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From big time to play time

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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“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.”

“Because this is my big thing, you know,” Graae says with a charming but slightly nervous laugh, “and it’s kind of strange, I mean I feel like I was just singing and dancing a second ago. Wasn’t I just singing and dancing a second ago?”

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Schneider pats him on the shoulder. “Have you done many movies?”

“Not as many as you,” returns Graae.

“Well, this is how it works in the movies,” says Schneider. “I want you to be prepared.”

Laughter all around.

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A happy cast

“Grand Hotel: The Musical” is based on “Grand Hotel” the movie and revolves around the overlapping dramas of six main characters and several big, showy dance numbers. It is impossible to overstate how happy the cast is to be working with Schneider. He is creative, he is collaborative, he is generous and very, very human. And none of them had any idea who he was when they were auditioning or before rehearsals began.

Graae, who has worked in Los Angeles theater for 20 years, says he knew Schneider “had something to do with” the Broadway productions of “The Lion King” and “Aida.” “He took me out to lunch,” says Graae, “and I said, ‘So what did you do?’ thinking he was like a stage manager. And he says, very casually, ‘Oh, I produced them. I went home and Googled him and I was shocked.”

Likewise, Beth Malone, another longtime local actress who plays Flaemmchen, and Robert J. Townsend, who plays the Baron, insist they had never heard of Schneider before someone -- maybe the P.R. guy, Townsend says -- told them.

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Having spent weeks in very close quarters with the guy, they find it almost impossible to imagine Schneider as a studio head.

“He doesn’t seem to have that bully instinct,” Malone says. “He doesn’t have a problem expressing an opinion,” Townsend adds, “or playing the presidential part, but he’s very respectful.”

People not associated with “Grand Hotel” do not, understandably, have the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the cast, but they take on a carefully upbeat tone when they talk about Schneider’s latest project. A tone used by people who are not quite sure where this new mythology is going but who want to be supportive.

When an e-mail announcement of the upcoming production of “Grand Hotel” -- and Schneider’s role in it -- made its rounds at Disney, there was, some say, a slight “He’s doing what?” response among the rank and file. But the people who have worked closely with him, the ones who knew before the announcement, insist they were not surprised.

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“Going from the head of a major studio to directing an equity-waiver play?” says Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, somewhat hyperbolically. “I suppose some people would think that was strange. But if you know Peter, you realize his career has been so eclectic, it has changed so many times that it really makes perfect sense.

“One time,” he adds, “like 10 years ago, he decided out of the blue he wanted to start riding horses. Bing, bang, boom, he’d bought a horse, taken lessons and he was riding.” Schumacher, who worked as Schneider’s second in command for years, is speaking from Bristol, England, where he is overseeing the new big and lavish Disney-Cameron Mackintosh production of “Mary Poppins.” He has nothing but breezy admiration and great expectations for Schneider’s latest venture; he only wishes he could “make it west” to catch the opening. “Peter’s made how many movies about following your heart -- he’d be an idiot not to take his own advice. If it’s a lark or a new direction, whichever, it’s a great thing.”

Not that Schumacher could imagine for one minute doing such a great thing himself. “Me?” he says, with a choked sound that might be a laugh. “No. God. Well, maybe, if I was stuck somewhere where there was absolutely no theater, then I’d do my ‘Waiting for Guffman’ thing. Or maybe,” he adds with what is definitely a laugh, “I’ll play Fagin in my retirement home’s production of ‘Oliver!’ That I could see.”

Nina Jacobson, president of the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, who worked under Schneider before he left Disney, returns a call from her car to say she always expected Schneider’s next move to be “cool and interesting.”

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Why?

“He was always a guy inspired and excited by the creative process,” she says. “What we do is just an offshoot of ‘Hey, let’s put on a show.’ Which was always the part of the job he enjoyed most.”

Director Ron Clements, who worked with Schneider on movies including “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” heard about “Grand Hotel” a few months ago. Was Clements surprised? “Nnno-ooo,” he says. “Well, maybe surprising in a way, but if you know Peter ... as he moved further away from the creative side, I think he got frustrated; he liked working with the artists. Now he can do just what he wants to do.”

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Two and a half weeks before opening, there is one last rehearsal upstairs. The entire cast is present. Between scenes, they mill about like children forced into a gymnasium for a fire drill, their attention drawn only by the occasional chirp of a cellphone. The latter is driving stage manager Vernon Willet a little crazy, as is the noise level. “People, please try to resolve your issues in whispers,” he says.

As the action begins, Schneider stands. “Michael,” he says loudly, authoritatively, “you enter here, here,” he says motioning a little impatiently as the other actors move across the stage. Michael McCarty, who in his role as the doctor serves as a sort of musical narrator, looks up startled and shakes his head. “No, he doesn’t,” Willet murmurs. “OK, you don’t,” says Schneider, just as loudly, authoritatively.

“That was me, that was me, that was my mistake,” he says, gesturing everyone back to their places at the beginning of the scene. “Sorry. Sorry, let’s go back. Michael, how could I have doubted you?” he says, walking over to embrace the actor.

“I was wrong once,” says the actor, “back in 1948 ...”

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Laughter all around.

A new personal mythology

When Schneider was at Disney, there were tales of two Peters: Peter Nice and Casual, who remembered the names of the assistants and the assistants to the assistants; and Peter Controlling and Tense, the guy in The Chair who did not like being disagreed with, the guy who had no problem yelling at someone in the middle of a meeting.

“People have told me I’m a control freak,” he says. “People have told me I’m intense. I guess it’s still true. It’s not as true.

