Irene Mecchi knows how to create entertainment that speaks to modern families: She was the co-screenwriter of several hit Disney movies ("The Lion King," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Brave" and "Hercules" to name a few) and earned a Tony Award nomination alongside co-author Roger Allers for adapting The Lion King for the stage. Mecchi also wrote the teleplay for the 1999 TV movie of Annie, and has now adapted the Broadway stalwart Peter Pan into Peter Pan Live!, set to air Dec. 4 on NBC.
After a late night of rehearsals on the sound stages, Mecchi spoke with Playbill.com about adapting a classic, making it speak to modern audiences and finding the universal qualities that have made Peter Pan, Wendy, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell so beloved for more than 100 years.
What was it like to work on this project?
IM: I've worked with the producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan on Annie back in the day, and we started working on this project hoping we could look at the source material and refresh it a little bit. When you look at an older piece, you go, "Hah! We can open this up. Add a new song here. We could reconnect some of the emotion that was always there, but maybe needs a little more attention." And that's been the fun of it: Trying to keep it pretty much the same but refreshing it so no one will notice it except to say, "Hey, I never thought of it like that before."
That's my main goal, and also to revisit the extraordinary wit of J.M. Barrie and try to work more with that—especially with the Captain Hook character, because Mr. Walken has been doing great with the delicious wordplay from the original source and the original songs that are just so much fun. And the third thing was the emotion; to examine Peter for both his boyishness and his fear of nothing except feelings—which I think is very relatable to contemporary audiences. And also, Wendy. I've been fascinated with her as a very pivotal character in the piece, because she is the one who actually grows up, and I wanted to explore her in a way that when Peter comes back, you see that she is a grown up and how she dealt with it.
What makes this story and this musical so popular across the ages for more than 100 years?
IM: The characters are so unique, and you have the boyish kinetic energy of Peter; you've got the delicious villain in Captain Hook and the balance of his evil plot and his buffoonery. The whole question of "What does it mean to grow up?" is something that every generation faces. I think that is something that everyone can relate to now. A character like Peter who was traumatized as a kid and who has cut off his feelings is extremely relatable. And good humor should stand the test of time. True humor and good emotions are all the things that make it a classic.
What was it like to adapt this script that's been seen on TV so many times? What was your main concern?
IM: I adapted The Lion King with Roger Allers—we worked on the film. He was a co-director, and when we started working with Julie Taymor, we had the same approach: You look at the material that looks like it's written in stone, and you want to respect it, but you want to "plus" it in places that need shoring up. It was the same thing with Annie, we didn't do much structural changing.
In a way, my collaborator in the early days was the Barrie material. We went back to the novel he wrote, to the stage play he wrote and, of course, the glorious Broadway libretto that audiences are still seeing. And we tried to resonate the truth of character and the style of the wit. We tried to make a cohesive, compelling story, which is always the goal when you adapt—especially when you adapt something that audiences know.
There are a couple moments we decided to musicalize. It's the old, "If you can't say it, sing it" rule if the emotion is there, and I think giving Wendy a moment to express her feelings for Peter was a great opportunity to deepen the material. And the first duo when Hook and Pan see each other for the first time in our story—could you do something that was both a competition and entertainment? That, to me, is the real fun for the audience—to see that we've got the same story, but there are some nooks and crannies that we can explore and make bigger.
Also, in terms of what Rob Ashford has done, taking ideas and putting them into dance—and some of the movement was there in the original—but his style is so dynamic and poetic and fresh, that even though the piece is set in 1904, the dances are as fresh as anything on Broadway today. It's a balance of nostalgia for the piece and respect for the original author, and "What would a contemporary audience find engaging?"
I also went through the book looking for all the great "Odds, Bobs, Hammer and Tongs" expressions that Hook uses, and I found a few more to pepper through it. So it's the same story, but with a fresh coat of paint.
What was it like to have Amanda Green, original co-lyricist Adolph Green's daughter, involved in the project?
IM: She understands and respects and totally knows her father's catalogue. And she, in her own right, is an extraordinarily gifted musician. It's resonating the past with a foot in the present: She's collaborating with her [late] dad and his catalogue, just after [what would have been] his 100th birthday. They sang and had cake on set! It was great. It's wonderful when these legacy projects get a fresh look.
Tell me about the new songs. How were they chosen? How were they adapted?
IM: That's better discussed by Neil Meron and Amanda Green. My job was to make the story say, "At this point, this is what we need a song to say," and they were the extraordinarily gifted people who found the songs. One they've shown a lot in the previews is "Vengeance." Captain Hook has his "I Want" song, and I think it's a total home run. Not only are the lyrics telling you his story, but the choreography is fantastic! Such a surprise! It's a true collaboration in terms of the story and song and melody and lyric, telling the story with great color and flavor.
When the musical was in previews in San Francisco, there was a song that Peter sang ["When I Went Home"] explaining why he would never return to London. The lyric absolutely resonates with the J.M. Barrie story. When Allison [Williams] sings it now, it's so beautiful. Again, it's that kind of moment where we're able to hit the emotions that were always there, but just in a different way.
How have you made the character of Tiger Lily acceptable for a 21st century audience?
IM: The actress that we cast has some Cherokee blood, and Amanda met with Jerod Tate, a Native American advisor for the song that used to be "Ugg-a-Wugg." He said, "There are three words we don't like using: Ugg, A, Wugg." So Amanda came up with a wonderful substitution for that lyric that is a real Native American phrase. They're a unique group, but we're letting the audience decide who they are. And she's a great character! I love her!
I see her as a good, strong leader, and her relationship with Peter is part of the triangle of Wendy/Tinkerbell/Tiger Lily—all the girls in Peter's world. She loves this fantasy land where they live. Those were two very strong characteristics for the audience to see. It had less to do with her ethnicity and more to do with the character. Is she interesting and compelling and entertaining? I care more that she's a leader than anything else, and she has a sense of humor, too. So we have two great heroines—Wendy and Tiger Lily—playing opposite our other leader, Peter. Those are the attributes that make her interesting.
How does this story fit with modern sensibilities regarding women's roles—for example, Wendy as a mother—and women's roles onstage, in that Peter is always played by a female?
IM: I didn't want to think too hard about a female playing Peter, since that's been done since the play was born. For me, it's Wendy's character arc of where she starts in the story that's relatable to audiences: She's a girl on the cusp of adulthood, and what role will she take on? And then, having a chance to escape to a place that's not like London at all with this really unique character, and trying out the role of mother, discovering she probably has feelings for Peter, and then realizing (like many of us in a relationship) that it won't work out, so she moves on. To me, the heroic side of Wendy is that when she moves on, there's no bitterness or resentment. She has accepted her decision and Peter's. That is what I [related] to.
Will these changes be in future productions of the musical?
IM: Everything feels organic and only adds to the emotion and entertainment of the piece. If I can find a way to put them in existing productions, that would be great. We did that with The Lion King with great success—sometimes when a piece looks like it's written in stone and you revisit it, you see you can explore this moment with music or dance, enrich it or up the entertainment value or deepen the emotion. Each of these songs serves that purpose in a really nice way. So whatever the fates decide, I'm not on that panel! I'll be on my next project! That's the life we have!