Peter Pan's Magic Is In The Pixie Dust

Dec 2, 2014
Originally published on July 25, 2017 4:48 pm

NBC devotes all three hours of its prime-time lineup Thursday to a new production of the musical Peter Pan. It will be performed and broadcast live, nearly 60 years after the first live telecast.

Author J.M. Barrie created his classic characters — the ageless Peter Pan, the little girl Wendy, whom he whisks away to Neverland, and the villainous pirate Captain Hook — in short stories at the turn of the 20th century. Those stories led quickly to a play, then a book. But Peter Pan, in America, really took off in the '50s. Walt Disney's full-length animated Peter Pan movie came out in 1953, there was a Broadway musical production in 1954, and the first live telecast of that production aired in 1955 on NBC.

That TV version, like the Broadway show, starred Mary Martin — Larry Hagman's mother — as Peter Pan. It was such a hit on TV that it was performed all over again the following year, a rare event for television. And then it was performed live once more, four years later, this time in color.

The date was Dec. 8, 1960 — and I know that because my diary entry for Dec. 7, 1960, when I was 7 years old, reads, "Today I am too tickled because tomorrow PETER PAN is on." And before I went to bed the following night, I wrote what I consider to be one of my earliest surviving pieces of writing as a TV critic: "Was PETER PAN good today."

And it was. Back then, NBC referred to its ambitious TV specials as "spectaculars." And that version of Peter Pan, with Martin suddenly lifted into the air by wires I never noticed, certainly qualified.

NBC, the network that presented the original live Peter Pan musical telecast, is about to do it again. NBC is still flying high from last year's live telecast of The Sound of Music, an experiment that drew mixed reviews for Carrie Underwood in the central role but was an unqualified success at attracting viewers. An estimated 22 million people watched that production, which was overseen by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. They've already had a hand in reviving the movie musical, thanks to Chicago in 2002 and the big-screen version of Into the Woods coming later this month. But on TV, what they and NBC are doing isn't just reviving the form — it's reviving the medium.

Casting Christopher Walken as Captain Hook in this new Peter Pan is a genius move. Relatively few people know him as a song-and-dance man, or saw him in the film version of the musical drama Pennies from Heaven -- but he has the kind of credibility and audience base that should draw people to this live telecast. And in the title role, Allison Williams should, too, not because of her ability to carry the leading role in a musical, which at this point is a question mark, but because she has fans who watch her on HBO's Girls. Add in the pre-teens, who should be excited about watching Peter Pan fly through the air, and you have three generations of viewers with good reasons to tune in.

And it's live. When I was a kid, if you missed Peter Pan on TV, you really missed it. No DVDs or home video, no cable marathons and — for those first few telecasts — no reruns. That's why it was so diary-worthy.

In 2014, things are different. Record it yourself, or watch highlights on the Internet or the eventual home-video release, and you can enjoy this new Peter Pan whenever, and these days wherever, you want. But there's something extra special about watching live TV, knowing that millions of others are doing the same thing at the exact same time. In the '40s and '50s, TV had to broadcast live. Today, except for sports, news, award shows and late-night comedy shows, it's a rarity. And the success of The Sound of Music last year suggests there's an appetite for more.

I can't wait to see this new Peter Pan. But I'll have to, because it's live. New songs are being added to the familiar ones, and the script is being adapted somewhat for modern times — but the magic is in the pixie dust, and that ought to be as potent in 2014 as when NBC first broadcast Peter Pan in 1955 and when I watched it in 1960. "Dear Diary, PETER PAN is coming on TV again ... and I'm still tickled."

David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Thursday, NBC devotes all three hours of its primetime lineup to a new production of the musical "Peter Pan." Because it will be performed and broadcast live, our TV critic David Bianculli hasn't seen it, but he loves the idea of live TV making a comeback. And besides, he says, he's already seen one live TV production of "Peter Pan," and reviewed it, too.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Author J M Barrie created his classic characters - the ageless Peter Pan, the little girl Wendy whom he whisks away to Neverland and the villainous pirate Captain Hook - in short stories at the turn of the 20th century. Those stories led quickly to a play, then a book. But "Peter Pan" in America really took off in the '50s. Walt Disney's full-length animated "Peter Pan" movie came out in 1953, a Broadway musical production in 1954 and the first live telecast of that production in 1955 on NBC.

