Thursday, May 27, 2010

Second Star Series, Part 3 - Mary Martin's Peter Pan



I grew up with musical theatre, and I have long loved it. However, I did not love this musical. Though Mary Martin is a lovely singer, this production is not Barrie. Normally, I am very forgiving of dramatic license, as artists who do not take full ownership of their adaptations frequently fail in their endeavor. However, this production claims to be Barrie and fails dismally.
Two main problems are responsible for this production’s failure: unbelievability and poorly-written songs. The actors’ over-the-top performances make no attempt at believability, which is antithetical to one of the play’s themes: belief. Additionally, few of the songs added to Barrie’s script develop story or character. Rather, they are gratuitous songs placed for the sake of filling time, which is sloppy musical theatre.
Barrie’s script and stories written about Peter Pan pulse with belief, and this production makes absolutely no attempt at believability As noted in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, flight depends on believing: “the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it. The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply that they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings” (Barrie 16). Looking at the play’s script, belief is life-giving:
Her light is growing faint, and if it goes out, that means she is dead! Her voice is so low I can scarcely tell what she is saying. She says — she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies! . . . Do you believe in fairies? Say quick if you believe! If you believe, clap your hands (Barrie 137).
Viewed in light of theatre as a medium, this passage is particularly illuminating. Plays come to life when they are believable. This production simply is not. The actors’ performances are incredibly contrived, unnatural, and overdramatic. They make no attempt at believability, and the performance is farcical, which is antithetical to the Peter’s and Neverland’s essence. 
Aside from incongruity with the play, the contrivance is incredibly condescending. The obvious play-acting chosen over real attempt at capturing character seems to be aimed at pleasing the child audience. However, such tactics give very little credit to children’s intelligence and taste. I took the liberty of reading ahead to C. S. Lewis “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” and he notes that writing material simply because one believes kids will like it is a sure formula for disaster:
The lady in my first example, and the married man in my second, both conceived writing for children as a special department of 'giving the public what it wants*. Children are, of course, a special public and you find out what they want and give them that, however little you like it yourself (Lewis 1).
Lewis notes especially the “however little you like it yourself,” portion. He notes that a good children’s story is enjoyed across age barriers: “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last” (Lewis 2). This production of Peter Pan, by Lewis’ terms, is bad.
My second grievance against this production concerns the songs. As the late lyricist Howard Ashman, famous for Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, was famous for noting: songs in musical theatre always develop the story. Gratuitous songs placed for the sake of time are a waste and take away from the production. Numbers like “Cleverness,” “I’m Flying,” and the Indian numbers do nothing for developing story or character, and are thus an entire waste of time. “Never Never Land” in particular stands out because it clearly was placed to show off Mary Martin’s soprano rather than contribute anything to developing Neverland itself. That we kept fast-forwarding through the songs during class is particularly illuminating of the waste of time that they are.
My sentiments do not rise from prejudice against musical theatre, as I do not have any. They arise because this production is terrible.

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