So Peter Pan Live!, starring Allison Williams as the titular boy-girl man-baby and Christopher Walken as nemesis Captain Hook, debuted on NBC last night, and it was…marginally better than predicted! First, the good parts: Walken made for a delightfully debonair Hook, Allison Williams hit the notes she wanted to hit at least 80 percent of the time, and no one fell out of their harnesses during “I’m Flying.” Overall, if we compared live NBC musicals to Britney Spears albums, and last year’s dismal Sound of Music Live! was a Britney Jean-level flop, than Peter Pan Live! was about on par with In the Zone.
That said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Peter Pan Live! had some major issues. As a lifelong diehard musical theater fan who played Captain Hook in her fifth-grade school production (seriously, see photo), I feel uniquely qualified to point out all of them. Below, we list seven ways NBC could’ve made Peter Pan Live! better—and what the network can do next time to pull off a Britney-sized hit.
1) Cast someone who can actually pull off the role of Peter Pan.
I’ve gone on record in this publication saying I’m not a huge fan of Allison Williams, nor am I a fan of Marnie Michaels, the simpering millennial she plays on Girls. When NBC announced earlier this year that Williams would be playing Peter Pan, I was skeptical that she’d be able to pull it off: Mary Martin’s performance in the 1960 televised production are some big tights to fill, and while Williams has a nice mezzo-soprano voice, it’s far too reedy and thin to match up to Martin’s trademark belt.
As it turned out, I was (about 75 percent) right: While Williams certainly didn’t hit her notes with the same aplomb that Martin did in the 1960 televised version, at least she could hit them, which you couldn’t say for poor Christopher Walken. (Anyone else catch that squeaky fart thing his voice did at the end of his tarantella?) And she certainly looked great in her steampunk-meets-American Apparel Neverland costume.
The problem was that Williams simply doesn’t have the charisma to pull off the Boy Who Never Grew Up. She looked nice, and sounded nice, but as the A.V. Club’s Caroline Siede put it, “Williams feels like the girl who got every lead role in high school but couldn’t quite compete with stronger performers in college. She’s not bad, but she lacks the right impulsive, impish energy for Peter Pan.” Someone with more firecracker energy, like an Anna Kendrick or an Ellen Page, would’ve made for a much stronger Peter.
2) Replace your costume designer.
If you started watching Peter Pan during the Native American musical numbers (more on that later), and you had the sound off, you probably would’ve thought you were watching a Navajo-themed Ariana Grande music video. (I, for one, have never seen Native peoples pull off crop tops and sparkly hot pants.) Same goes for if you started tuning into a Lost Boys-centric number, in which case you likely would’ve thought you were watching a gay softcore porn set in a British boarding school. At no point did the costumes reflect the actual setting of Peter Pan, which is supposed to be early 20th century Victorian England.
While that’s fine in itself, at least aim for some consistency so you don’t distract me with the Lost Boys’ prep-school boy shorts and give me the lady equivalent of a tent in my pants.
3) Don’t make everyone try a British accent.
Most everyone in the cast at least attempted a British accent last night, and while no one came close to pulling a Van Dyke, it’s fair to say that some of the linguistic efforts were noticeably better than others. Case in point: Williams pronouncing “girls” as “gulls,” which I can only imagine was part of some bizarre cross-promotional deal between her own TV show on HBO and a seabird advocacy organization.
4) Replace or cut out the “Ugg-A-Wugg/True Blood Brothers” number.
When NBC announced it would be staging Peter Pan earlier this year, the first thing everyone wondered, apart from wondering whether or not Brian Williams would make an impromptu cameo as Smee, is what the network would do with the controversial “Ugg-A-Wugg” number, featuring Tiger Lily and her band of “Indians.” If you’ve never seen Peter Pan, and you don’t know why “Ugg-A-Wugg” is controversial, allow us to direct your attention to the 1960 version of the number, featuring the flaxen-haired, very, very WASP-y looking Sondra Lee as the Native American Tiger Lily:
“Ugg-A-Wugg-A Meatball, indeed.”
