Peter Pan Poised to Fly to Blu-Ray
With the news that the Mary Martin, made-for-television version of Peter Pan is flying to Blu-Ray in the near future, I thought it would be nice to take a look back at all of the reasons why we love it. The musical itself didn't have a spectacularly long run on Broadway (152 performances in 1952), but that was due to a deal that had been struck prior to its Broadway opening. It was to be introduced to the hearts of 65 million viewers through one simple airing on NBC, making it a success of epic proportions.
Though the musical feels very much of one piece, the score is, in fact, a hodgepodge terrific songs by a variety of composers. Jule Styne, Mark “Moose” Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were all put to task to assemble a score that would include the gentle “Tender Shepherd”, the wistful “Never Never Land”, the confident “I’ve Gotta Crow”, the soaring “I’m Flying”, the pensive “Distant Melody”, not to mention three sublime character numbers for the villainous Captain Hook.
The whole project centered around the talents of Broadway star Mary Martin, who had been an enormous hit as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific just a few years earlier. Australian actor Cyril Ritchard, who had a long career in musical theatre was cast as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. The very non-Native American Sondra Lee was cast to play the Indian Princess Tiger Lily. Joe E. Marks would play Hook’s bumbling sidekick Smee, and Margalo Gilmore brought a touch of class to the role of Mrs. Darling. All would repeat their performances for the television broadcasts. Jerome Robbins would stage the production on Broadway and his work would carry over to the live telecast.
Mary Martin made an incandescent, if somewhat androgynous, Peter Pan. Her ability to light up a stage with a smile, strut around with attitude, and radiate prepubescent glee while having a flying harness jammed up her “Never Never” regions, all demonstrate what a true creature of the stage she was. Her rendition of “Never Never Land” remains one of the most beloved and heartfelt performances of the classic Broadway age. She won a Tony Award for her efforts.
I must confess that I have always been most especially partial to Cyril Ritchard's Captain Hook. Not as menacing as one would expect from a pirate. The writing and Ritchard's sublimely comedic interpretation lean toward a foppish dandy, all bluster, propriety and braggadocio, the perfect impotent foil for the heroic Peter Pan. His renditions of "Hook's Waltz", "Hook's Tango" and "The Tarantella" are each sardonic little monologues, laying out the evil stratagems that will eventually backfire in his face. Ritchard's vinegar-meets-honey voice slides over the dialogue, adding a touch of poetic pomposity to this dastardly buccaneer. Even lines like “That’s where the canker starts to gnaw (pronounced “G-Naw”)” are deliciously fussy. Ritchard also won a Tony Award for his work, in the Featured Actor in a Musical category.
The only complaint that I have ever had about this version of Peter Pan is that the children are all written and played like idiots. You could fill a teaspoon with the paltry character development and charisma afforded Wendy Darling. Poor John’s only exciting feature is that he gets to wear a top hat, and Michael’s mugging and obnoxiously-incorrigible factor are well outside the bounds of child labor laws. The Lost Boys are so interchangeably uninteresting that it is easy to forget they are there until their next, overly enthusiastic musical number. It’s as if it was decided that, in a musical about children, for children, every moment involving a child needed to be dumbed-down to blatant caricature and offensive generalization. It was a different time, but children were never this insipid and it seems that the authors had never encountered any.
These quibbles aside, it is exciting news that Peter Pan will once again be available to new generations of musical theatre enthusiasts. For many, Mary Martin in Peter Pan was their indoctrination into a lifetime of love for musical theatre. Her warmth made us feel safe to take her hand and, with a dash of pixie dust, fly out that nursery window and aim for that second star to the right. This is theatrical magic at is purest and a fine way to guide today’s young ones gently toward the fantastical Never Never Land of musical theatre.