Top 10 Disney films that should be stage musicals

Over the weekend came news that Disney’s theatrical division is working on some new adaptations of films from its back catalogue. Freaky Friday, Father of the Bride, The Jungle Book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dumbo are all in development, as is an adaptation of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and a reworked version of The Little Mermaid. Newsies and Aladdin had previously been announced.

Ironically, before that article was published I had been having a conversation on Twitter about Disney films that could be adapted for the stage, as a direct result from having reviewed The Lion King.

While the announcement above includes lots of new projects, I was left thinking: what other films from the House of Mouse could make the transition to the theatre? So here are ten of my suggestions, in a more-or-less-arbitrary Letterman-style countdown from 10 to 1. And note I’ve ignored many of the Perrault-inspired fairytale features (Cinderella, et al), which sail a little too close to the British panto oeuvre.

Which has the potential to be the next Lion King, and which the next Tarzan, I wonder?

10. Candleshoe

A live action film from my childhood, which saw Jodie Foster being persuaded by a conman (Leo McKern) to pose as the missing heir to the Candleshoe estate, in an effort to locate the treasure hidden by one of the family’s long-dead ancestors. With Helen Hayes in a grandmotherly role (her final screen performance) and David Niven as a butler who plays several different roles in an attempt to hide from her how broke the estate is, it’s a slight film, but the story would be strong enough to support a number of songs.

9. The Happiest Millionaire

Originally a live action musical with music by the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins et al), the 1967 film starred Tommy Steele as a butler who joins the household of an eccentric 1916 family headed by Fred MacMurray.

8. Dead Poets Society

What? That’s not a Disney film, surely? Well, it was produced by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, as was Father of the Bride – and if the latter is eligible for a Disney theatrical makeover, so can this tale of an inspirational teacher whose penchant for encouraging the breaking of rules has tragic consequences.

7. The Sword in the Stone

Variations on the Arthurian myth are slightly in vogue on the small screen at the moment, with the BBC’s Merlin about to be joined by Camelot, made by the US cable channel Starz. And while Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot the stage musical is remembered fondly, the Disney take, which looks at the young Arthur’s ascent to kinghood, could lend a different view on the mythology.

6. Pinocchio

Disney’s adaptation of the story about a puppet who wanted to be a real boy would require some work to convince an audience that the actor in the title role was really made of wood, but there’s scope for transformation scenes – both with Pinocchio’s stretching nose, and the naughty boys who turn into donkeys – which could blow audiences away if done correctly.

The 1940 film only has five musical numbers (not counting reprises), but a further six were written but never used.

5. Ruthless People

Another Touchstone picture, this black comedy saw sees a couple clumsily manage a kidnapping attempt on a wealthy heiress, only to find that her husband doesn’t want her back and in fact is quite keen for the couple to kill her.

Possibly not one for the children, but the story’s strong enough to contain both knockabout farce and the occasional romantic moment.

4. Bedknobs and Broomsticks

She may be the sprightliest 85-year old around, but sadly Angela Lansbury is, I fear, too old to reprise her role as Miss Price, the rather ineffectual witch who ends up looking after three wartime evacuees. In an industry that needs more roles for leading women of a certain age, though, this could be a real showcase for a female performer. The film, based on Mary Norton’s children’s book, never quite managed the magic of Mary Poppins, but the spectacle of a flying bed and the promise of visiting many fantasy worlds is enchanting.

Plus, any film which contains the line “What’s that got to do with my nob?” has got to have a stage life, hasn’t it?

3. Dick Tracy

The film itself was one of the most stylised adaptations of any comic strip cartoon, and played host to some wonderful costume and make-up work. There was Madonna too, of course, but even she couldn’t mess up the songs created for the film by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim. However hard she tried.

2. Something Wicked This Way Comes

Sometimes I think flawed movies that don’t quite work can make for better stage adaptations, as there’s less of a feeling that one has to slavishly copy from the source material. This 1980s creepy chiller (adapted from the Ray Bradbury novel) starred Jonathan Pryce as Mr Dark, the owner of a mysterious carnival that abducted people by promising to fulfil their childhood fantasies.

I’d love to see this on stage, a dark and brooding piece, evoking the spirit of Halloween all year round.

1. The Aristocats

If Disney can make a monumental global success out of big cats with The Lion King, they could surely do the same with the hep cats of this 1970 musical. It’s got the perfect ingredients – cross-cultural divide (the upper class Duchess and her brood of inquisitive kittens versus alley cat Thomas O’Malley), a great villain in the shape of the evil butler, Edgar – and most of all, it has a great sound, most especially with Scat Cat (played by the legendary Scatman Crothers in the film) and his band.

Most importantly, musically it would be unlike anything currently playing in the West End or Broadway. And it would have the potential to be the cool ticket in town.

After all, everybody wants to be a cat. Because a cat’s the only cat who knows where it’s at…

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.