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Movies That Weren't Supposed To Be Musicals

The musical movie literally goes back as far as the modern movie industry itself, as the very first movie with synchronized sound — called then a "talkie" — was "The Jazz Singer," a musical starring singer and actor Al Jolson. A landmark film, it kicked off not just sound movies, but musicals as well, and they've never stopped entertaining audiences in the intervening century.

The musical arguably had its heyday in the 1950s and '60s with a string of greats, many adapted from Broadway favorites like "The Sound of Music," "Guys and Dolls" and "West Side Story." Musicals have crossed every storytelling genre, from serious dramas to lighthearted comedies, including kids' films and cartoons. Animation has been where the musical has thrived for decades, with family-friendly cartoon films using musical numbers to punctuate their lively adventures.

But not all musicals started out that way. Every so often, a movie changes in its development process, and the director or studio decides it needs a little singing and dancing to liven things up. Some of these movies have gone on to become all-time classics, and it's hard to think of them without their iconic songs. But believe it or not, we've found 12 movies that weren't always supposed to be musicals.


Based on a line of plush dolls that launched in 2001, "Uglydolls" took the unexpected toy sensation to the big screen in 2019, courtesy of Robert Rodriguez, Alison Peck, and "Shrek 2" co-director Kelly Asbury. The CG-animated film imagines the misshapen dolls as misfit toys looking for owners in the "Big World," with a roster of voice actors that includes Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Blake Shelton, and Janelle Monáe. With so many popular singers in the cast, it's probably a little eyebrow-raising for you to learn that it wasn't always intended to be a musical movie. 

In an interview with Billboard Magazine, the film's composer, Christopher Lennertz, spoke about how when the movie first came to his attention it wasn't being developed as a musical. While he was working on creating music for movies like "A Bad Moms Christmas" and "Horrible Bosses," it was the "UglyDolls" script that grabbed his attention and seemed full of potential. "At the time, 'UglyDolls' wasn't supposed to be a musical, so I wrote the song 'Couldn't Be Better' to maybe open the movie."

After an overwhelmingly positive reception to the song from the studio, the studio pivoted the entire concept of the film. "Within a week or two they hired [Asbury,] who immediately said, 'This song is great; we need to make the whole movie a musical.'" Before he knew it, Lennertz suddenly found himself tasked with writing a whole slate of songs.

Love Me Tender

In the 1950s there was no bigger musician in the world than Elvis Presley, arguably the world's first rock 'n' roll star, who would go on to be crowned king of the emerging genre. As is so often the case with mega music stars, taking the handsome and charismatic rocker to the big screen must have seemed like the next logical step, and that's exactly where Elvis went.

Landing the same year as his first studio album, "Elvis Presley," was his acting debut, "Love Me Tender." But while the film starred the future American icon, making the film a musical wasn't always the intention. With Presley not even being top-billed in the film, the movie was only supposed to have one song from the King, according to the book "Elvis For Dummies." But thanks to his rising popularity, producers wanted to attract his growing throngs of fans and boost his role in the film, so adding several more songs seemed like the perfect way to do it.

Unfortunately, this also meant compromising the integrity of the film, as Presley's contemporary rock style didn't quite fit the Civil War period in which the movie was set. Swaying his hips and crooning to a fast beat weren't exactly in line with the somber romantic drama or the era, but that hardly mattered to Elvis fans. The title track "Love Me Tender," however, lined up nicely and was released as a single, reaching the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts.

Lovestruck: The Musical

In the early 2010s, cable network ABC Family wanted to cash in on the musical movie business, and so they hired producer Debra Martin Chase to get it going for them. Chase had a strong track record with both theatrical and television musicals, including two Whitney Houston projects: the TV movie "Cinderella" and the 2012 film "Sparkle." With Chase on board, the network eyed a project they already had in development titled "Elixir" to become their first musical. In a 2011 interview with BlackFilm.com, Chase spoke about how she became involved, and how "Elixir" evolved into "Lovestruck: The Musical."

"They actually brought me on to it," Chase revealed. "They bought the script in a non-musical version and decided to turn it into a musical." Given her experience in the genre, Chase seemed like a natural choice to take the Disney rom-com and turn it into their first foray into the singing and dancing genre. "They have been wanting to get into the musical business for a while and thought this was the right time."

Her first decision was to bring in frequent collaborator Sanaa Hamri, a director she'd previously worked with on two earlier projects. "She's so hugely talented and has great movies under [her] belt," Chase told BlackFilm, emphasizing that Hamri had worked previously with Prince, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj. Ultimately, the collaboration paid off, with "Lovestruck: The Musical" receiving a good response from audiences and getting the network off on the right foot in the musical business.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Some of the best and most beloved musicals of all time are often and understandably known for their iconic songs. This is certainly true of Walt Disney's 1991 animated classic "Beauty and the Beast," which just would not be the same without such memorable musical numbers as "Be Our Guest." The song showcases the surprising singing talents of television stars Jerry Orbach ("Law & Order") and Angela Lansbury ("Murder She Wrote"). But if it had been up to the film's original director Richard Purdum, it would have been a very different movie, and would not have featured any songs at all.

