Peter Schneider, the director of the reimagined Rodgers and Hart musical "Pal Joey," which kicks off the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's 38th season on Friday, spent 17 years at Disney as president of the animation department and chairman of the studio. He oversaw the creation and distribution of such famed films as "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," "Little Mermaid" and "Toy Story." He produced "The Lion King" on Broadway and won a Tony for it. He directed the musical version of "Sister Act" on the West End. So, with all due respect to The Rep — without a doubt Arkansas's strongest theater company — what's he doing in Little Rock?
Because he wanted to do test his new version of "Pal Joey." "The short answer is Bob [Hupp] said yes," Schneider said, referring to The Rep's producing artistic director.
One might think that with his CV Schneider would have no trouble finding game theater companies. But new productions, or largely reimagined ones like "Pal Joey," require many years of development, he said. Together with Patrick Pacheco, who wrote the new book and also is in town for the production, he's been working on "Pal Joey" for five and a half years.
"You do readings, you do workshops, you do small productions, you do developmental productions. You're looking for a safe environment, so you can fail in some way. Not fail with the piece, but find ways to improve it," Schneider said.
What Schneider calls the "most significant moment" in "The Lion King" only made it in the musical because the production realized it wasn't effectively making a set change and needed to add a scene during a developmental run in Minneapolis.
"We think," said Schneider, pausing to knock on a wooden conference table at The Rep, "that the script, the book and the music are now in the right order. But I'm sure we'll discover something here that's significant."
Theatergoers familiar with the original Rodgers and Hart musical, or the movie adaptation starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak, about a manipulative, second-rate singer who uses his appeal with women to get what he wants, will recognize some significant changes.
Pacheco, an accomplished journalist who co-wrote the play "My Life with Men ... and Other Animals," said Schneider came to him years ago and asked, "How would you fix 'Pal Joey?' "
"I said, 'Is it broken?' I wasn't sure."
Pacheco said he and Schneider eventually came to the consensus that the stakes aren't very high in the original.
Their solution? Move the setting out of the '30s and into 1948, an optimistic time just after the second World War, and make Joey, Pacheco said, "very talented and an African American who wants a piece of the American dream."
Though Pacheco and Schneider also made another of the main characters, Linda, African American, and placed her along with Joey into a love "square" with white characters Vera and Ted, themes of racial tension are dealt with subtly.
The new version of the musical is more about love and connection, Schneider said. "It's fundamentally about a charismatic man who may or may not know how to love correctly."
Clifton Oliver, who portrays Joey, said he relates to his character. "When we started rehearsal, I realized, 'This is me. I'm hungry. I'm ambitious, and I'm from nothing.' " Self-confidence mixed with a fib may've helped him earn the role. In auditions, he said, Schneider asked him if he could tap dance. "I was like, 'Surrre.' I'd never tapped in my life. It's what you do to get the job. I started going to Broadway Dance Center with little girls and their tights." (Schneider, laughing, claims he knew Oliver was lying.)
The character of Ted, who serves as the musical's narrator, is another invention. He's at least partially based on the composer Lorenz Hart, who actor Jonas Cohen describes as "a brilliant artist who lived very tragically. Throughout most of his life he was often asking a question that comes up for my character a lot, which is, 'Am I enough?' "
The original "Pal Joey" gave the world songs that have since become standards, like "I Could Write a Book" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Those are still in, but Pachecho and Schneider dumped all the songs that they say were merely keeping time in the original. In their place, they added six songs from the Rodgers and Hart catalogue that they say are more thematically relevant.
Still, Schneider doesn't want anyone to show up to a performance expecting a think piece.
"We talk about the racial themes. The emotional content. But at the end of the day, it's a fun musical," he said.
The cast includes Stephanie Umoh as Linda and Erica Hanrahan-Ball as Vera.
"Pal Joey" runs through Sept. 24. Performances are 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 to $55.