THEATRICAL THROWBACK THURSDAY: PETER PAN On TV, Mary Martin To Allison Williams
Today, in honor of NBC's hotly anticipated upcoming TV presentation of Peter Pan Live! set to star Allison Williams and Christopher Walken, we take a look back at the high flying history of the show.
Initially starting out with a score by Mark Charlap & Carolyn Leigh, with eventual additional material provided by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, PETER PAN has a unique and unusual backstory - even when compared to the bizarre historical trajectories of many items in the Golden Age musical theatre canon. Coming hot on the heels of Walt Disney's hit animated movie musical adaptation of the J.M. Barrie story of a magical land and its colorful inhabitants, PETER PAN was actually the second musical adaptation of the property to arrive on Broadway in the 1950s, with the first having come at the start of the decade with a dramatic version utilizing five Leonard Bernstein compositions. Yet, the version that instantly leaps to mind for many today, 60 years later, is undoubtedly more often than not the notable Golden Age musical hit we focus on today.
Created as a showpiece for musical theatre leading lady supreme Mary Martin - not unlike THE SOUND OF MUSIC later that decade; which, as it happens, was NBC's last live TV musical event - PETER PAN began its journey to Broadway at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera under the supervision of master director Jerome Robbins, who augmented the creative team with show business heavy-hitters Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green following an unsuccessful premiere featuring the original Mark "Moose" Charlap and Carolyn Leigh version of the show, produced by Edwin Lester. Styne, Comden & Green ably abetted the production thanks to their indelible contributions - among them, the haunting "Never Never Land", the rollicking "Wendy", the endearing "Distant Melody", the amusing "Oh, My Mysterious Lady" and Tiger Lily's earworm "Ugg-a-Wugg". Without a doubt, certainly the score is as adored as it is as a result of their additions as much as it is for the perfunctory and oft-inspired rest of the score as it stands, both then and now.
Then, in a surprising turn of events, NBC offered to broadcast the production on television, with Lester striking an unprecedented deal to do just that the following March. Furthermore, this would be the first live broadcast of a musical of this nature, with the sets transported to a special soundstage and the show presented in a truncated 90-minute adaptation. With PETER PAN onstage reaching the Winter Garden soon after this deal was struck, the show was announced as a limited run and Mary Martin as Peter Pan and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook both took home Tony Awards for their well-received work, with the songs going on to become well-regarded in their own time as well as the show itself appearing a solid hit set to entertain the entire nation in the following months. And, it did just that!
On March 7, 1955, PETER PAN was first broadcast live on NBC as part of the series PRODUCERS' SHOWCASE and was watched by more than 65 million viewers, a record-breaker for the time. Mary Martin went on to receive an Emmy Award for her performance and it was presented yet again live in 1956, as well, as a result. Unfortunately, the original color broadcasts were only recorded in kinescope at the time so future generations have been denied the opportunity to view these broadcasts in their full-color Glory as originally seen. Nevertheless, a color edition appeared in 1960, with the running time expanded to 100 minutes (but with more commercial breaks) and that edition thankfully survives still to this day. Additionally, Mia Farrow co-starred with Danny Kaye in a well-regarded 1976 airing (albeit of an altogether different adaptation, with a completely different score), too.
Subsequent major productions of PETER PAN have tampered with the three-act structure of the original Jerome Robbins version, yet the vast majority of the material has remained the same. Since Mary Martin, actresses to essay the title role include Sandy Duncan in a well-received 1979 revival, along with Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby, who has toured around the world with the show for over two decades, beginning in 1990. Rigby's Broadway bows include the 1990, 1991, 1998 and 1999 special engagement productions as well as multiple world tours and a video version now available on DVD. Of note, a man has actually played Peter once on Broadway, byway of Jack Noseworthy, who acted as an understudy in the Tony Award-winning 1989 Best Musical revue JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY.
While Mary Martin is irreplaceable, Mia Farrow, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby commendably brought an arresting charm and appealing verve to the dynamic and plucky part, making this a prime opportunity to truly shine for the lucky lady chosen by Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Bob Greenblatt and NBC for this year's sure-to-be must-see musical event, Allison Williams.
So, now, turn back the hands of time and view the 1960 telecast of PETER PAN starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard.
Can you wait for the live TV presentation of PETER PAN on NBC? What element of the enterprise are you anticipating most of all? Furthermore, how do you think Allison Williams will do in the tricky title role? We have to wait until December 4 to know!