The project, still in the very early stages, is a return flight to Neverland for the playwright: The screenplay for the 2004 Oscar-nominated Miramax picture was based on Knee's 1990 play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which was lauded by critics when it played an Off-Off-Broadway showcase run in 1998.
The play caught the eye and ear of Miramax and its producer Harvey Weinstein, who bought the rights to the play. Knee wrote two drafts of a screenplay for "Finding Neverland," but Miramax opted to used screenwriter David Magee instead.
Those who thought the movie would be a family-friendly picture about the making of Peter Pan were surprised to find themselves watching a three-hankie weeper that managed to capture the magic of storytelling and embrace the idea that art is a powerful force in a miserable world. And, yes, it's also about the making of Peter Pan, too.
Reached at his home in Manhattan, playwright-librettist Knee said that following the success of the picture (which starred Johnny Depp as Scottish playwright-novelist J.M. Barrie) Weinstein invited Knee to write a draft of a libretto with no restrictions about cast size or approach, except that no one — Knee included — wanted a word-for-word version of the earlier play or screenplay. The play and movie focus on Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie and his fixation on the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four boys, who helped inspired the classic tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up.
Knee said he was encouraged to reimagine the story for the musical theatre. "The soul of the movie is adaptable but it really has to be about reinventing the movie and the play into a new experience," Knee told Playbill.com.
No songwriting team has been discussed, Knee said. The producer is waiting until a draft of the script is done in order to proceed. In recent weeks, Knee has been doing more research than he did when he wrote the source play more than a decade ago.
"I've immersed myself in more stories about Barrie, about the period, the letters between Barrie and the boys," Knee said, adding he took recent trips to the Yale library in New Haven to absorb an exhibit focused on Barrie's world. The 100th anniversary of the premiere of Peter Pan was in 2004.
As in the 2004 movie, ideas about the fear of growing old and the presence of death will be in Knee's musical approach to Finding Neverland. The central plot remains the story of Scottish writer Barrie, the widow and her four adventurous boys — leading to the creation of Peter Pan.
Knee's interest in the subject began years ago when he read the biography "J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys" (recently reissued).
What attracts Knee to the story of Barrie, Peter Pan and his young muses?
"The relationships with the boys, his own difficulty in growing up…his earlier novels about the pain of growing up: I just identified it with it so strongly," Knee explained. "The relationship with his mother in his life, his romanticism — I identify."
Also on Knee's plate for the future is a new three-character play Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as young men, "from when they first meet in 1925 until a last fictional meeting in 1939 in Hollywood." The third character is Zelda Fitzgerald.
Knee's play Syncopation, once headed for Broadway, is not on the commercial New York schedule at the moment, but is looking to become one of the popular titles of the 2005-06 resident season. It's been announced for Maine's Portland Stage Company, Albany's Capital Rep and Michigan's Meadow Brook Theatre.
Because the rights to Knee's The Man Who Was Peter Pan were picked up by Miramax, that script has not yet had a chance to become a licensable property.