Fortunately, following the uproar over the equally Caucasian Rooney Mara being cast as Tiger Lily in the upcoming film Pan, NBC decided to get ahead of any accusations of cultural appropriation by making two very smart moves: 1) They cast a real Native American woman, 22-year-old Alanna Saunders, as Tiger Lily, and 2) They rewrote the lyrics to “Ugg-A-Wugg” to make them sound less like a white person’s attempt at Native American gibberish, replacing them with nursery rhymes and renaming the song “True Blood Brothers.”
So did NBC succeed at avoiding the political incorrectness trap? Well, judge for yourself:
The trouble is that no matter what you do to Tiger Lily and the “Ugg-A-Wugg” number, it’s still a song about Native peoples celebrating Peter Pan, their white male savior; replacing the “gibberish” Native American lyrics with equally gibberish nursery rhymes doesn’t necessarily make it any better. And because the number itself really isn’t that integral to the narrative or even very good to begin with, the smart choice would’ve been for NBC producers to cut it (as they did with the operatic “Mysterious Lady,” presumably due to Williams’ vocal limitations) or replace it with a new, equally rousing, more politically correct number.
5) Don’t just ignore the sexual tensions in the show: Celebrate them.
Although Peter Pan is essentially a children’s musical, there’s a lot of weird sex stuff in the show. There’s the overt sexual tension between Peter Pan and Wendy (played by the excellent Taylor Louderman), made homoerotic by the fact that Peter is played by a woman in drag. (The Wendy/Peter dynamic, compounded with Williams’ butch haircut and tight tights, caused many heterosexual female viewers to question their sexuality, if my Twitter feed last night was any indication.) There’s also the added element of Oedipal attraction in the Lost Boys’ attraction to Wendy as a “mother,” which is complicated even further when the pirates, who are obviously totally gay for each other, want to kidnap Wendy to make her their mother.
This undercurrent of sexual tension and characters with non-normative sexual identities are evident in the book for Peter Pan and the 1960 TV production, but they were really brought to the forefront in this production, with Peter fighting off the advances of multiple women and, in one scene, exchanging a “thimble,” or a kiss, with Wendy. Still, they just sort of lingered there awkwardly, leaving the viewer “not quite prepared for the show’s other endlessly odd innuendos,” as Willa Paskin put it in her Slate review of Pan.
But if the innuendos are already written into the show, I say go big or go home, NBC. Make Hook even more deliciously campy, and the Lost Boys even more twinky and muscular; hell, stage the Wendy/Peter scenes like a PG musical theater version of the Nomi Malone/Cristal Connors showdown in Showgirls. It’s 2014. No one has any illusions anymore about what men like the Lost Boys do when they shower together, NBC.
6) The duel. Oh, boy. The duel.
Don’t even get me started.
7) Pick a better show.
Let’s be real: Peter Pan is not the best musical in the world. While it’s great for parents to turn on when they’re busy, so they can plop their kids in front of it and watch them zonk out for a few hours, the pacing is slow, the score subpar and poorly edited—I know we all love Christopher Walken, but do we really need at least three musical numbers for Captain Hook and his band of pirates?—and the libretto full of stodgy, regressive ideas about women and gender. Considered as a whole, I’d take a good production of Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, South Pacific or even Grease over Peter Pan any day.
Even in light of the success of shows like Glee, musicals still get a pretty bad rap. For every person who can sing all the words to the original soundtrack of Les Mis, you’ll find someone who complains about its artifice and cheesiness and bombast and come on, why do they even have to sing all their feelings in the first place? To me, Peter Pan has nostalgia appeal, but it also encapsulates many of the things people hate about musical theater: It’s overly earnest, retrograde, and not even very good.
As someone who is passionate about musical theater in a way that I am not passionate about anything else in my life, I commend NBC for taking a chance on the old-fashioned, big-budget live stage production and making it a holiday tradition like none other. Even if most of us are tuning in to “hate-watch,” investing so much money in revitalizing an art form that pretty much everyone hates is a big risk, and a brave one.
But if NBC truly wants to revitalize the American musical, they should avoid playing it safe and pandering to their audience by sacrificing quality productions for nostalgia and big-name stars. They should stage better shows, and they should cast better performers to helm them. They should put some faith in their viewers and trust that they don’t have to lure them in with splashy A-list names, social media campaigns, and “hate-watching” appeal; there’s nothing more exciting in the world than watching live theater, and that alone is more than enough to bring the viewers in. All NBC needs is a little faith and fairy dust.
Photo by Nino Munoz/NBC