Going Back to Neverland: Watching "Peter Pan" at 58 Years Old

News   Going Back to Neverland: Watching "Peter Pan" at 58 Years Old Playbill.com writer Robert Viagas reflects on the many performances of Peter Pan he has seen throughout the years, beginning with the Mary Martin special, which he first watched at the age of four.

Mary Martin
Mary Martin

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Once upon a time and long ago, a generation of children was enthralled by a TV broadcast of Peter Pan.

The date was December 8, 1960. I was four, roughly the age of the teddy-toting Michael Darling. It was just one week (or so) past Thanksgiving Day then, but Christmas was swirling in the air like early snowflakes.

With no web, Netflix, cable TV or even video rentals, there wasn't a lot of competition for kids' eyeballs that evening. Millions of us across the country were parked by our parents in front of our big, enormous, 12-inch TV screens to watch Mary Martin — Mary Martin, who was still a household name — doing a Broadway show for free. The broadcast was in color, but my parents hadn't traded up from our black-and-white yet so I first saw Neverland in glorious shades of grey. My mind supplied all the needed colors.

The four-year-old mind is a wonderful thing, as "Pan" author J.M. Barrie knew. Four-year-old arms may be weak, but the muscles that allow us to suspend our disbelief are ripped and rippling. Nana the dog looked like a real dog to me. Mary Martin looked to me like a brash, energetic and confidently egotistical kid, such as I might have encountered any day at Rath Park, near my house. Shadow stuck on with soap? Reasonable. But there was one thing Pan could do that those kids couldn't. He could fly. I had dreams all the time in which I swooped over housetops. They were my dark, wonderful secret. Freudian interpretations aside, it was truly lovely to fly. And now, here was a kid who could really do it! With the grainy reception on our TV, the narrow hoisting cables were all but invisible. Jerome Robbins' flying choreography made Peter and the Darlings look as airborne as robins. As far as I was concerned, this fairy dust was the real deal.

But the key moment — the moment that I firmly believe created the generation that has kept Broadway alive and thriving all these years — occurred during the song "I'm Flying." The nursery window has magically flung open, and Peter and the elder Darling children have zoomed out en route to unimaginable adventures. Little Michael is the last to go. Just as he gets ready to whizz after them, shouting "Wait for me! Wait for me!," the Darlings' maid rushes in frantically, sees what's happening, and shouts, "Where are you going?"

Cathy Rigby
Cathy Rigby

Michael, his feety pajamas pumping madly, returns for a moment, and proclaims, "I'm flying, and I'm going to Neverland!" And with a fling of fairy dust, he rockets out into the starry black London sky.

And a whole generation of kids rocketed out with him. Many of us have never come back.

Peter Pan remained a part of my life, professionally and personally. I got to see all five Broadway revivals, first with Sandy Duncan and then with Cathy Rigby (several times). Both my sons appeared in school productions, the elder playing Captain Hook in one of them. I worked the follow-spot on two community theatre productions, and in one of them I operated the lighting effect that created Tinkerbell. At six-foot-four and 265 lbs., yes, I have Tinkerbell on my acting resume.

So I've had a lot of time to think of Pan from different points of view.

I didn't "hate-watch" the new Dec. 4 broadcast with Allison Williams and Christopher Walken. I've seen too many excellent revivals to cling to original productions. I always go into a show wanting it to be good. But my eye was drawn to some questionable technical decisions, fine points of performances, that may have robbed the show of some of its magic. The "I'm flying, and I'm going to Neverland!" moment was omitted.

But riding into work on the train this morning, I sat near a mother and four kids who were going into New York to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I know this because they were excited and loud, just the way Michael was at the nursery window.

"Peter Pan Live!" star Allison Williams
"Peter Pan Live!" star Allison Williams Photo by Nino Munoz/NBC

All they could talk about was Peter Pan. They seemed to remember every detail of who wore what and who said what. The show had run past their bedtime and they had tried to stay up the whole way through, but all but one had missed the end and wanted to know what happened. The girl who had stayed up until the end told them the story of the last scene, in which Peter returns to the Darlings' nursery years later, only to find Wendy had become a mother. "But she had a little girl named Jane and she could still fly, so Peter put pixie dust on her and they flew to Neverland. And Peter told Wendy, 'You can't come because you're too grown up.'"

In the train, the girl's friends (siblings?) all looked over at her mother, and she nodded.

And those (many) of us within earshot, we... well, we became really thoughtful, let me tell you.

Yes, the new broadcast looked off-kilter to many of us who are older. But to a lot of kids encountering it for the first time, including Iain Armitage, who reviews shows on YouTube, it was still "over the wall, fantastic."

As for many of us who saw it in black-and-white the year Kennedy was elected — maybe we are now indeed just too grown up.

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