When NBC announced plans in 2013 to take on its first live broadcast of a Broadway musical with Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, Emmy Award-winning producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were quick to point out that their inspiration for the event harkened back to their own experience of having witnessed the annual reruns of the Mary Martin Peter Pan during their childhood.
The endeavor was a gamble. While Meron and Zadan felt strongly that a live event of this type would generate high ratings for NBC, it was an unprecedented venture that came with a $9 million price tag.
"It's one big experiment," Zadan told Playbill.com in the days leading up to The Sound of Music Live! "We're very aware of the fact that if it succeeds, it will prompt the network to ask us about doing it again. It could be the beginning of something new in terms of bringing theatre to America on TV. Once we see the ratings, our wish list will come out of our pockets."
After 18 million people tuned in to watch The Sound of Music Live! on Dec. 5, 2013, NBC announced it would commit to another live musical broadcast during the 2014 holiday season. It came as no surprise then, when Meron and Zadan announced that Peter Pan was at the top of their wish list.
"When the ratings came out, we immediately knew that there would be another one," Zadan said. "Up until the ratings, we thought, 'Maybe The Sound of Music is a one-shot, where we do one live show, which was great, and we're happy, but that's it. But once we saw the ratings, then we realized that there would be another year. Bob Greenblatt said, 'What's next?' and we said, 'Peter Pan.' We immediately said that was the one that we had to do." "It was the type of programming that we felt emotionally connected to, so when we were deciding what to do, especially with The Sound of Music and with Peter Pan now, there was that emotional connection to seeing it as kids," Meron explained.
The emotional connection with Peter Pan, and its central casting, was another high-stakes venture for Meron and Zadan. The producers knew that they needed a cross-over star capable of pulling in disparate segments of a television viewing audience as they did when they tapped country star Carrie Underwood as Maria in The Sound of Music Live!
Underwood's casting proved to be a move that not only stoked Underwood's fans to tune in, but her detractors, as well. The Twitter response - both the good and the bad - revealed how deeply protective of these classics the viewing audience was and laid bare the brutality of social media criticism.
Throughout the broadcast, Underwood's critics came out in full force, prompting the star to tweet Dec. 6, 2013, that they would be in her prayers.
Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight... 1 Peter 2:1-25 — Carrie Underwood (@carrieunderwood) December 7, 2013
Members of the Von Trapp family also took issue with the star via social media and expressed the sentiment that "some things just can't be remade!"
Meron and Zadan remain undeterred. "I think it ties into the fact that live television these days is all about social media," Zadan remarked. "You can't really do social media effectively for something that's been recorded, but if it's actually happening as you're watching it, you can be tweeting and doing all that, and people are responding to what you're tweeting and what they're seeing.
"I always think about the fact that if people want to say something really nice, they don't usually say anything at all because they feel content. They're happy," he continued. "But if you have something nasty to say, you're going to be vocal about it, and you're going to be aggressive about putting it out there. You can't say, 'Oh there were this amount of negative tweets and this amount of positive tweets,' because the truth is, it doesn't make any difference."
Meron added, "We encourage it because it's starting a conversation about something. People are talking about it. That means you're making an impact – the good, the bad, the ugly. We saw, we acknowledged, and with that volume of people that are tuning in, you're going to get opinions that are across the board. The more they talk, the more success these programs have, which allows it to continue, so it's all good."
As Zadan bluntly put it: "The talking drives viewership and without the viewership, we don't get to come back a second year."
All that talking and all that viewership meant that the actress cast as Peter Pan had to be tough-skinned. Enter Allison Williams, who plays Marni on the hit HBO series "Girls." A classically trained singer, Williams has shown off her vocal skills in several episodes of "Girls," but is relatively unknown in the music and musical theatre spheres.
"I wasn't scared," Williams said. "My instant reaction was, 'Of course, I'll do this.' I will say about the live thing and about last year; today's audiences like to watch things cynically, and I'm on a show that is mostly cynical in tone, so I'm no stranger to that.
"'Hate watching' is a thing, it's a whole way of watching something," she continued. "That's not an audience that is natural to a non-cynical performance. Peter Pan you cannot watch cynically; if you do, you're going to hate it. There's no question. It falls apart instantly. There's a shadow, a three-dimensional shadow. Where do you even begin?" Williams echoed Meron and Zadan's sentiments that there may be no such thing as bad press, or in this case, Tweets. "I loved The Sound of Music, so I was so excited, but the minute it was over, I knew it was doing well because I saw it was trending everywhere. I started emailing with my family to be like, 'What do we think is next year? What are they going to do? I have to be a part of it! I would do anything to be a part of it!'"