In a look back at what almost was by HuffPost in 2016, it's revealed that the original idea for the film was a much darker — and more faithful — adaptation of the original 18th-century fairy tale that the movie is based on. In addition to eyeing Woody Allen for the role of LeFou, the story would have been much more serious and was never intended to include any musical numbers. Thankfully, Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who'd had overwhelming success turning "The Little Mermaid" into a rousing musical in 1989, fired Purdum and overhauled "Beauty and the Beast" to be a fantasy musical, hiring new directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise as replacements. He then turned to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman — who'd both worked on "The Little Mermaid" — to pen a number of songs, and the rest is history. 


Disney is the master of creating family-friendly franchises, and one of their most recent is the superhero musical series "Descendants," an adventure about the children of many of Disney's most popular heroes and villains. Being a mix of teen angst and singing and dancing, it should come as no surprise that it was helmed by Kenny Ortega, who had previously directed the "High School Musical" trilogy. But according to Ortega, that's actually not why he was brought on board; at first, "Descendants" was envisioned as a straightforward family adventure movie.

"We started out without music and dance as a part of the story," Ortegas told Whisky + Sunshine. "The original story was written as an action adventure comedy and I was very happy with that, very excited about that and looking forward to being a part of that." But once Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, learned of his involvement, things took a turn. "Gary said to me, 'I can't believe we have you here, and we're not gonna have music and dance.' And I said, 'I'll do it every day of my life given the chance.'"

Given the tremendous success the pair had with the "High School Musical" films, turning "The Descendants" into a full-fledged musical only made sense. From there, Ortega convened with Steve Vincent, vice president of Music and Soundtracks at Disney Channel, and reshaped the story to include several lavishly produced songs that complemented the film.

The Happiest Millionaire

Traveling back in time to the 1960s, we have "The Happiest Millionaire," another Disney musical, this time of the live-action variety. It starred Fred MacMurray, one of the biggest Disney stars of the day, who'd appeared in both "The Absent-Minded Professor" and "The Shaggy Dog." Though not well-received by critics, it's been a favorite of audiences for decades, but like every other entry on this list, it wasn't always destined to be a musical. 

Following the overwhelming success of "Mary Poppins" in 1964, however, Disney wondered if they could elevate another musical film to big bucks at the box office. They searched around their projects in development and found "The Happiest Millionaire," which they believed could be just the ticket. Famed brothers and veteran song scribes Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman — who had done music for "Mary Poppins" — were brought in forthwith, and the film was quickly granted a whole host of singing and dancing scenes to complement its flight of fancy.

A period piece set at the turn of the 20th century, "The Happiest Millionaire" centered on an eccentric socialite and his many wild antics. In spite of their best efforts though, the film never did become the follow-up hit to "Mary Poppins" that the studio had hoped.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas," directed by Henry Selick, is more than a family-friendly frightful Halloween story and more than a Christmas classic. It's also a delightfully weird musical with songs by frequent Burton pal Danny Elfman. From the iconic "This Is Halloween" spookfest to the playful blues romp "Oogie Boogie's Song," the movie just wouldn't be the same without its toe-tappin' tunes. But you guessed it; it nearly had none of them, as the film was originally envisioned as a song-free story.

Sparked by a short poem that Burton wrote while an animator at Walt Disney earlier in his career, the project was scuttled by company brass who felt it was a bit too dark for their tastes. But after the director broke out with hits like "Beetlejuice" and "Batman," Disney and Burton reconnected. Burton's concept was experimental, more akin to a parody of stop-motion Christmas specials and more in line with his earlier shorts than the darkly comic musical it would evolve into. Working with writer Michael McDowell, Burton saw the benefits of changing the story into a musical, and Elfman was enlisted to score the film. Elfman even voiced Jack Skellington's parts. The Oingo Boingo frontman described the gig as "one of the easiest jobs I've ever had. I had a lot in common with Jack Skellington," according to a retrospective of the movie's making in Far Out Magazine in 2021.

The Lion King (1994)

At this point, maybe Disney should stop denying the inevitable and just start out with every movie planned to be a musical. Because yet another Disney musical classic, "The Lion King," was originally developed with no intention of including its now-iconic music sequences like "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." And what would the movie have been without the singing and dancing of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" and "Hakuna Matata"? Well, if it had been up to the writers of the first few drafts, it actually would have been more like an animated "National Geographic" special.

In fact, when Disney approached composer Hans Zimmer about scoring the film, he was promised that "The Lion King" wouldn't be a musical, something he had no interest in being a part of. "I said I don't want to do a musical, I hate musicals," Zimmer told the Associated Press in 2019. "And they said, we'll guarantee you this will not become a musical ever." Insert smash cut.

As the movie took shape, it slowly morphed into just that, thanks to incoming director Roger Allers and Disney head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. Lyricist Tim Rice was assigned the task of filling out the song list, and after an aborted attempt at hiring ABBA (via Polygon), the job finally fell to British icon Elton John. Ultimately, both John and Zimmer would win Academy Awards for their music on "The Lion King."

