08 December 2014

‘Peter Pan Live!’: I’d Like to Clap Louder Next Time

Wire we here? Williams as Peter.

The latest in NBC’s live broadcasts of classic Broadway musicals, Peter Pan Live! has generated a plentiful amount of criticism. Most of it — for the good and for the bad — has betrayed a curious lack of understanding of what this particular show represents (to say nothing of its history), why these broadcasts are worthwhile, and why it’s incumbent upon us (or anyway, those among us who can keep a civil tongue in our virtual heads) to say both what we did and did not approve. After all, the generally negative reactions to Carrie Underwood’s acting performance in last year’s The Sound of Music Live must have informed this year’s casting of a young woman who actually could handle the acting demands of a different role created by Mary Martin.

These broadcasts are valuable, and I’d like to see them continued, for at least a couple of reasons. First is that, while the view they provide of an actual Broadway show is distorted (unlike the Mary Martin telecasts of Peter Pan, which were essentially the original musical with cameras where the audience used to be), they are reaching people whose opportunities to see the real thing are limited. Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was the first Broadway show my mother ever saw; the telecast was the first Broadway show I ever saw. Granted, Broadway has changed a lot since the 1950s and 1960s. But this much hasn’t changed: very, very few shows ever were so perfect that they were immune to criticism. People used to carp, and they still do. (Now we have the Internet to help us do it more widely.) But there’s always the chance — and, in the case of Peter Pan, this is especially true of young people like my mother and, later, like me — that a spark will catch, and that lasting impressions will be formed about a great American art form.

Mary Martin’s TV performance benefited from her having played the role onstage first.

Opinions do vary, but Peter Pan Live! improved greatly on Sound of Music’s foundation. Neither show is easy to stage, one requiring aerial acrobatics and the other requiring a balance between I-hurt-my-finger cutesy kids and singing nuns. Oh, and the Anschluss, too. SOM has superior music, but Pan is, or ought to be, simpler to get right. In both productions, Christian Borle proved himself an invaluable player, and this year, inheriting the show-saving duties of SOM’s Laura Benanti, we had Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, who elicited my strongest emotional responses. The expression on O’Hara’s face when the kids came home? Worth the preceding three hours. Both of course are experienced stage actors with professional Broadway musical credits.

In Mary Martin’s time, TV still turned to the stars of New York theater to boost ratings. Nowadays Broadway is more likely to turn to TV or movie stars to boost ticket sales, and a lamentable number of Americans outside New York don’t know who O’Hara and Borle are. So we arrive at Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. He may not have brought as many eyeballs to the TV set as Carrie Underwood did last year, but he generated a great deal of anticipation, as we all reminded ourselves that, yes, he’s a dancer, too. In the event, he did bring exactly what was expected of him: an eccentric performance that nobody but Christopher Walken could deliver. He’s Christopher Walken. This is what he does. It’s his brand. And remember, he’s 71 years old. You were expecting him to play Hook, or sing and dance, the way Nick Jonas would?

Presumably for Walken, the producers removed “Mysterious Lady” and beefed up Hook’s role with additional musical material from Jule Styne’s trunk, with fresh lyrics by Amanda Green, my friend and the daughter of one of the original lyricists, Adolph Green. The new songs had character and, if less operetta-ish than Hook’s other numbers, seemed close enough kin to the songs that traditionally belong in Pan. But they did prolong the evening and throw off dramatic pacing — a problem. (And speaking of pacing, does anybody else remember the good old days, when advertisers reduced the number of commercials they ran during extra-special, “event” programs like this one?)

All singin’! All dancin’! All Walken!

Watching the show, it was clear that director Rob Ashford had instructed all the actors, including Walken, to work small for the TV cameras. Since none of them (unlike Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard) had ever played these roles before an audience, we lost much of the show’s theatricality and the potential for larger-than-life personalities that win us over. With that context in mind, Allison Williams’ background as a TV, not a theater, actor didn’t matter so much, and mostly she did a terrific job: she’s got a lovely voice, she’s certainly attractive, and she dug deeper into the character than Mary Martin did (or needed to). Taylor Louderman as Wendy and the little boys playing Michael and John were charming and unaffected. Alanna Saunders as Tiger Lily provided fierce dignity that suited the character’s revised personality.

Ultimately, what didn’t work stemmed from a series of miscalculations. James M. Barrie derived the source play from playtime — that is, from observing and participating in the games and from listening to the stories of his young friends, the Llewellyn Davies brothers. Sure, there’s a lot of English pantomime tradition involved, too, but everything theatrically distinctive about Peter Pan derives from children’s games of “let’s pretend”: magical powers, pirates and swordfights, Indians and pow wows, playing house and obliging the only girl to play mother — and above all, flying. Not all that different from the games that kids still play today, in those rare moments when they’re on the playground or in the yard, instead of Krazy Glued to some screen. The intensity of a child’s belief in “let’s pretend” facilitates belief: that that a woman in tights is a ten-year-old boy, that a pinpoint spotlight is a fairy, and that clapping will save that fairy’s life.

