The West High grad who took the ‘The Lion King’ to Broadway
As a Disney executive, Peter Schneider helped reinvigorate the company.
A terrific article in the November issue of Vanity Fair tells the extraordinary story of how “The Lion King” went from a vague animated film idea to a $9 billion smash Broadway musical.
And a 1968 Madison West High School graduate named Peter Schneider, who grew up on Midvale Boulevard, was in the middle of it.
The Vanity Fair piece, titled “The Lion That Ruled 42nd Street,” is adapted from a new book, “Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway,” by Michael Riedel.
“Lion King,” of course, is a Disney property, and over the years Schneider had various top executive titles at Disney, including heading animation and the theater division.
I first heard his name in October 1999, when John Roach and Mary Sweeney hosted a special screening in Madison of “The Straight Story,” the movie they co-wrote.
Speaking prior to the screening, Mary introduced Hans and Miriam Schneider, a local couple who were in the audience, noting that their son, Peter, had helped “green light” the film at Disney Studios.
I later got to know Hans Schneider when we both worked out mornings at Supreme Health Club in Madison. Hans was modest and quietly humorous. It took a while for me to realize he was one of the world’s leading mathematicians, an expert on linear algebra, the field that helped make internet search engines possible.
“Don’t call me retired,” Hans told me once. He was a University of Wisconsin–Madison emeritus professor by that point, but not from mathematics.
Miriam, meanwhile, spent 37 years as a top violinist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Their son, Peter, got the drama bug early and studied theater at Purdue University. He lived in New York and London, and in 1984 returned to direct the Olympic Arts Festival in association with that year’s Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In 1985, Schneider joined Disney.
Animation at the studio was nearly moribund, and Schneider initially resisted Roy Disney’s efforts to place him there. Eventually, with his colleague Tom Schumacher, Schneider reinvigorated Disney animation, producing a string of movie hits like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”
“The Lion King” was almost never an animated movie, let alone a Broadway smash.
The Vanity Fair article relates how Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg pitched the idea to Schneider while on a private jet flying to Europe to promote “The Little Mermaid.”
Katzenberg envisioned an African story about how a boy becomes a man.
“Schneider thought the concept was thin,” Riedel writes, “but since Katzenberg was his boss, he knew he had to come up with something. A narrative emerged about a lion cub having to take his father’s place as king.”
Things progressed slowly — Schneider says the “A” team was working on “Aladdin” — but as the article details, the film became a hit, at which point a new Disney boss, Michael Eisner, asked Schneider and Schumacher to take it to Broadway.
Key creative decisions included hiring Julie Taymor as director and her development of the indelible opening number, “Circle of Life.”
In the acknowledgments section of his book, Riedel refers to Schneider as “my good friend” and writes: “The first time I saw the opening of ‘The Lion King’ remains the single most thrilling moment in all the years I’ve spent in the theater.”
The world agrees. “The Lion King” ran on Broadway for 23 straight years until the pandemic shut it down, and worldwide productions, according to Riedel, “have brought in nearly $9 billion.”
Peter Schneider left Disney in 2001 — he was chairman of the studio at the end — and has been directing theatrical musicals. However, in 2009 he reengaged with Disney on a project that brought him back to Madison.
Schneider produced a documentary film, “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” directed by Don Hahn, who had produced the “Lion King” film. The documentary tells the behind-the-scenes story of the rebirth of Disney animation in the 1980s and ’90s.
Disney executives like Katzenberg, Eisner and Roy Disney famously feuded during that time, but all eventually agreed to be interviewed for the documentary.
“I think it was cathartic,” Schneider told me.
I’d interviewed him for a newspaper column, and then we met in person when he came to Madison to speak and show a bit of the film to my wife Jeanan’s entrepreneurship class at UW–Madison.
John Roach came to hear him, too, and later we all had a drink at the Laurel Tavern. My recollection is we toasted “The Straight Story” and told old Madison tales.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.