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Why Allison Williams’s Peter Pan didn’t fly on NBC

Allison Williams as Peter Pan
Allison Williams as Peter Pan

Those who followed the largely snarky Twitter reactions to last night’s live musical broadcast of Peter Pan—including, full disclosure, mine—may have concluded that people had readied their hooks in advance to “hate-watch” the broadcast. I can’t speak for all of the snipers, but in my case, at least, that wasn’t true. I think it’s wonderful that NBC is putting musical theater in prime time, with stars who can attract wide audiences. I applaud producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan for their boldness and commitment to a difficult and worthy endeavor. And I think that the Peter Pan cast, led by Allison Williams and Christopher Walken, acquitted itself reasonably well, and sometimes better than that.

But let’s face it: Peter Pan was a dud. Because let's also face it: Peter Pan is not a first-rate show to begin with—and the format of the NBC broadcast defeated what can work about it. I didn’t hate watching it, but I did find it dull. The telecast didn’t have the flop sweat of last year’s The Sound of Music, because it barely had sweat at all. It just kind of hung there, on visible wires.

Peter Pan has been on TV before, of course, notably in a series of hugely popular broadcasts that featured its original star, the sparkling Mary Martin. It is unfair to compare Williams to Martin, who was one of the great musical-theater stars of all time and who also had been performing the part for months before she reproduced her performance on television. But, then, it is also seems unfair to have plopped Williams into this particular part under these particular conditions. Under the circumstances, Williams did fine. But here were the problematic circumstances:

1) Peter Pan itself is kind of a drag. I don’t just mean that the title boy is written to be played by a grown woman, which can be confusing enough. (As I wrote last night, “This is going to teach a generation of teenage girls to run off with woodsy lesbian home invaders!”) I mean that the show, while packed with adventure in the plot, is weighed down with numerous so-so musical numbers, including some very slow ones right at the top. It opens with a book scene in a children’s bedroom, and a lullaby (which, though prettily sung by Kelli O’Hara, kicks things off in sleepy-time mode); and one of Peter’s first songs is the dreamy “Never Never Land,” which is a wonderful song for, say, Barbara Cook, but not so great for a roguish boy adventurer at this point in the story.

2) To compensate for Problem 1, you need the raw theatrical energy that is best found in front of a live audience. The musical famously capitalizes on this by asking the crowd to clap to raise Tinker Bell from the dead; asking us to tweet our support last night did not have the same galvanizing effect. And the technical demands of Peter Pan add additional potential for stasis: The flying effects, which can be magical onstage, looked hokey on television and introduced extra elements of inhibition. (The producers opted to use thick black wires, perhaps to put the staginess right up front, but the actors looked like dangling mobiles much of the time.)

3) To compensate for Problems 1 and 2, you need performers who seem fully free to liven things up with their own excitement. Williams, lacking experience onstage and in the part, hit her marks, which is admirable, but with so much for her to think about at every moment, there seemed little room for the kind of exuberant spontaneity that is, unfortunately, essential to the role of Peter. She seemed awfully sincere for a wild boy adventurer. If some of the score was lip-synched—and in one particularly egregious case, some of it clearly was—that only added to the list of things for the actors to be self-conscious about.

4) In what seemed to be an effort to add dynamism to a piece originally conceived for a stage, the cameras in Peter Pan moved around constantly, giving a slightly woozy, handheld aspect to the broadcast. (This sometimes had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that the broadcast was a video about the making of the broadcast.) As is often the case when musicals are filmed today, whether in movies or at the Tonys, the cameras’ nervous panning and zooming also detracted from the strength of the choreography (by Rob Ashford), which was performed with vigor by experienced Broadway chorus guys—ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the cast of Newsies!—as the Lost Boys, pirates and Islanders (no longer Indians). Hollywood cameras need to settle down and trust the material to do the work as designed. Viewers are more patient with such things than we are given credit for.

5) Peter Pan is campy enough without adding so much to the artifice. In this version, the Lost Boys were all played by gymtastic, manifestly adult actors, the sets and costumes suggested a psychedelic Wonderland, and there was no sense of menace to Walken’s prancy Hook, his purple pirates or their plodding, shiny blue nemesis, the crocodile. With no grounding in reality, this conception of Neverland never quite landed.

So what should Meron and Zadan consider next year if they produce another TV musical as—believe it or not!—I very much hope they do? My advice would be: Simplify. Choose a show with a more consistently engaging score and that doesn’t involve so many technical distractions. Get a cast that is fully at ease performing live, since the best performances in Peter Pan came from the theater pros: O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, Christian Borle as Smee and even those in smaller parts, like Ryan Steele as a charming Lost Boy and Bryce Ryness as a wild-eyed pirate. (Last year’s standouts, similarly, were Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti.) And keep a tighter rein on the cameras: Let them take in whole pictures, whole scenes, whole musical numbers.

We accept the staginess of classic musicals as we accept that they feature people singing and dancing. Let these shows wear their old fashions proudly. I hope to love-watch one next year.

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