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and expects to direct its premiere this fall in Dallas. Schaeffer also will be busy trying to raise the $7 million Signature Theatre needs to outfit planned new digs in a public library building that is under construction in Arlington. The 250- and 99-seat houses would replace the converted auto bumper plating shop the company has occupied since 1993.

At some point he aims to return to Broadway, where his only directing credit is the 1999 revival of the Sondheim revue “Putting It Together” that starred Carol Burnett and was first seen in 1998 at the Mark Taper Forum.

Schaeffer says he got two directing offers on Broadway after the Sondheim Celebration, but he wasn’t keen on the shows. He wishes that a director’s work could speak for itself but acknowledges that to be confirmed among the front rank he probably will have to conquer in New York and accumulate the quantifiable trappings of success -- score a hit, collect a Tony, be a Super Bowl winner again. The game plan in rehearsals, he promises, will always be the one he absorbed as the youngest of four kids growing up in a small house in a small town: respect boundaries, keep your temper, allow yourself to transmit a heigh-ho delight in what you do.

Pressuring and screaming are only apt to alienate and paralyze a cast and crew, Schaeffer says. It pays to be considerate. “It’s hard enough putting up a musical, with all the balls you’ve got to juggle. You can’t isolate people. They’re only going to help you if they’re on your team.”