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“The thing is it was never me. It was The Chair. I just happened to be sitting in The Chair so people had to listen. Now no one really cares what I think,” he says with a laugh, “which is very sad.”

In directing “Grand Hotel,” Schneider is not just testing an industry mythology, he is trying out a new personal one as well. He has a fairly polished narrative of how he got from the big powerful Chair to the hard metal folding ones. His words flow effortlessly. There are opening statements -- “The question is not ‘Why direct “Grand Hotel,” ’ the question is: ‘Why direct?’ ” There are humorous asides -- “My wife thought it was great. Of course, the moment I left Disney, she went back to work” as a nonprofit consultant.

“I have never been happier,” Schneider says during a dinner break, dismissing the notion that his career is taking an odd sort of detour. “In Hollywood, success is almost impossible to define. The whole time I was at Disney I think I felt I had been ‘successful’ like twice. At the opening of ‘The Lion King,’ I felt there was nothing we could have done better. And when I said ‘yes’ to ‘Remember the Titans’ I knew I was doing the right thing. The rest of the time....” He shrugs.

When people ask what he’s been up to for the past three years, he tells them: “Nothing. Playing bridge, and other than that, nothing.”

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Of course, Schneider’s definition of “nothing” would not be found in Webster’s, including, as it does: investing in many Broadway productions, such as “Hairspray,” “Wicked” and “The Boy From Oz”; developing six shows that he may produce, including “Soap Dish” with Laurence Mark and “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” with Mark and Barry Kemp; helping several writers and actors translate their works onto the stage; and working with Luther Davis to create a version of “Grand Hotel” that is more focused on the characters.

He does, indeed, play bridge but, he admits, he plays “competitively” (and occasionally in online games that have included Warren Buffett and Bill Gates).

“I say ‘nothing,’ ” he explains, “because no one here really cares, except at a gossip level.”

A series of seemingly unrelated incidents led him to do “nothing” at the Colony. A friend persuaded him to direct Julie Andrews in a short for the DVD re-release of “Mary Poppins,” which made him think he could direct again. Then he ran into Barbara Beckley, Colony artistic director, at a conference. Schneider mentioned to Beckley that he would like to direct a production of “The Pajama Game.” She thought this was a delightful idea, and neither were undeterred by the fact that “Pajama Game” was unavailable.

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Schneider started reading other possible plays. When he got to “Grand Hotel,” he was struck by the poignancy of one line -- the doctor saying, at the end: “I think I’ll stay one more day.”

That sentiment spoke to Schneider because another force was also propelling him. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Schneider and his wife, Hope, had been sitting on a plane grounded on the runway at JFK; from the Red Carpet Room of United Airlines, they watched the World Trade Center fall and the Pentagon burst into flames.

“I had just left Disney, gone back to New York thinking ‘I have to do something,’ ” he says. “I was going to be bicoastal, developing this and that. Suddenly this terrible thing happens and we literally cannot get home.”

Separated from their two daughters, now 16 and 19, who were back at the family home in La Canada, he and Hope eventually boarded Jimmy Buffett’s touring bus, which had been commandeered to take them and others across country. On the bus, Schneider’s cellphone rang. “It’s someone who wants me to do a project -- Where are you? Have you made the calls yet? I’m happy to be alive and to be getting out of New York and here’s this call. I realized I Am Not Going To Do This. I am not going to do anything.”

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Many people have Walter Mitty-like fantasies of what they would do if they didn’t have to worry about money, but it’s difficult to break out of a social or work-subscribed track. For Schneider, the cross-country bus ride changed everything.

“Everyone had a different reaction to 9/11,” he says. “I came out with the sense that every day we should be doing exactly what we want to be doing because we’re not really going anywhere.”

And that is the message, he says, he found in “Grand Hotel.” “The spectacle is great,” he says of the musical. “But it comes down to a story about six people. About death, love and honor. About staying one more day.”

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Someone in the rehearsal room expresses concern that tomorrow they are moving to the stage, which, as of 8 p.m., is still stacked with saws and paint and half-built sets. “It will be done,” Schneider says, with a casually imperious wave of his hand. For a moment, the studio head is very much in evidence.

Though Schneider says he is not underwriting the show, he concedes that he’s making available resources that would not otherwise be, um, available. He is working gratis, his friend and musical director, Michael Reno, is working for much less than he would make, the lighting designer is flying himself in from St. Louis “and if we need a soundboard,” Schneider says, “I pay for the soundboard.”

As the run-through begins, Schneider nods and smiles, bites his nails and does not react when things go a tiny bit wrong.

The day after, he goes to the dentist and while he is sitting in the chair, mouth propped open, he reviews the show, sequence by sequence, figuring out what needs to be fixed and how to do it. “I love going to the dentist,” he says. “You have to sit still.”

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He says he is nervous as well as thrilled, and he sounds nervous. His friend Schumacher doesn’t think it matters much if “Grand Hotel” is stupendous or flops. “Who’s going to see it?” he says. “And with Peter’s body of work, what does it matter?”

Actually, probably a lot of people will see it, including some high-powered people who don’t normally occupy seats at the Colony. People who are rooting for Schneider and people who maybe aren’t, people who want to see if the mythology holds and where it will go next.

“It may turn out I can’t do this,” Schneider says, breaking about 117 Industry rules of spin. “I hope I can because I want all these people to shine. It is an amazing cast; they all really are special. I want them all to get something out of this.”

He refuses to say what he plans to do next, or at least to categorize any project in this way. “If this goes OK,” he says, “if people think I did OK, maybe I will do it again.”

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‘Grand Hotel: The Musical’

Where: Colony Theatre Company, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

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Ends: Nov. 14

Price: $30-$40

Contact: (818) 558-7000


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