When you believe in Peter Pan, you look beyond, and at best you don’t even see the wires that hold the actors aloft. (Only when I grew up did I notice Mary Martin’s wires.) Peter and the Darlings are dancing on air, doing what every child dreams of. Ashford’s decision to make the set environmental — with décor everywhere the actors turned — constrained the joyous soaring swoops of previous Pans across the proscenium and TV screen. Williams and the kids twirled in close quarters instead, and (if comments on the Internet are any indication) viewers focused on the wires, not even on the miniature London below them or on the lavishly colored island ahead. They barely took notice of the flight itself.

Lost Boys, lost opportunities.

Thus the decision to cast grown men (or nearly so) as the Lost Boys proved fatal. Sure, it was easier to choreograph their numbers, because their bodies are mature and they’ve had years of training. And cute and/or hunky chorus boys have their appeal. But gay men and straight women are only part of the target audience here. Eye candy and fancier dancing came at the expense of Peter Pan’s most potent magic: in every good incarnation, from Maud Adams to Cathy Rigby, the play has always made children think, “What fun! I want to play like that! I want to fly! This magic can be mine.”* Jerome Robbins, who first staged this musical Pan, understood that casting young children as the Lost Boys was vitally necessary. Most of us knew in our hearts that we’d never be Peter. But we’d willingly settle for being Tootles.

Peter Pan contains some pretty serious themes. Reconciling the Scary Father with the Good Father (a message muddled in this production, where Borle’s Mr. Darling turned into Smee instead of Hook). The perils of young love, and the paradigm of sensible girls who fall for irresponsible boys. The moment when a woman lets go of her first love, and steps aside for a new generation to discover love. While we may not understand these things at first, they stick with us into adulthood. But if you can’t deliver the magic, you can’t deliver the message.

This isn’t to say that Peter Pan Live! lacked magic entirely, and in that sense, the most important review came from little Iain, the six-year-old Internet sensation. He wore Peter Pan pajamas and stayed up past his bedtime to watch. He liked the show. He clapped. He believed. And that’s what matters.

Again, that’s why it’s important that television keep attempting these live broadcasts — and that they keep trying to do them better. The place to start isn’t hedging your bets with stunt casting or ever-fancier sets or vast blankets of advance publicity, and it’s probably not in #savetinkerbell. The place to start is in believing in the worth of the individual show and in the power of the Broadway musical itself.

*NOTE: Rewriting the lyrics to “Ugg-a-wugg” may make it easier for children of Native American descent to enjoy the exuberantly playful spirit of that number. Why exclude them even a little from the pleasures other children have found in this show? Amanda did a terrific job.


Anne said...

Terrific review of the show and about the history and the need for such broadcasts

I'm like little Iain. Perhaps I'm just among the outside NYC culturally unwashed, but I thought it was great and was amazed it could even be be done and that well.

Live. That took amazing guts on everyone's part. As it does on Broadway... but this wasn't in front of 1,000 like in a theater. It was in front of millions and a great number of unforgiving folks who either make a living or social media trashing such attempts. Let's see them sing and dance. Thanks to the internet we also get Iain's review.

(And speaking of pacing, does anybody else remember the good old days, when advertisers reduced the number of commercials they ran during extra-special, “event” programs like this one?)

here! here!

Anne said...

I would like to add that Iain was the target audience for Pete Pan when it was written and Iain was pleased. To me this is very important

Even as late as the 1960 production, children were foremost in the thinking of those who made it and the audience who viewed it

But since then things meant predominantly for children, from baseball cards to Halloween, have been increasingly usurped and taken over by adults....the kids got shouldered out.

Can we now complain such a play creaks ? That it did not turn us back to the children it was meant for?

As to the age of the lost boys,I have to say I didn't notice it until I read the reviews. It seems to me a lost boy is an attitude and could be someone at any age...and I believe if children had been used,there would have been complaints about that.

I think earlier productions knew they could use children as professional leeway would be given in deference to the fact they were children. But this leeway cannot counted on now

At bottom a play meant for children cannot always turn us into the children we seem to want to be... and who are the lost boys?

The play was also at a cultural disadvantage having no hunky vampires, misunderstood zombies or serial killers..if you leave out Hook that is.

This is not a criticism of your review,which I feel was one of best. You have profound sympathy for those on the boards and the audience out front