Over a dozen years ago, a visit to Disneyland gave Dean McClure the idea to turn the life of Walt Disney into a musical. That show, When You Wish - the Story of Walt Disney, premieres this week at Phoenix Theatre.
McClure not only wrote the music but also the lyrics and book for this musical. He also got input from Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and Walt's nephew, Roy Disney, with Roy serving as a creative guide to Dean for the show.
However, when Roy died in 2009 it was a big loss to McClure, and the course of When You Wish. However, he kept moving forward, and had a staged reading of the show and, after having several producers become involved with the musical but then bowing out, McClure decided to produce a workshop production of the show himself at the Freud Playhouse in California. In 2014, he received two L.A. Ovation Award nominations for Book and Score for the workshop production of When You Wish.
The success of that workshop production is what gained the attention of Phoenix Theatre's Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard. The opening of the musical, which stars Joey Sorge as Walt Disney, will cap off Phoenix Theatre's new works festival, The Caleb Reese Festival of New Plays and Musicals.
I had the privilege to ask Dean some questions about the show as he was preparing to make his way to Phoenix for the world premiere of his musical.
I heard there is an interesting story as to how the idea for the musical came to be, that involved your daughter and a Disneyland Parade – what exactly was it that inspired this musical?
"My dream to bring the life story of Walt Disney to the stage was born out of my daughter Heather’s childhood dream to one day dance in a Disneyland parade. Her dream came true one summer when she was in college. My wife Helen and I were standing on Main Street at Disneyland, watching our daughter pass by in the parade, and I heard a voice in my head, asking, 'Why hasn’t someone done a Broadway musical on the life of Walt Disney?' For anyone who knew Walt Disney, or has seen him on television, it is clear that he was a showman. Thus I believe his story should be told in some form of entertainment, and a musical seemed the perfect fit. And movie producer Larry Gordon (Field of Dreams, Die Hard, et al), to whom I first presented my concept for the musical, agreed."
When did you first start work on the show?
"I started and stopped work on the show several times , over a period of perhaps 15 years."
Walt Disney had many successes over his lifetime, and while I know When You Wish is subtitled “the story of Walt Disney,” I have to imagine that you aren’t able to cover every major moment and success in his life. So how did you decide what to focus on?
"I focused on the turning points in his life, events that shaped his journey, many of them quite dramatic. When You Wish is the story of how a young dreamer from the mid-west became the Walt Disney who changed the world for all of us."
|Joey Sorge as Walt Disney in|
When You Wish
photo: Phoenix Theatre/Matt Chesin
"What surprised me were the many ways in which I identified with Walt Disney. I’m not equating myself with his artistic genius. But in researching his life, I sensed a deep personal connection, felt that I understood him, his eye for detail, seeing and hearing things others do not, his unwavering determination and perfectionism - of which I am equally guilty."
I understand that Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller read the script for the show. What did she have to say about it?
"I met with Diane shortly after she read the first draft of When You Wish. She was incredibly gracious, very proud and protective of her dad. As she stood to leave, I asked her, “How close did I come?‘ Of course she knew exactly what I meant, and said, “I could see my dad in every scene.” The greatest compliment I’ve ever received, and one I’ll cherish for the rest of my life."
You mentioned that Roy Disney served as your creative guide for the show. What involvement did he have in the development of the show?
"I feel very fortunate to have not only known Roy and Diane, but to have been given their blessing. Roy was one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met. He, too, was very protective of the legacy of Walt as well as his father, Roy Sr. As Vice Chairman of the Disney Company, one of Roy’s primary responsibilities was their animation department. He wanted me to add Disney animation to the show (which is not in public domain) and offered to help procure the rights, but he passed away before this could be accomplished."
"Roy appreciated that my motive for writing When You Wish exceeded the desire for monetary gain - even though I am confident in the commercial appeal of the show. I cannot name a specific piece of advice I received from Roy, just his overall faith in me, my motives, and the quality of my work."
And was there anything specifically that he asked you to make sure you included in the show?
"As I said, Roy loved animation and wanted me to include brief clips of Disney classics. But I’ve since found a wonderful and magical way of portraying portions of the Disney animation that Roy had wanted - partly out of respect for him."
Roy’s father, Roy Sr. features prominently in your piece, since he serves as the narrator of the musical. What made you decide to have him tell Walt’s story?
"A wonderful question: the show did not have a narrator in the first draft. But there was a lot of important information I couldn’t seem to fit into the dialogue. The concept of Roy as narrator was actually suggested to me by my son, Matt, a young film maker with a gifted imagination. The last time I saw Roy, I was very pleased to tell him that I had made his father the narrator. This literary device not only serves the show well, it also brings Roy Sr. out of Walt’s shadow and gives him equal time, of which he is more than deserving. Walt would be the first to tell you that he would not have been as successful without his brother Roy."
What was the most important thing you learned from the workshop production of the musical?
"Of course, I learned things about the show that I wanted to improve (my perfectionism at work). But the greatest insight I took away from the UCLA workshop production was the powerful and inspiring impact Walt’s story of struggle and triumph has on an audience. Most all of us have delayed, denied, or broken dreams, and I’ve witnessed how Walt’s story can reignite and even inspires those dreams. A number of college students came up to me after seeing the show, and with tears in their eyes told me that Walt’s story had motivated them to go for their dreams."
Did you make any major changes to the show since that workshop production?
"Yes, I’ve made multiple changes. I’ve written six new songs, replaced a couple of songs, included more of Walt’s early animation (quite magical). Also, when Walt first came to Hollywood in 1923, he had visions of becoming an actor or a director, like his idol Charlie Chaplin. So this new production includes the staging of a Black and White silent movie depicting Walt’s early attempts to break into showbiz."
|Joey Sorge as Walt Disney in|
When You Wish
photo: Phoenix Theatre/Matt Chesin
"Larry and Lee have been very respectful of my vision, and taken what I’ve written and helped me expand it, but never tried to replace it. We share a mutual respect and make a very good team."
How did Michael Barnard and Phoenix Theatre become involved in the musical?
"Our director, Larry Raben, had previously directed a show at Phoenix Theatre. After the workshop production, Larry contacted Michael, a man of vision, and Michael fell in love with When You Wish"
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about Walt in researching his story and writing this musical?
"What I often say, because it’s what I believe: if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the life of Walt Disney, it’s that no matter what we see on the nightly news, the world isn’t all bad. And by having the courage to dream, we can make it better. Walt did."