In a Broadway increasingly dominated by tedious spectacle, one of the most inventive, witty, and refreshing productions of the past few years has been the bare-bones “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on the 2004 bestselling children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. After its 2012 run on Broadway, the Tony Award-winning play, adapted by Rick Elice in collaboration with co-directors Alex Timbers and Roger Rees, is now ensconced at off-Broadway’s New World Stages. This prequel to the Peter Pan myth, created by James M. Barrie in his 1904 play, recently had a triumphant regional premiere at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where it remains in rep through October 18. It will also launch a 21-city national tour in Denver, beginning on August 15.
These new developments for “Starcatcher” come in the shadow, as it were, of several new plays and musicals that are attempting their own spin on Barrie’s timeless story of Peter, Wendy, and the Lost Boys. Robert Wilson’s dark take on the tale with the Berliner Ensemble and with songs by CocoRosie premiered last April in Berlin and will be remounted in December in Paris; “Fly,” the new musical directed by Jeffrey Seller with songs by Bill Sherman and Kirsten Childs, recently had its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center; and “Finding Neverland,” the theatrical producing debut of film mogul Harvey Weinstein, is in the process of receiving a major overhaul. After a less than auspicious world premiere in Leicester, England last fall, the musical, which is based on the 2004 film about Barrie and his relationship to the Llewelyn-Davies family, which inspired his classic, is now aiming for a re-launch in London next spring with a new creative team. Weinstein has brought in director Diane Paulus, who recently won a Tony Award for her current revival of “Pippin,” to replace Rob Ashford, as well as Brit James Graham (“This House”) to rewrite Allan Knee’s libretto. Weinstein has also enlisted songwriter Gary Barlow to augment the score written by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens,” “Far From Heaven”).
In the wake of this Peter-mania, ARTINFO spoke with Elice about the timeless allure of Barrie’s play, which itself has had no less than seven Broadway productions since 1904 — it was the basis of a 1954 Jule Styne musical, which has had five Broadway revivals and several network broadcasts in the 1950s and ’60s, and there was the seminal 1953 Disney animated version.
Elice, by the way, has not been idle since “Starcatcher” opened to rave reviews on Broadway after developmental runs at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the New York Theatre Workshop. With Bill T. Jones, he has adapted the 1972 film “Super-Fly” into a soul-funk musical with songs by Curtis Mayfield culled from the original blaxploitation movie. The show was co-written with Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, and it will receive a workshop this summer at Montclair State College in New Jersey.
What do you make of the fact that Barrie’s “Peter Pan” keeps artists going to drawing board?
I can only speak to what interested me and, that is, I wanted to make it a story about community. At this particular political and sexual moment in our lives, we are operating on a razor’s edge and the idea of somebody who discovers that life is better when you are part of something that is larger than yourself was very appealing. Like a lot of people, I’m fed up with “me-firstism” and “not-in-my-backyardism” and all the other “isms” that make us separate and put walls around us. And that’s what I love about theater. It brings down those walls.
The character in the play is not known as Peter, just The Boy. What’s the significance of that?
That’s all he is — a feral, filthy, silent, and surly creature with none of the advantages of being socialized. He’s been an orphan for so long and is treated so badly that he is the least likely person to do anything with his life. And by the end of the story he finds out that life is better when you’re part of a community, something he discovers because he meets this girl.
Who here, again, is not called Wendy but Molly.
That’s in the novel. Of course, Peter Pan without Wendy is like a day without sunshine. More to the point, our Peter without his Wendy is nobody. As created by Barrie, he is the eternal outsider. Mrs. Darling, when she leaves the children, warily, under the guard of Nana, thinks she sees a face in the window and, as Dickens did in “Oliver Twist,” Barrie gives us the sense of a child of want who is separate, who can’t get in, who doesn’t have a place at the table, who’s outside.
Is that why Barrie’s tale is so affecting?
He keeps coming back to that. It’s this thing that Peter needs, that he can’t express articulately, a thimble that’s a kiss, or his desire to be told a bedtime story, or the camaraderie of the female of the species, some long ago echo of when he had a mother — all those things that create an emotional pull to some long-ago barely remembered place where he didn’t feel like an outsider.
Your Molly appears to be a lot stronger than the Wendy in Barrie. How did that develop?
I didn’t want to write a puppy trailing after Peter. I wanted to write a wolfhound. I remembered that when I was kid reading “Tom Swift,” “The Hardy Boys,” and “Treasure Island,” the girls were reading about Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Jo in “Little Women,” and Anne in “Anne of Green Gables.” I wanted to write a female character that was not heroically redundant or merely in support. This is really a two-hander. It’s Peter and the Girl: proto-feminist, super-articulate, very bright, and thus disenfranchised in her own way. She’s as bereft of human companionship as this feral creature and they’re bound together in that way. It’s the hero’s journey but it’s not Joseph Campbell. It’s Joseph and Jane Campbell.
When you went about adapting the novel, were you at all intimidated by the mythic nature of the story?
I didn’t think about it. If I’d thought about it, maybe I’d have thought, “Gee, what if I screw it up?” For me, the lonely pursuit of fingers on a keyboard is difficult enough without having to frighten yourself with the mythology. And I think anything that has lasted this long must be strong enough to withstand my messing it up.
Did you have to take into consideration what expectations audiences might have?
I think the common shared knowledge of Peter Pan is really fuzzy. Some people know it very well, some people know it only as a peanut butter, some people think of him as a woman flying around in green tights. Hardly anybody knows that the brothers are Michael and John and that Hook was an Etonian!
Do you think, for men at least, the Peter Pan complex is a strong part of the attraction?
For a while maybe. When we were boys, we think, “How cool not to have anybody telling you what to do, no chores, no homework, no bedtime. How fabulous it would be to fly and never grow up.” But think of aging as a rollercoaster ride. What if you stopped at the top of that first, steep hill? You’d never get the rest of the ride. You’d be this oddity — a Moses child never allowed entry into the Promised Land. The Promised Land isn’t eternal youth. The Promised Land is adulthood. Would I rather be 12? Not anymore. That’s why I wrote “Peter and the Starcatcher.” I was writing it for this lonely boy that Barrie created a century ago. “Come on in! There’s a seat at the table for you.”