The boy who refused to grow up: It sounds like men today in this youth-obsessed culture. But nearly a century before his name found its way into pop psychology, Peter Pan was born as the high-flying hero of a play by Scottish writer James M. Barrie.
Many adaptations later, 1954's Broadway musical version of "Peter Pan" came to TV in a live NBC telecast in 1955, then was re-staged a year later with Mary Martin yet again in the title role.
Now NBC is recapturing its youth for a revival of "Peter Pan," broadcast live Thursday and starring Allison Williams ("Girls") as Peter, the cocky young champion of Neverland, and Christopher Walken as the deliciously evil pirate, Captain Hook. The cast also includes Christian Borle, Kelli O'Hara and Minnie Driver as the narrator.
Officially titled "Peter Pan Live!" this three-hour event is a follow-up to last year's live "The Sound of Music," which drew an astonishing 18.6 million viewers.
Why "Peter Pan" this go-around?
"It's a classic, a really great musical, that has its DNA in live television," said Neil Meron, who with his partner, Craig Zadan, are back as executive producers. "To follow 'The Sound of Music' and create some sort of beachhead for a holiday tradition, you look for titles that can fit into that little box," he said, pointing to a nearby TV, "and 'Peter Pan' fits very snugly."
More than snug, "Peter Pan" will be bursting wide open with more subtext to the characters and narrative than its Broadway forebear, Meron said. Its glorious score (including "I Won't Grow Up," "I'm Flying" and "Never Never Land") is supplemented with additional tunes by the team of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, including a song dropped from the original "Peter Pan" before it reached Broadway.
"It's much bigger and much more challenging than 'The Sound of Music' last year," said Zadan. "A lot more musical numbers, a lot more dancing, plus the sword fights and flying. And a live dog." With no do-overs allowed.
But maybe the biggest difference between this year and last: Everyone knew and cherished the 1965 Julie Andrews-starring film of "The Sound of Music," which made tampering with it a dicey proposition.
"We had a gigantic shadow over us last year," said Meron. "This year, the shadow isn't as big." Then he added with a smile, "Peter Pan DOES find his shadow in the show."
That's a fact. Early in the action, we see Wendy with a needle and thread reattach Peter's shadow, which he had left behind on a previous visit to the Darling children's nursery. Then he teaches Wendy and her two little brothers how to fly. Then off they fly to Neverland!
NBC is hoping viewers take the trip too — and they don't need to wait until Thursday's broadcast.
The social media buzz around #peterpanlive had already started Tuesday. Some of it was fueled by a "leaked" tape of Tony winner Jane Krakowski "auditioning" for Peter in a manner not appropriate for children in a parody posted on funnyordie.com.
NBC also released a mashup video of the show's cast, fans, singer/songwriter Alex G. and DJ Tay James singing a decidedly pop version of "I Won't Grow Up."
Come Thursday night, the Twittersphere could be jammed with moment-to-moment scrutiny of the show — at least, if there's any lesson to be drawn from last year's live telecast, when the Web was alive with snark.
"People who have nice things to say keep it to themselves," said Zadan, "and the people who have nasty things to say don't, so they're out there tweeting away. But it creates massive audiences. Social media drove viewership last year with people following Twitter and saying, 'Oh! This I have to see for myself.' "
What they'll see in "Peter Pan Live!" is "a beautiful story about finding the child in you and trying to hold onto that while you grow up," said its stage director, Rob Ashford, confidently.
This "Peter Pan" is housed on a huge Long Island soundstage that last year was transformed into pre-World War II Austria.
" 'The Sound of Music' was more straightforward: One room, then another room, then another," said live TV director Glenn Weiss. "We're trying to immerse the viewer into this show. Cameras will be inside the scenes. There may even be a camera capturing a flying point of view."
While Peter gets to fly, Captain Hook will have ample chance to demonstrate he's light on his feet.
Tap dancing in boots? "I asked them to make my clothing as light as possible," said Walken, " 'cause there's a lot of stuff to wear: a wig and a hat and swords and muskets!"
A show business veteran at 71, Walken isn't typically thought of as a song-and-dance man, despite his memorable hoofing in "Pennies From Heaven." But however much identified with serious drama (his breakout, Oscar-winning role was in the chilling 1978 film "The Deer Hunter"), he is anything but dismissive of musicals — neither as an actor nor as an audience member.
"Musicals are my favorite!" he declared. "If somebody says, 'I'm taking you to the theater,' I say, 'OK. Just make sure it's a musical.' I have deep respect for musicals — and for this one in particular."
" 'Peter Pan' just appeals to something in a kid's imagination," said Williams — "a boy flies through your window and everything's different forever.
"And if you revisit 'Peter Pan' periodically as you grow up, it means different things every time you see it. The hardest I've ever cried in public was when I saw Cathy Rigby in it the summer before my senior year of high school. I had spent so many years wishing I was 16 so I could drive and 18 so I could vote, but now here I was, telling myself, 'I grew up! I didn't mean to do that!' "
She laughed at the memory, now able to apply to it the added wisdom of her 26 years.
"If only I could have told myself then, 'Don't worry. You'll play 'Peter Pan' in a few years, and you'll un-grow-up.'"
Thursday night, every viewer can join her.
'Peter Pan Live!'
8 p.m. Thursday
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