Peter Pan is arguably one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time and has been interpreted in numerous movies, plays, and books. J.M. Barrie’s story about a boy who refused to grow up was the inspiration for the Peter and the Starcatchers book series, which has been adapted into the play, Peter and the Starcatcher, starting performances on Broadway on March 28 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Nationally syndicated humor columnist, Dave Barry, and mystery writer, Ridley Pearson, had never written children’s books before. Barry and Pearson, who met in the literary garage band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, were vacationing together when one of their daughters asked where Peter Pan came from. This sparked the idea for the series. Peter and the Starcatchers was published in 2004 by Disney-Hyperion. The other books in the series are Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, and Peter and the Sword of Mercy. Collectively, they tell the story of how an orphan boy became Peter Pan. In the first book, Peter and the orphans who will become the Lost Boys set sail aboard the Never Land, a ship carrying a mysterious trunk. He meets 14-year-old Molly Aster, whose mission is to keep the trunk from falling into the wrong hands, and Black Stache, the pirate.
The series has sold over a million copies, has been published in six countries, and has been on The New York Times Best Seller list. But even before all that success, the play was in the works. Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatricals, optioned the book while it was still in galleys. Peter and the Starcatcher is the first play commissioned by Disney Theatricals—known for big Broadway musicals like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, based on hit animated movies. “Disney has wisely determined that large Broadway musicals are not the only way to bring their wonderful properties to wider theatrical audiences,” says Nancy Gibbs, producer of Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway.
In the play, 12 actors play over 100 roles. The actors are also part of the physical production, often acting as objects or parts of the set. The inspiration, says Ken Cerniglia, dramaturg for Disney Theatricals, was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby. Roger Rees, who actually starred in Nicholas Nickleby, and Alex Timbers (The Pee-wee Herman Show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) were brought in to direct. The play had a developmental production at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 before its off-Broadway premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop last year.
Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) wrote the play, and Cerniglia says Pearson and Barry were very supportive. “All Ridley and Dave cared about was that Molly was a strong young female character. They both felt that Wendy in Peter Pan is a little bit weak because it was written in a different time,” says Cerniglia. The play is mostly based on the first book in the series, but takes a little from the other books as well, as well as some additions from Elice, Rees, and Timbers, so that the play ends where Peter Pan begins. As the play evolved, the character of Molly had become so strong that the title was changed to Peter and the Starcatcher, with Molly being the Starcatcher referred to in the title. Starstuff is a magical material that falls to the earth and Starcatchers keep it from falling into the hands of those who want to use it to obtain power. “Peter and the Starcatchers is a very popular book series and so we didn’t want to lose the connection to that, because it clearly does come from that, but there was something different about [the play],” Cerniglia says. One of the main differences is that the play is told from an adult perspective, though it is still appropriate for children. “Kids, especially older kids who are readers, love the play,” says Cerniglia. “They’re totally engaged, and I would argue that they’re engaged because the play does not talk down them.”
Both the play and the books attracting new fans can only be mutually beneficial. Gibbs says, “I think each of those channels has their own specific audience. Fans of the books are excited to see the theatrical adaptation live on stage, and fans of the play become interested in reading the books from which the piece originated.”
By Linda Buchwald
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