That TV version, like the Broadway show, starred Mary Martin, Larry Hagman's mother, as Peter Pan. It was such a hit on TV, it was performed all over again the following year - a rare event for television - and then performed live once more four years later, this time in color. The date was December 8, 1960. And I know that because my diary entry for December 7, 1960, when I was 7 years old, reads (reading) today I am too tickled because tomorrow "Peter Pan" is on. And before I went to bed the following night, I wrote what I consider one of my earliest surviving pieces of writing as a TV critic, quote, "was Peter Pan good today," unquote. And it was. Back then, NBC referred to its ambitious TV specials as spectaculars. And that version of "Peter Pan" with Mary Martin suddenly lifted into the air by wires I never noticed, certainly qualified.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL, "PETER PAN")

MAUREEN BAILEY: (As Wendy) Can you really fly?

MARY MARTIN: (As Peter Pan) I'll teach you.

BAILEY: (As Wendy) How lovely to fly.

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan) I'll teach you how to jump on the wind's back. And away we'll go.

BAILEY: (As Wendy) Oh.

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan) One day when you're sleeping in your silly bed, you might be flying about with me, saying funny things to the stars.

BAILEY: (As Wendy) How do you do it?

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan) You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts, and up you go.

BAILEY: (As Wendy) I'm flying. I'm flying.

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) Look at me way up high, suddenly here am I. I'm flying. I'm flying.

BIANCULLI: NBC, the network that presented the original live "Peter Pan" musical telecast, is about to do it again. NBC is still flying high from last year's live telecast of "The Sound Of Music," an experiment that drew Carrie Underwood in the central role, but was an unqualified success at attracting viewers. An estimated 22 million people watched that production, which was overseen by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. They've already had a hand in reviving the movie musical, thanks to "Chicago" in 2002 and the big-screen version of "Into The Woods" coming later this month. But on TV what they and NBC are doing isn't it just reviving the form, it's reviving the medium.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For one night only, everyone can fly.

ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Peter Pan, singing) It's like flying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "Peter Pan Live!" The family classic like you've never seen it before.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Are you going to get your vengeance?

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As Captain Hook) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Or you need a way to kill him?

WALKEN: (As Captain Hook) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.

WALKEN: (As Captain Hook) Just little old me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Allison Williams.

WILLIAMS: (As Peter Pan, singing) I won't grow up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As the boy who never grew up.

WILLIAMS: (As Peter Pan, singing) So come with me where dreams are born and time is never planned, in Never Neverland.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "Peter Pan Live!" Thursday, December 4 on NBC.

BIANCULLI: Casting Christopher Walken as Captain Hook in this new "Peter Pan" is a genius move. Relatively few people know him as a song and dance man or saw him in the film version of the musical drama "Pennies From Heaven." But he has the kind of credibility and audience base that should draw people to this live telecast. And in the title role, Allison Williams should, too, not because of her ability to carry the leading role in a musical, which at this point is a question mark, but because of the fans who watch her on HBO's "Girls." Add in the preteens who should be excited about watching Peter Pan fly through the air, and you have three generations of viewers with good reasons to tune in. And it's live.

When I was a kid, if you missed "Peter Pan" on TV, you really missed it. No DVDs or home-video, no cable marathons and for those first few telecasts, no reruns. That's why it was so diary-worthy. In 2014, things are different. Record it yourself or watch highlights on the Internet or the eventual home-video release, and you can enjoy this new "Peter Pan" whenever and these days wherever you want.

But there's something extra special about watching live TV, knowing that millions of others are doing the same thing at the exact same time. In the '40s and '50s, TV had to broadcast live. Today, except for sports, news, award shows and late-night comedy shows it's a rarity. And the success of "The Sound Of Music" last year suggests there's an appetite for more.

I can't wait to see this new "Peter Pan," but I'll have to because it's live. New songs are being added to the familiar ones, and the script is being adapted somewhat for modern times. But the magic is in the pixie dust. And that ought to be as potent in 2014 as when NBC first broadcast "Peter Pan" in 1955. (Reading) Dear diary, "Peter Pan" is coming on TV again. And I'm still tickled.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and has curated an exhibition on the history of television, which is on view at the apexart Gallery in New York City through December 20. Here's Mary Martin from the original Broadway cast recording of "Peter Pan."

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY SHOW, "PETER PAN")

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) I won't grow up. I don't want to go to school just to learn to be a parrot and recite a silly rule. If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up - not me, not me, not me. I won't grow up. I don't want to wear a tie and a serious expression in the middle of July. And if it means I must prepare to shoulder burdens with a worried air, I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up - not me, not me. So there. Never going to be a man...

GROSS: If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR broadcasts that you've missed or just listen on your own schedule, try our podcast. It's free and it's easy to download from your phone app or iTunes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.