ON THE RECORD: Can Peter Pan Fly Without Mary Martin?

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Can Peter Pan Fly Without Mary Martin?
 
This week's column discusses the soundtrack recording of the NBC television event, "Peter Pan Live!" featuring Allison Williams and Christopher Walken.
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Peter Pan Live! [Broadway]

You might have heard tell of this month's television special "Peter Pan Live!," a follow-up to the 2013 ratings extravaganza "The Sound of Music Live!" This new version of the 1954 Jerome Robbins-Moose Charlap-Carolyn Leigh-Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical — which was preserved in a legendary live broadcast starring Mary Martin on March 7, 1955 on NBC, just after it closed at the Winter Garden; broadcast again, with Martin, in 1956 and 1960 (the latter of which was perennially repeated); and revived on Broadway, starring Sandy Duncan (in 1979) and Cathy Rigby (on several visits, beginning in 1990) — received a checkered response upon its unveiling Dec. 4, 2014. We are not here to comment on that, though; just the cast recording, which has been released by Broadway Records.

The first thing that leaps out at the listener of this album is the music itself. Much of the score preserves, or at least honors, the work of the original music department. This, in itself, is notable; recent Broadway revivals of vintage musicals often see fit to replace original arrangements and orchestrations with significantly inferior new ones.

So it is heartening — and perhaps surprising — that "Peter Pan Live!" still sounds like Peter Pan. The original Peter Pan arrangements and orchestrations are uneven, as it happens, due in great part to the bumpy gestation of the musical. The orchestrations were credited to Albert Sendrey, a Hollywood arranger, although others are known to have contributed (including Don Walker and Robert Ginzler). The arrangements were credited to Trude Rittman and Elmer Bernstein, although Broadway's two top musical comedy dance arrangers of the time — Roger Adams and John Morris — also worked on the show. For "Peter Pan Live!," musical director David Chase provided new arrangements, where necessary, while Doug Besterman, Danny Troob and David Siegel did a new set of orchestrations. This quartet has done a fine job, which makes the "Peter Pan Live!" soundtrack thoroughly listenable — despite what can be seen as a major weakness. That weakness is inherent in the property. Peter Pan, in J. M. Barrie's play and novels, and in the Disney animated version, is a boy who won't grow up. In the musical, however, Peter pretty much requires the services of a musical comedy leading lady. Allison Williams, who plays the role of Peter in the new version, seems pleasant enough and sings rather nicely. But the character — as devised for the stage — does not sing; Peter must bray. Or to be more precise, crow. Poor Ms. Williams, a 26-year-old TV actress out of Yale, cannot be expected to stand up there and deliver these songs like she has been belting out show tunes since grammar school. The voice is okay on the cast recording, but low octane; every time the music department whips up excitement, we get "okay" rather than "pow."

It is not just that the role was created by Mary Martin, and written for her; Peter Pan, the musical, was more or less commissioned by her. Martin was America's darling at the time, having won a wide following as "corny as Kansas in August" Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. Rather than following this up with another, made-to-order musical, she chose a non-musical comedy, Kind Sir — which demonstrated that Martin, alone, couldn't lift poor material. In 1953, she decided that she must do a stage version of Peter Pan, so hubby Richard Halliday and superagent Leland Hayward (who had coproduced South Pacific) made a deal with California impresario Edwin Lester. Lester had subscription seasons in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a large enough and loyal enough audience to guarantee big money. (Two of Lester's home-grown productions, Song of Norway and Kismet, had become major Broadway hits.)

DVD cover srt
DVD cover srt

Mary had recently made another piece of history with her appearance opposite Ethel Merman on the Ford 50th Anniversary Show, a spectacle so big that it was broadcast on both CBS and NBC June 15, 1953. This was produced by Hayward and staged by one of Hayward's most favored clients, Jerome Robbins. Mary decided that Robbins — who had co-directed Broadway shows with his mentor George Abbott, but never done one on his own — was the man for Peter Pan. Mary also chose neophyte songwriters, on the strength of a song she heard on the car radio. "Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you're young at heart" it went, so Mary tracked down lyricist Leigh and hired her, along with her then-collaborator Charlap (who did not compose "Young at Heart").

