Peter and the Starcatcher, the critically acclaimed prequel to the Peter Pan story, is a play about flight. No, not flying, which is almost incidental to the piece. It’s about the flight of imagination taken by the creative team in crafting the show, and by audiences that open themselves up to the magical journey.
Based on the children’s book Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play, written by Rick Elice (co-author of Jersey Boys), ingeniously connects their novel in ways large and small to the original Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. The directors, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, present Peter and the Starcatcher as story theater, with actors taking on multiple roles and providing narration. The set is barebones, with locations cleverly suggested rather than defined, requiring audiences to use their mind’s eye to see what isn’t literally there in front of them.
“It’s more like listening to the radio, where everybody has their own image in their heads,” says Roger Rees, who co-directed the show with Alex Timbers. “We’re asking people to join in.”
Rees originated the role of Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and his involvement in that landmark work is precisely why Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatricals brought “Peter and the Starcatchers” to him. “It was the summer of 2007, and Roger was running Williamstown Theater Festival at the time,” says Elice. “Tom called him and said, ‘You’ve got this great theater and I’ve got this great property. Maybe you can take this book and do a Nicholas Nickleby kind of play with it.’ There was no commitment made; he was just handing a novel to Roger.” With limited time on his hands, Rees invited Timbers, who was at Williamstown developing the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, to work on the piece with him.
“There were certain important things we knew for the first workshop,” says Timbers. “Although it was based on a children’s book, we never thought of it as a show for children. We knew we wanted to indicate a world, and let the audience fill in the blanks. We knew there would be no pirate ships onstage. We knew we wanted to use the same few props over and over to tell the story. And we knew it was going to be a play with musical elements.”
Unlike most shows, Peter and the Starcatcher began with a concept but without a script. “They went to the prop shop and grabbed what was laying around,” says Elice, “which was a few sticks, a length of rope, a bucket, and a stuffed bird. Everything else was physical and psychological invention. They spent a week working with interns and developed some sections of the novel. Then Tom came to Williamstown with Ridley Pearson and some people from Disney to see what Roger and Alex had wrought.” It generated enough interest to lead to a second workshop later that year in New York.
This time, Rees and Timbers felt they needed proper text, and they asked Elice to write it. “At this point, nobody knew whether there was going to be a play,” he says. “But they needed words, and they wanted the play to have an adult sensibility.”
Elice wrote a couple of scenes for the second workshop that had nothing to do with the novel. Dave Barry was so impressed that he turned to Schumacher and said, “Is this guy going to write the play?” Although there had been no discussion, Schumacher answered yes.
“Tom, Dave and Ridley gave me, rather courageously, permission to do whatever I wanted,” says Elice. “And I thought it would be fun to invent as much connective tissue as I could between this contemporary novel and Barrie’s original play. I tried to emulate stylistically all of the verbal tricks that James Barrie used in 1903: high comedy, low bawdy humor, puns, alliterations, anachronisms, songs, verse, verbal hijinks, sentiment balanced by irreverence, and artifice balanced by contemporary references.
“In terms of the plot, I wanted to link all the mythology that James Barrie created and what we know about Peter Pan from the musical or the Disney animated movie, to the action of Dave and Ridley’s story,” he continues. “But I didn’t take any of the mythology as written in stone. I was a bit of an anarchist. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to discover how Captain Hook really lost his hand? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know where Peter’s emotional attachment to his shadow comes from? Wouldn’t it be gratifying to learn why the dog who looks after the kids in Peter Pan is called Nana?’ There were dozens of connections, small and large.”
The play was done in its entirety for the first time at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, as part of the theater’s developmental Page to Stage program. “You rehearse for four weeks and perform for three weeks, and after every performance the audience stays for a talk back,” says Elice. “Every day, people would tell us what worked, what didn’t, what was clear, what was puzzling. The feedback became part of the blueprint for the new draft of the play, which we worked on for New York.”
For Timbers, the show at La Jolla was a valuable learning experience. “The California production was a great first step,” says Timbers. “But the design was a bit rudimentary, and there were still aspects of the script that felt very child-like, such as a talking porpoise. After La Jolla, we began cutting back on some of the kiddie-leaning material in the script and decided to go for a grittier, more downtown aesthetic visually.”
A considerably revised version premiered off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, before moving on to Broadway the following year. “One of the things I’d learned at La Jolla was that nobody’s really interested in a hero who is the hero from page one,” says Elice. “So I eliminated the youngest and most feral Lost Boy, the one who was afraid of his own shadow, and gave his qualities to this boy who, by the end of the play, would become truly heroic. And the only way he would be able to do that would be through a chance encounter with a female character, who in the novel and the original version of the play was a sidekick, as female characters often are. I thought it would be challenging to take a classic Hero’s Journey story in the Joseph Campbell vein, and divide the hero into two characters. One would be the boy, Peter, and one would be the girl, the Starcatcher – a smart, spiky kid with the DNA of Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and Jo March from Little Women; these highly active, very empowered, super-bright, hyper-curious girls who are kind of isolated because they’re so special.” Even the title of the play expresses this dual-hero approach – which explains how the novel, Peter and the Starcatchers, lost a letter to become Peter and the Starcatcher on stage.
Through all the changes, the one constant has been the concept: an innovative use of time-honored stagecraft to stimulate our imagination. “I think we excite the library in everyone’s minds, and that’s a good thing,” says Rees. “Theater doesn’t need the descriptive elements that are used so often, when you have real objects, real things. You don’t need any of it. That’s the beauty of language, the power of ideas. It’s an adult way of looking at theater, and it’s endlessly interesting for audiences. It’s also a lot of fun.”