Rick Elice, by his own admission, just couldn’t hold down a regular job. Instead he finds himself, at 55, a co-librettist for the smash hit “Jersey Boys,” and the author of the new Broadway play, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which has just been nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Play. Elice’s stage adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s prequel to the Peter Pan legend has also earned him another Tony nod, as lyricist. He has become Broadway’s go-to guy for librettos: Future projects include a musical version of the ‘70s blaxploitation flick “Super-Fly, The Musical,” with Bill T. Jones, and a show about Studio 54 with Christopher Ashley (“Memphis” ) and songwriters Peter Yanowitz and Stephen Trask (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”).
It’s a fitting career peak for the New York-born writer, the leitmotif of whose work has been the reinvention of family, whether it’s the “sibling” rivalry among Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), the delicious perversities of “The Addams Family,” or the adventures of three boys, freed from a Dickensian workhouse and into the hold of a pirate ship (“Peter and the Starcatcher”). Elice’s own professional voyage has been just as circuitous. He’s built sets, choreographed, stage-managed, film-edited, and acted — most notably, playing a 25-year-old porn star (at age 45, mind you) in Elaine May’s 2002 off-Broadway comedy, “Adult Entertainment.” But it was his 18-year tenure as a creative director at a Broadway advertising firm, followed by a consultancy at the theatrical division of Disney, that put him in contact with people who would change his life. Chief among these were director Stanley Donen (“Singin’ in the Rain”) who would introduce Elice to Marshall Brickman (“Annie Hall”), with whom he’d collaborate on both “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family”; and actor Roger Rees (“Nicholas Nickleby”) who would become his life partner, and who would bring Elice into “Peter and the Starcatchers,” a stage adaptation of which he was developing with Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”). Elice recently spoke with us about his love of collaboration and what to do when you find yourself in a poker game with Brickman and his famous Hollywood friends (“Just shut up and listen”).
Your play is based on a young adult novel, “Peter and the Starcatchers.” When did you decide it’d grow up?
The novel was written as a sort of elaborate bedtime story, which began when Ridley’s young daughter asked him how Peter Pan met Captain Hook in the first place. Barry and Pearson were interested in the character of Peter and trying to reboot the concept specifically [with him] as a young man. I’d always been interested in the plays of J.M. Barrie. But not “Peter Pan” as much as his proto-feminist plays like “What Every Woman Knows,” “Mary Rose,” and “The Admirable Crichton.” So when Roger and Alex brought the project to me I was doing mental cartwheels because I was interested in the connectivity between this young boy — this feral, inarticulate, unnamed character — who is moved to heroic action by his chance meeting with this 13-year-old, Molly. So at its heart, it is about this young man, who becomes Peter, and this empowered young woman, who becomes a starcatcher.
Thus the dropped “S” at the end of the play’s title?
Yes. It seems to be cosmetic, a change that merely says, this is just a poor theater version of something that should’ve been much larger. But it’s a fundamental storytelling change. I wasn’t interested in all these people called starcatchers. And the novel is so rangy and picaresque and filled with stuff that you couldn’t possibly put on the stage within two hours. So I asked Tom [Schumacher, the producer] if I could drop the “s” from this Disney-owned title. And he asked, “Why?” and I said, because it’s the key to unlocking what is the hero’s journey — the true hero being a girl, not a boy, in the tradition of Scout Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Jo March in “Little Women.”
How much were you aware of the original Barrie play as you were adapting the novel, which is a prequel?
I was very much interested in trying to connect what Barrie was writing in “Peter Pan” to what Barry and Pearson were writing in their original story. Then because of Roger and his connection to Dickens it was always intended that the show would have this “Nicholas Nickleby” DNA in it. Add Alex’s brilliant textual analytical powers, and what we wanted to do was connect the dots between the play and the novel, not just in terms of plot but also in terms of style.
Some of the critics took exception to the anachronisms and the pop cultural references in the play.
The original 1904 Barrie play was full of anachronisms, puns, contemporary references, ditties, bawdy low jokes and high humor, sentiment and preposterous coincidences that we accept because of the glorious nature of the writing and the wonderful characters we’ve come to know. We tried to channel those instincts and techniques while being [faithful] to the contemporary irreverence of the novel.
Was the proto-Captain Hook character Black Stache always intended to be that flashy, or did that happen once Christian Borle was cast?
I was intrigued with the idea that the role was rather unformed when Barrie went into rehearsals for “Peter Pan.” And then he hired an actor named Gerald du Maurier, father of the writer Daphne du Maurier. His essential quality as an actor was a certain flamboyance, and that flamboyance came to inform what the role was. We all think of Cyril Ritchard [who played Hook in the Mary Martin “Peter Pan” television classic]. But Ritchard had seen du Maurier’s performance. And then when Christian was cast, I got to write to this part for his particular genius.
Roger Rees, now as director, uses many of the storytelling techniques employed in “Nicholas Nickleby” in “Peter.” How did that affect the writing?
We didn’t have a lot of money, so they [decided] we’re just going to use what’s lying around. If they found rope, I wrote scenes that could be performed with rope. It was an invitation to use unlimited imagination and lots of words. Another thing that had me doing cartwheels when Roger and Alex asked me to do this was the fact that I’d always been attracted to the writings of Charles Dickens. I had a boyhood obsession with him — not that I ever wanted to work in a workhouse or get to smell how London must’ve smelled like then. But that world is so appealing and colorful, and to be able to evoke it with a minimum of stagecraft was a real challenge.
So, you’re moving from 19th-century England and lost boys to 1970s New York City and drug-dealing pimps in “Super-Fly, the Musical.”
I know. When you say Curtis Mayfield and “Super-Fly,” the first name that pops into your head isn’t that of a nice white Jew. I certainly don’t pretend to understand the mind of a black man, especially one in 1972. But I know what it feels like to be marginalized and the music brings me to a place in my head that is personal and powerful. Working with Bill T. Jones and Seth [Zvi Rosenfeld] and talking this into existence has been the real pleasure.
What’s the theme?
For me, it’s about an outlaw whose actions creates a lot of hurt and resentment in the community and who comes to realize that it’s more important to be about something larger than himself. Intellectually you can make that statement, it’s like the 99 percent versus the one percent. But the theater is not an intellectual form, it’s an emotional one. And how you make a connection with this guy is the really interesting creative challenge.