Doctor Dolittle is a stage musical with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, based on the 1967 movie of the same name and the children’s stories by Hugh Lofting about the adventures of a doctor who learns to speak the language of various animals and treats them as patients. The musical features the same songs as the film (which starred Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley and Richard Attenborough), including the Academy Award-winning “Talk To The Animals”.
The musical made its world premiere in London at the Hammersmith Apollo in 1998, followed by tours of the UK and US.
In early Victorian England, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) takes his young friend Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) to visit eccentric Doctor John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) for an injured duck that Matthew had acquired from a local fisherman. Dolittle, a former medical doctor, lives with an extended menagerie, including a chimpanzee named Chee-Chee, a dog named Jip, and a talking parrot named Polynesia (the uncredited voice of Ginny Tyler). Dolittle claims that he can talk to animals. In a flashback, he explains that he kept so many animals in his home that they created havoc with his human patients, who took their medical needs elsewhere. His sister, who served as his housekeeper, demanded that he dispose of the animals or she would leave; he chose the animals. Polynesia taught him that different animal species can talk to each other, prompting Dolittle to study animal languages so that he could become an animal doctor. He is planning his latest expedition: to search for the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail.
The next day, while treating a horse for nearsightedness, Dolittle is accused by the horse’s owner, General Bellowes (Peter Bull), stealing his horse and ruining his fox hunt by sheltering and protecting the fox (a vixen named Sheila) and her children. by a group of skunks that protect the foxes, which drive the bloodhounds out of the barn where the skunks are kept. Bellowes’ niece, Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar), offended by his lack of human empathy, chides Dolittle for his rudeness to her uncle, while he states his contempt for her and other humans who hunt animals, causing her to storm off. Matthew falls in love with her at first sight.
An American Indian friend of Dolittle’s sends him a rare Pushmi-pullyu, a creature that looks like a llama with a head on each end of its body, so that Dolittle can earn money for his expedition. Dolittle takes the creature to a nearby circus, run by Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough), where the Pushmi-Pullyu becomes the star attraction. The doctor befriends a circus seal named Sophie who longs to return to her husband at the North Pole. Dolittle smuggles her out of the circus, disguises her in women’s clothing to convey her to the coast, and then throws her into the ocean. Fishermen mistake the seal for a woman and have Doctor Dolittle arrested on a charge of murder. General Bellowes is the magistrate in his case, but Dolittle proves he can converse with animals by talking with Bellowes’ dog and revealing details that only Bellowes and the dog could know. Although Dolittle is acquitted on the murder charge, the vindictive judge sentences him to a lunatic asylum. Dolittle’s animal friends engineer his escape, and he, Matthew, Tommy, Polynesia, Chee-Chee and Jip set sail in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail. Emma, by this time fascinated by Dolittle, stows away, seeking adventure. They randomly choose their destination: Sea-Star Island, a floating island currently in the Atlantic Ocean.
The ship is torn apart during a storm, but everyone washes ashore on Sea-Star Island, where Emma and Dolittle admit they have grown to like each other. The party is met by the island’s natives, whom they mistake for hostile savages. The populace are in fact highly educated and cultured from reading books that have washed ashore from innumerable shipwrecks. Their leader is William Shakespeare the Tenth (Geoffrey Holder); his name reflects the tribe’s tradition of naming children after favorite authors. William explains that they are wary of strangers coming to the island, and that the tropical island is currently endangered because it is drifting north into colder waters and all the animals on the island have caught colds. Mistrust leads the islanders to blame the doctor and his party. Dolittle persuades a whale to push the island south, but this causes a balancing rock to drop into a volcano, fulfilling a prophecy that dooms Dolittle and party to be burned at the stake. However, the push by the whale also causes the island to rejoin the mainland, fulfilling another prophecy that dictates that the doctor and his friends be heralded as heroes, and they are freed. While treating the animals on the island, Dolittle receives a surprise patient – the Great Pink Sea Snail, which has also caught a severe cold. Dolittle discovers that the snail’s shell is watertight and can carry passengers. Dolittle sends Matthew, Tommy, Emma, Polynesia, Chee-Chee, and Jip back to England with the snail. Emma wishes to stay on the island with him, but the Doctor is adamant that a relationship would never work. She finally admits her feelings for the Doctor, and kisses him goodbye.
Dolittle cannot go back because he is still a wanted man. Furthermore, he wishes to investigate the natives’ stories of another creature, the Giant Lunar Moth. After his friends have left, Dolittle realizes painfully that he has feelings for Emma. Sophie the seal arrives, accompanied by her husband. They bring a message: the animals of England have gone on strike to protest his sentence, and Bellowes has agreed to pardon him. Dolittle and the islanders construct a saddle for the Giant Lunar Moth, and Dolittle rides the creature back to England.