Why Is Peter a Girl? An Oral History of Peter Pan' the Musical

An Oral History Of 'Peter Pan' The Musical

On December 4, NBC will try to recreate the ratings success of last year's The Sound of Music with the family friendly Peter Pan Live!, starring Girls' Allison Williams and Oscar winner Christopher Walken. The beloved musical with a book by Sir James M. Barrie, music by Mark "Moose" Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green has a long history with the Peacock Network, airing its first telecast of the Broadway show starring Mary Martin in 1955. After its initial broadcast, NBC restaged the musical live again in 1956, and then in 1960, with subsequent rebroadcasts of the last production over the course of the next three decades.

Originally conceived as a vehicle for Martin, Peter Pan the musical has continued to live on stages around the world. In preparation of the forthcoming live event, VH1 spoke with many of the key players involved in creating the lasting legacy of this classic musical to get behind-the-scenes intel on why women continue to play the boy who won't grow up, and what really happens when you're "flying" in that harness.

For years, the role of Peter Pan has been played by a woman, dating back to the early 1900s. In the early 1950s, Broadway star Mary Martin sought after a team to create a Pan musical around her unique talents. This original musical adaptation leads us to NBC's production that will be mounted later this week. For this new reinvention, there was speculation that a male popstar or actor would be cast as Peter before it was announced that Williams would jump in the harness for the famous role. Why does Peter continue to be played by a woman? Is Mary Martin's impression on the role indelible?

Sandy Duncan (Peter Pan, Broadway 1979):

I don't know. I know it's been done with men who can portray the feminine or more boyish parts of Peter but maybe it just works better with a woman? You'd think it would though — I guess there are the Billy Elliots of the world who can sing the shit out of it.

Sondra Lee (Tiger Lily, Broadway 1954 & live telecasts 1955, 1956, 1960):

I would venture to say that — well, the work was originally called Wendy's Dream — I would say [the female Peter] is the spirit of Peter Pan. That it could very well be Wendy's dream.

David Kaufman (author of forthcoming Mary Martin biography Cockeyed Optimist):

Mary's only son Larry Hagman, famous as J.R. on Dallas, claimed: "According to mother Peter Pan is the most important thing she ever did in the theatre. Never mind that it was a hit, or audiences smiled during the whole thing, for her it was a role that allowed her to play herself."

Lee: In the musical, Mary Martin was just as much part of the growth of Peter as anybody.

Heller Halliday (Liza, Broadway 1954 & live telecasts 1955, 1956; Mary Martin's daughter):

I think it was her favorite role. She was a Peter Pan. I think she believed in fairies.

Cathy Rigby (Peter Pan, Broadway 1990, 1991, 1998, 1999):

I really don't know if the casting is just traditional. I think it's mostly Sir James Barrie traditionally wanted a woman and it's been part of the role for so many years. I don't see any reason why it couldn't be played by someone who could sing the role. I thought maybe they would [cast a male singer or actor] for this new production - it would certainly give it a kick.

Charlotte d'Amboise (Peter, Jerome Robbins' Broadway 1989):

[Original Pan director] Jerome Robbins cast Jack [Noseworthy] to cover me while I was out so he, obviously, felt OK about a man playing it.

The role of Peter made famous by Martin has only once been interpreted by a man on Broadway. Jack Noseworthy understudied d'Amboise as Peter in the musical revue Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989. The show featured various numbers from Robbins' canon including "I'm Flying" from Pan. All other major interpretations of the spirited orphan in the musical have been portrayed by women. What is the most challenging part of playing a boy as a grown woman?

Jack Noseworthy (Peter in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway):

It is a spectacular piece of theatre so you can imagine being 21 years old — at the time I didn’t really think about it but I was the only male to do that on Broadway, even in just a selection from the bigger show.

Rigby: I think the most challenging part has probably been just being the child and not feeling that you have to have any affectation to it — to really find that energy and that stillness. If you watch children play-acting, there's no expectation.

d'Amboise: I was 20 years old and I was just trying to be a woman. I wanted to be a woman, not a kid. It didn't feel right to me. I didn't know how to feel it or dive into it. Then I remember reading the lines for the first time and singing the song ["I'm Flying"] and it was just — no question. It was suddenly like, "Oh, there you are!" I didn't even have to find it.

Duncan: For me, the most challenging part of playing Peter was staying with it. I made a more contemporary choice to approach the role as a boy instead of a feminine approach — as a real boy.

d'Amboise: I remember getting some callouses in my groin area and rashes. It didn’t feel so good.

While Mary Martin's influence on the role of Peter in the musical is evident, the group of thespians who have portrayed the whimsical protagonist or his Neverland compatriots maintain the legacy of J.M. Barrie's work. Does their role in Peter Pan history feel significant? Are their memories of high flying adventures positive?

Duncan: Significant, I suppose but also I'm a little bitter because at the point that I did the musical, Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne — they were all alive when I did the show and when it came time to do the soundtrack they all wanted a piece of the pie, and rightfully so, but then it never happened.

Noseworthy: I, secretly, think I’m sort of happy that I’m the only man who has ever played it on Broadway.

Halliday: It was very fun but, at first, I was supposed to be Wendy and mommy was going to be Peter Pan. My story was, Jerome Robbins, who was directing, came out to spend the weekend with mommy to run lines and talk. Then he came and started talking to me. He said, "I don’t think you should play Wendy." I hadn’t started anything and I got fired. He said we’re going to have you play Liza the maid and I thought, "Oh, great, I’m going to be a cleaning woman."

Duncan: In the 90s, [NBC TV executive] Brandon Tartikoff called. NBC wanted to do a live telecast with me. I was in LA doing a sitcom [Hogan's Family]and I wasn't sure. I told Brandon, "I don't know if it's a good idea to do this televised with an older woman" but I wanted my kids to see it so I said "OK." My kids were five and six, at the time. So, I'm a little bitter because I'm not on record having done it. It's this weird theatre thing.

Rigby: I think the last time I did Peter was probably the most comfortable, the most real — more effortless, which is something I think, as an actor, you always want. It fits so easily, that it allows for spontaneity and it allows for the moment to be more real, interesting, and you have just a sort of history with the character that you step into their shoes, and just feel like you’re safe and anything is possible. You come back to being that child who isn’t thinking about everything else — just in the moment.

Nearly 60 years since its first telecast, Peter Pan will fly into living rooms again on December 4 with Williams and Walken taking on the lead roles of Pan and Hook. Peter Pan live also stars Minnie Driver, Kelli O'Hara, and Sound of Music alum Christian Borle. The live event will be slightly revised to include additional songs and some modified lyrics to certain numbers — mainly the large production number "Ugg-a-Wugg" that features the Neverland "natives." Will the former Peters and Neverland residents be tuning in?

Lee: I think what we created with Jerome Robbins is a classic, standalone. I'm not really interested in what they're doing in this new production. I think Christopher Walken could be very funny but, for me, there is no one like [original Hook] Cyril Ritchard.

Halliday: Oh yes, I'll be watching. It will be strange but exciting.

Rigby: I think [Allison] has a beautiful voice and I love the picture. I think she looks more boy-like than most, even in the way that she's sitting. I think she'll be great and it feels a bit like sending your child off to college. You wish them well and you hope everything goes well. It's kind of emotional, letting go of a role. It's a lot of different feelings.