Her co-star, Tony Award winner Christian Borle, who appeared in The Sound of Music Live! and returns as Hook's sidekick Smee and Mr. Darling in Peter Pan, said he was actually mesmerized by the amount of social media snark, especially from members of the Broadway community, which he called "Twitter-Gate 2013."
"We all wanted The Sound of Music to be the best thing, and it was good and definitely there were a lot of reactions to it, and we were all hyper-conscious of what those reactions were," he said.
"I don't mind going on record," Borle continued. "I was mesmerized by the actors in our community who were so snarky about The Sound of Music on Twitter, and I just thought, 'Don't you ever want to work for NBC?' They're all reading this sh*t, so it's unbelievable to me. And also, just be nice, I don't understand the impulse to kind of, tear down. Everyone has an opinion. I have an opinion about everything, but I turn to someone in my living room, and I say something snarky and then it's over. But this idea that we have to share this kind of, meanness, I actually find it fascinating and I welcome it. I think when people really show their true colors like that, it's really helpful to me. [I think], 'Oh. There you are.'"
Co-star Kelli O'Hara, a five-time Tony Award nominee who described her primetime musical venture as "a new thing," stars as Mrs. Darling. O'Hara confessed that she didn't see much of "Twitter-Gate 2013" because she was working (rehearsing for the short-lived Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County), but stated that members of the Broadway community are no strangers to pushing through negative word of mouth.
"The thing is when you do theatre, you give yourself so much to it. You believe in it, you have to to do it, and the hard part about theatre is that if you get that reaction you have to keep believing in it, and it's really hard. Some of those people that might have been snarky about it probably wanted to be part of it," she laughed. "I've known this since I was in second grade in 'The Mean Girls.'"
Online or on live television, all of the artists involved said that it was the sheer joy of watching or being part of The Sound of Music Live! that made them want to be part of Peter Pan Live!
"The only thing that brings us together are live events," Williams observed. "No one can get an early release. No studio head can get a watermarked DVD of Peter Pan Live! No one has an upper hand. Everyone is seeing it for the first time. We can give you behind-the-scenes footage and promo footage, but it's not the same thing. I think that's so cool, and it means that people have to be watching because last year there were so many things that were trending about The Sound of Music. I was completely blown away by it. When I saw the nunnery, my jaw dropped to the floor."
"When I heard they were doing Peter Pan, I thought, 'Well, whoever does this better know what she's got. It's a really good role. I hope they take good care of it," Williams said. "And then it was like, 'Oh, that's on me now. Ok, I promise to take really good care of it.' So now when people say, 'I hear you're playing Peter Pan,' the first words out of my mouth are often, 'I will take good care of him.' I just want them to know that I know what a gift this is. I'm very aware of the responsibility and privilege, and I do not take it lightly. I take it very seriously."
O'Hara added that she was thrilled to be part of a live Broadway musical on primetime television. "I love what I do, but it's never been mainstream, and I think some of that, maybe, I bring on [myself]. I'm really excited. I'm excited and I'm excited for the people who can't come see me do my theatre. That's the best part for me. That's the only time they get to see me. It's going to be fun."
Meron and Zadan also said they learned a great deal with The Sound of Music Live!, which they are putting into practice the night of Dec. 4. "There are a lot of similarities, too, this year, with what happened to us the first year of doing the Oscars," said Zadan. "You don't know what you're in store for. You don't know what's going to happen, and you just do your best. Once you've done it a year and you come back a second year, you go, 'Oh. Now I won't do that again, but I'll do this again.' You have a learning curve that's enormous. I'd say with live television, if you do it once, it's not helpful, if you do it twice, you can do a much better job the second time."
"I'm living in the land where all of a sudden it's a great time to be a geek and it's a great time to be a musical theatre lover," Borle laughed. "And Bob Greenblatt and Neil and Craig, it has to be said, they keep coming back to musical theatre. It's amazing for everyone in the community. It's amazing for jobs in this city. They keep bringing it here. It's like a dream, it's fantastic, and I think it's making everybody realize how much they all love musical theatre."
Peter Pan Live! airs at 8 PM on NBC. Playbill.com will blog live throughout the entirety of the musical. Join the live chat at Playbill.com/PeterPan beginning at 7 PM ET. Readers are encouraged to take part in the live chat and tweet using the hashtag #PeterPanPlaybill.