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High School Commencement Speaker Thomas Schumacher


High school seniors of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) got the graduation ceremony of their dreams on Saturday, May 18, when Disney Theatrical Group President Thomas Schumacher delivered their commencement address, and the diplomas were presented by “Mary Poppins” herself: UNCSA alumna Rachel Wallace. A 2009 college graduate, Wallace just completed a run in the national tour and the New Zealand company of the popular Disney show.


Next, Tony Award-winning actress Rosemary Harris (popularly known as Aunt May in the SPIDER-MAN series) read advice to the grads from Martha Graham.


As if that were not enough, multiple Academy and Grammy award-winning composer Alan Menken rose from the orchestra pit to serenade the graduates with 15 minutes of songs from the films and the shows he and Schumacher have done together.


Schumacher’s appearance was announced in March, but the others came as surprises, and parting gifts of UNCSA Chancellor David Nelson. After seven years as head of the Winston-Salem, N.C., arts school, Mauceri will step down in June to continue his career as a world-renowned conductor and author.


UNCSA has a tradition of producing nontraditional commencement ceremonies. Caps and gowns are a rarity. Bubbles and beach balls are more common than tassels, and the audience is never asked to hold its applause. But never in the school’s 47 years has there been a ceremony like the one for the Class of 2013.


“It is my commencement, too,” Mauceri told the 123 graduates (from 35 North Carolina counties, 15 states and Bermuda) who studied dance, drama, music and visual arts at UNCSA.


Schumacher said he came to praise artists. “I come today because art matters,” he told the crowd of more than 1,000 in UNCSA’s Roger L. Stevens Center. “Artists matter. They are our greatest link to our humanity. To our history.”


Schumacher said history is recorded in art. “Think of any moment in history, I can pretty much promise that what you are seeing in your mind’s eye is from a work of art, a painting, a poem, a photograph, a sculpture, a novel, a tune, a play.”

Schumacher has produced such hit Broadway musicals as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, Mary Poppins (a co-production with Cameron Mackintosh), and Newsies (winner of two 2012 Tony Awards). Worldwide, Disney Theatrical Group’s eight Broadway titles have been seen by more than 124 million theatergoers and have cumulatively run a staggering 195 years.

Schumacher spoke animatedly, drawing laughter and frequent applause.

He related lessons he’s learned since his own high school graduation, such as:

  • Nothing comes easy, even if it seems like it at first;
  • People are mostly nice. And mostly caring. And more so when you approach them expecting them to be;
  • Luck is important and luck comes when you open yourself up to it;
  • Curiosity is a deeply compelling character trait, and an elixir for the soul;
  • Enormous amounts of things you’ve been told by your mother are right, even though no one tells you the real reasons why.

“If you don’t bathe and wash and brush your teeth with regularity, you just won’t get dates,” he explained. “Romance will elude you. Some people learn this the hard way. Take the easy route, embrace hygiene with passion.”

Schumacher told the graduates that reinvention is not failure. “Try things on and then do what you do and don’t do what you don’t do.”

He passed on career advice given to him by tennis legend Billy Jean King: champions adjust. “The true test of being a champion is not playing things the same way every time, but rather in adjusting to change, large and small. Adjust and move forward.”

Schumacher said he has applied for and gotten many jobs – teacher, driver, playground leader, personal assistant to a famous actress, custodian,  busboy, sandwich-maker, library book shelver, and seller of ladies shoes.

“But I’ve never applied for a job in my career in the arts,” he said, explaining that every job came from connections made on the one before. “In the arts we are all connected. Look around the room. Who will call you one day? Who will you call?”

Finally, Schumacher invited the graduates to keep him in mind. “When you are a shining success feel free to call me. I may need a gig.”

Following Schumacher’s address, Mauceri, who emceed the event, approached the front of the stage and opened a glitter-filled umbrella. “Bring forth the diplomas, please,” he commanded. Wallace, dressed as Mary Poppins, rose from the orchestra pit, holding her own glitter-laden umbrella and standing before a table that held boxes of diplomas.

Wallace, who received a B.F.A. from UNCSA’s School of Drama, performed a medley of songs from the Disney musical, which ran for seven years on Broadway and continues to tour nationally and internationally.

After the diplomas were passed out, Menken performed a medley of his award-winning music, while the graduates were showered with confetti.

Menken, who spoke at UNCSA’s college commencement two years ago, won a Tony Award in 2012 for Disney’s Newsies. He has eight Oscars, 10 Grammys (including Song of the Year for “A Whole New World”), and seven Golden Globes. He composed the music for such classic Disney films as TANGLED, ENCHANTED, HERCULES, HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, POCAHONTAS, ALADDIN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LITTLE MERMAID.

As a final surprise, Mauceri introduced Harris, who has appeared in SPIDER-MAN and SPIDER-MAN 2 and on Broadway in The Road to Mecca and The Royal Family. Harris lives in Winston-Salem and is married to author and UNCSA founder John Ehle.

Additional highlights of the UNCSA ceremony were an address by Noah Granger, chair of the high school leadership council, a guitar player who was graduating from the School of Music; an original poem about triumph over childhood illness recited by Wade Holloman, graduating from the School of Drama; and a contest-winning essay written and recited by Brodie Wray, graduating from the School of Dance.

About Thomas Schumacher

Schumacher joined Disney in 1988 to produce the animated feature THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, then served as executive producer on the 1994 animated blockbuster, THE LION KING, which is one of the highest grossing films of all time. As head of Disney’s Feature Animation Division, Schumacher supervised 21 animated features including NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS; POCAHONTAS; TOY STORY; THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME; HERCULES; MULAN; A BUG'S LIFE; TARZAN; TOY STORY 2; DINOSAUR; MONSTERS, INC.; LILO & STITCH; and FINDING NEMO.

He later brought THE LION KING to Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards in 1998, including Best Musical, and became Broadway’s highest grossing show of all time.

Schumacher also supervises Disney Live Family Entertainment, whose projects include Disney On Ice and Disney Live!, with 12 productions touring the globe at any one time.

Intensely passionate about theatre from an early age, Schumacher recognized the impact that theatre has on the lives of young people and developed a licensing program with Music Theatre International to make select Disney theatrical titles available for performance in schools and amateur theatres throughout the world.

As associate director of the acclaimed 1987 Los Angeles Festival of Arts, Schumacher was instrumental in presenting the American premiere of Canada's immensely popular Cirque du Soleil and the English-language premiere of Peter Brook's The Mahabharata.

He spent five years on staff at the Los Angeles Music Center's Mark Taper Forum, where he worked on more than 25 productions for the Taper Mainstage, Taper Too and the Taper's literary cabaret. Additionally, he produced three original productions for the Improvisational Theater Project, the theater's touring program for young audiences.

Schumacher is the author of the children's book “How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theatre,” published by Disney Editions and released in November 2007. This uniquely designed book is a first-of-its-kind introduction to the world of the theatre, from box office to backstage and beyond.

Schumacher worked on the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, served as assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Ballet, and has participated extensively in conferences and on panels relating to the arts and arts policy. A graduate of UCLA, he is a member of the Board of Trustees for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Tony Administration Committee, and serves on the Advisory Committee of the American Theatre Wing. He is a mentor for TDF Open Doors program and serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia University.


Scenes from the day follow.


Commencement 2013 Photos


Schumacher delivers his address

Drama alumna Rachel Wallace as Mary Poppins

Chancellor Mauceri introduces Rachel Wallace

Alan Menken at the piano


Schumacher and Menken share a moment on stage as confetti rains down.