By Martin Morse Wooster: Over the years, I’ve probably seen more versions of Peter Pan than are good for me. There were the movies, of course, and the live version of the original musical that aired on television a few years ago. But I’ve seen a fair share of theatrical projects with the characters from Peter Pan.
A few years ago I saw Peter and the Starcatcher, a play by Broadway veteran Rick Elice based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. This is an entertaining prequel to Peter Pan, once you accept the premise that the character who became Captain Hook thinks in this play that he is Groucho Marx. It’s not a musical, but a play with a few songs in it.
More recently I saw a version of Peter Pan with this premise: “People like it when Peter Pan flies. Why don’t we have a version where everyone flies! You know, just like the Cirque de Soleil!” They held it in a tent, in the area where the Cirque de Soleil performs in Washington, and the show was interrupted twice for performances by Chinese acrobats.
Finding Neverland is a different take on the story. It’s not about Peter Pan, but about how J. M. Barrie came up with the ideas for Peter Pan. It’s based on a 2004 film that starred Johnny Depp as J. M. Barrie. Freddie Highmore, currently starring on “The Good Doctor,” played one of the children.
How did a non-musical from 2004 get turned into a musical? Cracking open the CD, we find, as the first sentence from the musical’s original director, Diane Paulus, “When Harvey Weinstein first approached me about creating a musical based on the Academy Award-winning film Finding Neverland…”
It turns out the Weinstein Company had a division devoted in turning films into plays. From something I read in Playbill, I see that Weinstein Live Entertainment developed about 25 plays, of which Finding Neverland, which opened in Broadway in 2015, was their final project. From Paulus’s comments, I gather that the Weinstein Company bought one draft of the musical and threw in more money to develop it.
I don’t know very much about the British people who created this musical. James Graham, who wrote the book, is an experienced playwright. I gather Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy, who wrote the score and the lyrics, come from rock and roll and this is their first musical.
Maybe it was because of its Weinstein origins, but the road show version of Finding Neverland is a non-Equity project that spent a little time in major cities and a lot of time in one-night stops in smaller places, including Orange Park, Florida and Orange, Texas.
The musical version of Finding Neverland begins in Kensington Gardens, where author J.M. Barrie is sitting in the park doing some writing. Charles Frohman, the manager of the theater where Barrie’s plays are performed is after him because he’s blown his deadline and all his plays are becoming similar.
But Barrie sees kids playing pirates and becomes friends with them, their mother, and their adorable dog Porthos. Frohman also provided inspiration. “Tick tock,” Frohman says repeatedly, so Barrie thinks of clocks. Then Frohman shakes his umbrella at him—and in the shadows, the umbrella looks just like a hook.
Finally, we learn that when Barrie was a little boy, his older brother David died ice-skating. But Barrie was convinced that his brother ascended to a place called “Neverland,” where boys never grow old. So put it all together, the musical says, and you’ve got Peter Pan!
Well, no. New Yorker staff writer Anthony Lane explains what really happened in this 2004 article on the release of the film Finding Neverland. Barrie did indeed meet little boys—the Llewellyn Davies family—in Kensington Gardens in 1898. “Barrie talked with children, rather than at or down with them,” Lane writes, and he liked spending time with boys, not because he was a pedophile, but because he thought somehow that spending time with children would help him reach the child-like parts of his nature and push away all the stresses of adulthood.
“This plan of Barrie’s,” writes Lane, “may have been creepy and pathetic, but it was not a crime.”
So the first act of Finding Neverland is about a writer coming up with his ideas. That doesn’t make for interesting drama, so the musical gives us lots of singing! And dancing! About following your dreams! Because they’re your dreams!
Oh, and there’s a dog, who is named Porthos. The dog, a golden doodle named Sammy, was more interesting and better behaved than most members of the cast.
The second half is about the staging of the first performance of Peter Pan, which gives the show a chance to recreate some of the famous scenes of the first part of Barrie’s play including scenes with a Peter Pan (Melody Rose) in a green outfit and strapped in a harness. The best line was when one actor grumbles about getting into a dog suit. “Why, I played Richard III in Drury Lane,” the actor huffs.
I wondered what he would think of the current version of Richard III in town, which promises twice as much blood as usual and a Swedish doom-rock score.
I thought Finding Neverland was slightly below average. It wasn’t the worst musical I’ve seen but it was uninspired and formulaic. The cast was minimally competent; Jeff Sullivan as J.M. Barrie has a good voice, but he’s too nasal. The other cast members showed why they haven’t gotten their Equity cards yet.
I don’t think I’ll ever see Finding Neverland again, because I think
this will be its only run. But I’m sure
someone else will come up with a line extension of the Peter Pan brand. If that
play comes to Washington, I’m sure I’ll go see it.
 The film Finding Neverland was based in part on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee.
 My all-time loser musical is Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical. Don’t get me started on how awful that musical was!