Leigh was to later prove her worth as one of our more deft lyricists, but neither she nor Charlap had theatre experience at the time. Nor did the chosen bookwriter: Robbins, who seems to have taken several playing versions of Barrie's script and pasted them together. As a result, nobody actually adapted the book; some of the Charlap/Leigh songs are quite memorable — I don't see how "I've Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying" or "I Won't Grow Up" can be bettered — but the Peter Pan which opened in San Francisco in July 1954 was not properly musicalized.

Given the presence and ticket-selling capabilities of Mary Martin, the producers had reason to fix up the show and bring it to Broadway. So Robbins called his pals Comden and Green (from On the Town) and Styne (from High Button Shoes) to salvage the show. They did, by adding an overall theme song ("Neverland"); character songs for the stars ("Captain Hook's Waltz" and "Distant Melody"); a duet for the stars ("Mysterious Lady"); and some whipped cream to top it all off ("Wendy"). This — and some apparent book doctoring by Betty and Adolph — was enough to turn the show into a winner, but the show remains somewhat ill-formed.

The point of all this, though, is that the score for Peter Pan is written not for the supposed character of Peter, but for the specific voice of Mary Martin. (Because of this, "Mysterious Lady" has ever since been problematic. Styne — who at one time had been Martin's vocal coach — wrote it in order to stop the show with Mary's coloratura skills. Little wonder other Peters have been unable to make sense of it; it is not Peter singing, it's Mary Martin spoofing herself.)

Other actresses have done the role, yes; Duncan was highly successful as Peter, but then she — like Martin — is a Texas gal. Rigby, an Olympic gymnast, also managed to carry it off, with an emphasis not on singing but acrobatics. The problem with Williams, on the new soundtrack recording, is not a question of age; the 25-year old Bernadette Peters, Andrea McArdle, Leslie Uggams or Laura Benanti would have had the proper ammunition for the role. Williams, though, doesn't know how to deliver these songs. It should also be mentioned that the star, and the rest of them, use British accents. Peter Pan, the musical, is set in London — and Neverland — but the authors wrote it to be performed in American (although Captain Hook's songs were written-to-order for an over-the-top Australian, Cyril Ritchard).

Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken

Speaking of Ritchard, the Captain Hook of the occasion is top-billed Christopher Walken. The Oscar-winning Hollywood actor is not far removed from musical comedy; as Ronnie Walken, he danced in the 1963 revival of Best Foot Forward (which introduced Liza Minnelli), High Spirits and Baker Street. That said, he does not demonstrate the eccentricities of prior Hooks like Ritchard, George Rose and Christopher Hewett. (Playing a minor role in "Peter Pan Live!" is Christian Borle, who is not a movie star like Walken but would obviously have a field day in the role. Also hidden away, as mother of the Wendy, Michael and John, is Broadway favorite Kelli O'Hara.)

To celebrate this "NBC Television Event," as they call it, the score has been expanded. "When I Went Home," one of the Charlap-Leigh songs that was cut on the road, has been reinstated. Otherwise, the producers have assigned Amanda Green — the talented lyricist of musicals High Fidelity and Hands on a Hardbody, and daughter of Adolph — to fashion new songs from the Styne-Comden-Green archives. The lyrics are perfectly workable, but only one enhances the score. (This is "Only Pretend," using the music for "I Know About Love" from Do-Re-Mi — with an arrangement that in places suggests Rodgers & Hart's "Spring Is Here.") Hook's "Vengeance," from Do-Re-Mi's "Ambition," is a bit of a stretch; while "Wonderful World without Peter" — in the "Mysterious Lady" slot — is mighty weak. But then the original song, "Something's Always Happening on the River" from Say, Darling, is a substandard tune which might as well have remained on the shelf.

So here we have Peter Pan in which the music sounds especially good, but we keep waiting for a larger-than-life Peter — and a larger-than-life Hook — to come blasting through.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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