Over the Moon

Over the past several years, streaming giant Netflix has begun to give Disney a run for their money on animated movies, and the 2020 release "Over the Moon" tops the list. Based on a Chinese legend, it introduces Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), a girl determined to meet the mythical moon goddess Chang'e (Phillipa Soo). Some critics have noted how the film follows a familiar Disney playbook, and it did so in more ways than one, because like "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast," it also didn't start out as a musical.

Notable for being the first wide-release musical with an all-Asian American cast, "Over the Moon" may feature "Hamilton" star Phillipa Soo, but actually started out without any musical numbers, according to a deep dive by the Los Angeles Times. Instead, it was written as a heartfelt coming-of-age story by Audrey Wells, who was stricken with terminal cancer during the writing process. "She wrote the script as a love letter to her daughter so that her daughter, Tatiana, would know that even though they couldn't be together, the love they shared would last forever," said producer Peilin Chou.

Following the addition of director Glen Keane, who had worked on Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast," Wells was approached about turning it into a musical, and that's when things all fell into place. "Every one of those songs came from something that was really in the DNA of the script," Keane said. Eventually, the producers secured the services of composers and songwriters Chris Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park, and the resulting score helped the film earn an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.


"Moondance," a little-seen indie romance from writer, director, producer, and star Cooper Flannigan, debuted in 2020. The little-known Chicagoland filmmaker took the bold and rare step of making a low-budget musical. "Moondance" is the story of a would-be composer (Flannigan) suffering from a serious case of writer's block who finds his muse in a dancer named Abby (Carolyn Pampalone Rabbers). But if you think that just because it's a low-budget indie film, it didn't have a complicated development, think again, as Flannigan never meant for it to be a musical when he initially dreamt it up.

"It wasn't originally a musical, it was just a fun movie," Flannigan told the Spokes podcast. "The experience of writing it was kind of an exercise, and every time I'd come to a problem in the script, [I'd think] 'What's the most outrageous way I can solve this problem?'" As you can imagine, when one particular problem arose, Flannigan had a stroke of genius: "a giant dream sequence musical number."

Though Flannigan had studied musicals in film school, it was never anything that had particularly interested him, and he had never worked on one professionally. Yet here he was, finding himself putting together a song for his next project. "Within a couple of months, the whole movie had turned into a musical."


He may be one of today's biggest stars, but in 1992 actor Christian Bale was still a teenager, starring in a live-action Disney musical. Titled "Newsies," it's a throwback movie, a period piece set in 1899 and inspired by the New York City Newsboy Strike. It co-stars Bill Pullman, Ann-Margret, Robert Duvall, and David Moscow, and features plenty of song and dance numbers.

When it was first conceived, "Newsies" wasn't a whimsical romp, but a more serious drama from screenwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. But then a familiar pair of names got involved: Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and director Kenny Ortega, and both had dreams of ushering in a new wave of live-action musicals. "Newsies" was chosen to kick things off according to Moscow, as revealed in an interview with Insider in 2022.

Despite neither Moscow nor Bale being trained in song and dance, they were assured by the filmmakers that they'd get the proper training to do justice to their idea. "They had to calm both me and Christian down, like, 'Look, we're never going to make you look bad. We have so much rehearsal time,'" Moscow told Insider. "They brought in Madonna's voice coach for us. It was wild." In the end, the movie wasn't a box office smash but was beloved by audiences, enough so that two decades later, Broadway come knocking, leading to a "Newsies" stage musical in 2011, which won multiple Tony Awards and has become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history (via Playbill).


"Smallfoot" is a star-studded CG-animated musical from 2018 that features Channing Tatum, Zendaya, James Corden, and Danny Devito. It tells the story of a boy named Percy (Corden) who befriends a fabled Himalayan yeti (Tatum). But the shoe is on the other foot for Percy, as the Yeti have all believed that humans were little more than myths. A big hit with critics and at the box office, if it comes as a surprise to learn it wasn't originally a musical, know that the fact that it became one was even more unexpected for the cast, who had no idea they'd be singing when they signed on.

"We had cast most of it, and as we were looking at it with [Warner Bros.]," director Karey Kirkpatrick said. "We started talking about what really elevates animated movies. And music can elevate things emotionally, satirically, dramatically in a way that sometimes a scene can't. And particularly in animation." Transforming "Smallfoot" into a musical must have always been a consideration for Kirkpatrick, who previously helped write the music-heavy animated films "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Smurfs 2." He also co-wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Something Rotten!" with his brother, Wayne, in addition to co-writing the book, so it wasn't hard to make the call to convert "Smallfoot" to a singing, dancing adventure.

"It was a shock to me," Tatum told Yahoo during a Facebook Live interview. Tatum seemed at least a little miffed, having also been swindled into singing once before for the Coen brothers' film "Hail Caesar," telling Yahoo, "They got me the same exact way."