By day, Tom Schumacher is a homeowner and a hobby baker, working hard on his 1924 bungalow in the Camden community and creating prize winning pie recipes.
By night, the actor is someone else entirely. From now through January, he’ll be Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at Chanhassen Dinner Theater. “It’s my dream role,” Schumacher said. “It’s an epic piece. I have always loved it, since I heard it 20 years ago. I never thought I’d get a chance to be in the show, let alone have this part.”
He especially likes “Les Mis,” he said, because “the show connects with me on a lot of levels. It deals with the important things in life and asks the big questions. It speaks to people. If you’ve ever fallen in love, ever had a sense of duty or ever believed that life is a struggle, you’ll find something in for you.” Three hours long (“it’s basically an opera”), the show has more than 30 cast members, he added. “It’s a great show and we had a fabulous opening night. It’s already hard to get tickets.”
Schumacher is a Chicago-area native who graduated from Yale University. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to pursue theater when I started college, so my father said that while I was deciding, I might as well go to the best school. I still got to do a lot of theater there; it turned out I was much more interested in doing theater than studying.”
After graduation, he found acting jobs in New York, including the Broadway performance of Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing. He was hired for a show at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater (CDT) in 1986, he said.
“I thought I’d go to Minnesota for a couple of months, but I ended up staying and relocating. The work opportunity came at a time when I was tired of New York,” Schumacher said.
He worked with Minnesota Opera from 1989 to 1990, and has appeared in shows at the Ordway Music Theater.
In 1999, he left the Twin Cities for a three-year national tour with CDT’s Phantom of the Opera (he played the Phantom). Although he’d intended to settle in his home town of Chicago after that, he found himself back in Minneapolis in 2002.
CDT doesn’t have an “official” company of actors, he said, but the director often chooses actors who have played at the dinner theater before.
“Chanhassen is a great place. It’s a group of people who love what they do, and we’re all in it together. A lot of us have been to New York and gone on tour, so we’ve got that history. The dinner theater is a unique place where we can support ourselves, have families and quasi-normal lives and still be actors.”
He added that anybody who hasn’t been to CDT lately should look into attending an upcoming show, because things have changed. The producer, Tommy Scallen, is interested in doing newer shows, Schumacher said. “He’s working on getting shows as soon as they’re released. We’re one of the first theaters in the country doing Les Mis.”
He said audiences loved CDT’s recent production of Easter Parade. “It was based on the MGM movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, but it had never been done on stage before.”
Director Michael Brindisi directs every CDT production, on all the stages. (The performances are staggered, timewise, so he can pull it off.) “He does them all and he loves what he does,” Schumacher said. “He’s a great guy and a great friend, after all these years.”
Schumacher said he believes he got the lead in Les Mis for two reasons: “It is right in my vocal range. Also, I believed I could play this part, and Michael could see that too.”
Brindisi said, “Tommy is first and foremost a very smart actor, who knows at every minute what his character is thinking; if he doesn’t, he makes a point of bringing it up to me. That keeps me on my toes. Sometimes, in fact, his intelligence can be a bit intimidating. He is a very committed performer who takes his work very seriously. I often feel that his work is his life. He’s very professional and would prefer work to breaks. When I give actors some time off for rest, I look at Tommy and he seems disappointed. He is one of my favorite actors and a dear friend as well.”
According to his resume, Schumacher has performed on all four CDT stages with roles in 28 different productions. He had the lead in Beauty and the Beast (as the Beast), and played Billy in Anything Goes. He has also has appeared (although not in leading roles) in Mid-life! The Crisis Musical, My Fair Lady, and Easter Parade.
CDT puts on eight shows a week over six days. It might sound grueling, but Schumacher said, “Some of us think it’s fabulous. I like knowing where my next paycheck is coming from. I like working, period. I’m lucky to have spent 30 years as an actor.”
His forte is musicals, he said; he had classical voice training in New York and now studies with an operatic teacher in the Twin Cities.
What about the future? Does he always want to act? Schumacher said he has had the chance to direct, once or twice, at CDT. “I loved it. It was a great opportunity. I loved the idea of having the overall vision. I think any actor has a strong streak about how things should go.”
What advice would he give aspiring actors? “You have to be talented. You need the skills. You have to be realistic enough to look in the mirror and say, â€˜I’m good but I’m not that good, I can’t compete with that.’ The question is, are there are too many people better than me, or am I better than other people?’ You also have to remember that it’s a business, and you can’t take things for granted. I used to scorn dinner theater, and here I am,” Schumacher said.
When he’s not rehearsing or performing, Schumacher said, his hobby is baking. “I won a Blue Ribbon last year at the [Minnesota] State Fair for pecan pie. It was a recipe I created. There was no ceremony or anything; I got a certificate in the mail.”
He said he tries to enter something every year, and has won 2nd, 3rd and 4th place awards at the Fair. “Pie is my favorite thing to bake, although I may branch out into cakes and cookies. For me, it’s cheaper than therapy. The people at Chanhassen love it when the State Fair rolls around, because I bring in samples of things. They’re my own little test kitchen. “