While there’s little value in adding one small voice to a tremendous chorus of disapproval, I found myself referencing the recent Peter Pan on TV to my college students. And there wasn’t time to point out errors they could learn from. So I just hurriedly suggested they compare the Mary Martin broadcast.
A colleague was worried that, although her video recorder was set, her husband and son would likely turn the channel to some Knicks game. I assured her there’s no way they’d want to see the game, because the Knicks were replacing their center that night with an athlete who’d never played basketball before. And who the hell would want to see that?
She didn’t get the joke.
Like last year’s live The Sound of Music, NBC has again cast a live telecast of a musical with someone who’s never done a musical before, which makes exactly as much sense as a basketball team relying on a baseball player to lead. Allison Williams, whose father happens to be the network’s most famous face, was handed the role originally built around the very specific talents of the pre-eminent musical theatre star, Mary Martin. (Few have remarked that The Sound of Music was also a Martin vehicle, which might indicate that next year we’ll get Claire Danes in South Pacific.)
Peter Pan has a checkered history. Its pre-Broadway try-out was troubled enough that more experienced songwriters were called in for last-minute doctoring. When that happens, the doctors can rarely save the patient, but, in this case, they did. And, to my ears, the score doesn’t sound like the product of seven different creators: it’s all of a piece. This surely had something to do with the greatest genius to ever shape the writing of a show (without writing himself), director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. It takes considerable hubris to restage what Robbins wrought, but Rob Ashford, who’s previously supplanted choreography by Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, likes to roll the dice. (And often craps out.)
Certain choices were made back in the day, and you can be sure they were made for a good reason. Peter Pan would sing most of the show’s songs. Why? Because people loved to hear Mary Martin sing. Warmth was her long suit. She was, on stage, naturally lovable. Captain Hook needed to be a villain whose perfidy makes you laugh, and the decision was made to go for the high camp that was the long suit of Cyril Ritchard. Key to the emotional underpinning of a rather slight story was having Ritchard double as the father of the Darling kids. So, on Neverland, they’re battling a funhouse mirror image of their foe at home.
NBC, this time, had the actor playing Mr. Darling double as Hook’s assistant, Smee, whom the children barely see. (It’s Christian Borle, star of many a musical, who won a Tony Award for playing a character based on – guess if you don’t know! – Captain Hook.) Christopher Walken, the movie star who, early in his career, did theatre and musicals, was unable to summon the energy required to be a fun foe. I half expected him to answer “What tempo, Captain?” with “A dirge.”
But in a three-hour extravaganza that failed in almost every possible way, nothing was more damaging than the performance of Allison Williams. And, in opposition to Walken, you could tell she’d worked on it, practiced, had hopes of being good. She’s learned all the notes, never makes an unpleasant sound. But, to use the title of another Styne/Comden & Green song, being good isn’t good enough. This is a star vehicle, so let’s talk about star quality.
Mary Martin flashed an adorable smile. She knows she’s a star (and Peter Pan is charmingly conceited) and moves like she owns the stage. You love me, you came here to see me, and I will give my all to entertain you, she seems to say. Williams is the A student who couldn’t come close to winning Miss Congeniality. She never personalizes a line, or comes up with an interesting phrasing of the music. Strings of quarter notes sound like just that. Martin plays with rhythms to make lines like I think it’s sweet I have fingers and feet I can wiggle and wag utterly endearing. She’s actress enough to put a little wiggle into her wiggle. Williams, heretofore only known as an actress on a contemporary cable show, dutifully sings wiggle as two unadorned quarter notes. This means she has no particular color, no personality, nothing to make us love her. In the huge litany of things that made a three-hour TV program seem like six or ten, Williams inability to project lovability is Problem One.
Star Quality is not something everybody can learn. And a thought about Mary Martin that’s sticking with me is that the Texas gal had great warmth. When you write a Mary Martin musical, it makes perfect sense to build upon that warmth, to rely upon it, to feature it. So, last year’s NBC live debacle, The Sound of Music, was insufficiently warm: the non-actress in the lead role had not a whit of it. This year’s NBC live debacle shifts the burden of being warm on its Wendy, played by a young soprano who’s actually played the lead in a Broadway musical, Taylor Louderman. I thought the added love ballad for her was fairly fetching. (It’s a rewrite of Styne/Comden & Green’s I Know About Love with totally new lyrics by Green’s daughter, Amanda.) But back when Peter Pan was being patched together out of town, Styne was aware – from their Hollywood days – that Mary Martin possessed a coloratura soprano. And so they seized the opportunity to utilize it in a duet for the leads.
And that’s how you write a star vehicle, folks. (Of course this was omitted from NBC’s new-but-not-improved version.)