Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie once wrote, “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust”.
Fortunately, new musical Finding Neverland, based on Barrie’s life, has more behind it in the way of resources than pixie dust. However, it seems there’s still much to be done behind the scenes to craft a work as magical as Barrie’s best-loved character.
In 2004, Johnny Depp starred in an Academy Award-winning film loosely based on the story of Barrie’s life, and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her young sons, which inspired him to write the play, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up”. In 2012, Rob Ashford was at the helm of a musical version of ‘Finding Neverland’, staged at the Curve Theatre in Leicester in the UK.
Fast-forward two years, and Finding Neverland has been re-born at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films (who produced the film version) has engaged an all-new creative team to translate his vision for the stage. The team includes book writer James Graham, a playwright known for his critically acclaimed political work titled This House, and pop writers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, the former a part of UK group Take That. Leading the production is ART’s Tony Award-winning Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, who Time magazine named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Weinstein, on his first outing as lead producer in a theatrical production, must have great faith in the potential of Barrie’s story to resonate with the theatre-going public. Yet he is well aware there is much work to be done on Neverland before its Broadway premiere in March 2015. He told New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley that the Massachusetts production was a mere ‘premonition’ of what’s to come. Brantley reported Weinstein’s ART production represented a US$3 million investment, with a further US$11 million of work to be undertaken prior to its New York debut.
Pictured above: The cast of ART's production of Finding Neverland take their bow on Opening Night.
Critics seem to concur there’s still much to do, but praised various aspects of the production. Among the positives was acclaim for its stars, Jeremy Jordan (Newsies – Broadway, Smash – TV) and Laura Michelle Kelly (the West End’s original title character in Mary Poppins). In fact, the Boston Globe’s Joel Brown noted that their performances were good enough to allow Neverland to delve deeper into its central themes. Brown suggested the themes and relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family was oversimplified, drawing an unfavourable comparison to a Disney musical. But, as Brantley noted, some of Broadway’s most successful shows are pitched to preadolescents, notably Wicked and The Lion King. Is there a choice to be made between heightening commercial appeal to key audiences and striving for greater artistry and depth?
Response to the musical score was mixed, with Brantley describing some songs as “soaringly inspirational”, while Jeremy Gerard of Deadline described the score as “mostly bland and forgettable”.
Regardless of how the show will be reworked for Broadway, clearly Weinstein, Paulus and co. are committed to investing time and resources in developing a production that will have theatregoers (including all-important Tony committee members) buzzing in 2015. And the current season at ART is facilitating exactly the kind of producer-audience dialogue the show needs to get its best shot at future success.
ART, a professional not-for-profit theatre housed within Harvard, has been described as an ‘incubator’ for Broadway shows. Several recent Broadway hits were tested with ART audiences. A spectacular revamp of Pippin, with Paulus again in the director’s chair, opened at ART, ultimately going on to win 4 Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival and Best Director for Paulus (a production is planned for Australia in 2015). ART’s production of All the Way, the story of Lyndon B. Johnston’s presidency, won Tonys for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actor (for Bryan Cranston as LBJ). HBO has just acquired the rights to adapt All the Way for TV, with Cranston to reprise his Tony-winning role.
Given ART’s recent success as a gestation ground for hits, it seems fair to be hopeful that the Neverland team’s hard work over the coming months will deliver critics and audiences the magic they want to see.