An awfully big queer adventure

6th December 2014

All producers, I am certain, harbour films on which they would have loved to have had a credit. I should have produced The Godfather and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. One step back from the realms of complete fantasy (yeah, right), I retrospectively covet an involvement with The Newsroom and The Good Wife. And this week I would have loved to have produced NBC’s musical Peter Pan Live!. To have marshalled a major studio show on this scale would indeed have been ‘an awfully big adventure’. And while I have tried to persuade the panjandrums at the BBC and Sky Arts to try a comparable experiment, to date the likely cost, not to mention anticipated stress factors, have acted as constraints.

Peter Pan Live! aimed to build on the success of last year’s The Sound of Music Live! which demonstrated that in this age of ever-available digital media a truly live extravaganza could attract an audience and an avalanche of social media activity. The first figures show that the broadcast has not replicated the ratings of its predecessor, even if Thursday’s results were well above the network’s average numbers for the week night, so who knows if the form of the live studio musical has a future on NBC.

It certainly has a past with many Americans of a certain age having fond memories of the 1954 Broadway production starring Mary Martin as Peter, and subsequent telecasts of this in 1955, 1956 and 1960. Here is Mary Martin in glorious NTSC colour from the last of these broadcasts performing the same song as Allison Williams gives above:

There is background on Thursday’s show in a good piece from Jeremy Egner at The New York Times, and the same writer contributed an engaging post to the paper’s blog about Tiger Lily and stereotypes.

Brian Moylan hate-blogged Thursday’s show for the Guardian, but even he ended up admiring aspects of the offering:

as long and draggy and nonsensical as the show was, NBC didn’t spare any expense with the talent or production and they really pulled it off. Next time, let’s hope they choose a bit better source material.

Yet Peter Pan and its musical incarnation are endlessly fascinating, as was proved by last year’s RSC Christmas show Wendy and Peter Pan (look out for a revival), and as JStor Daily reminded us this week under the heading, ‘A lesbian account of Mary Martin as Peter Pan’. JStor reference a 1997 academic article by Professor Stacy Wolf (you can register for free access), but also link to a rather wonderful column for The Atlantic by Shannon Keating, ‘Peter Pan, queer icon’:

For many queer women and gender non-conforming people sprawled in front of their TV sets when they were still children, watching women like Mary Martin play Peter Pan provided visual affirmation that a genderbent lifestyle was within their realm of possibility.

Rather more conventional responses came from Rachel Sugar for New York Observer:

it wouldn’t be right to call this year’s NBC musical-a-thon a failure. It isn’t that it succeeds at being good, exactly, but they succeed in making something that exists. I am glad it exists. I want it to continue to exist.

and from Alessandra Stanley, again for the Times:

Peter Pan Live! was a loving, lavish tribute to a beloved musical that offered a new generation of children a chance to use their smartphones to keep Tinkerbell alive. (Peter asked children to clap, but an NBC crawl urged them to also tweet.) It was a cautious, please-all production, but it took guts to do it.

Broadway World has a very valuable review round-up, and a New Yorker column by Sarah Larson linked the broadcast with the night of street protests that shut down a good part of lower Manhattan:

Meanwhile, there was no escaping to a fantasy land; reality was more compelling. At a climactic moment on the pirate ship, reports on Twitter showed that protestors had shut down everything from Grand Central to a highway in Dallas. Onscreen, Walken, as Captain Hook, joylessly threw Michael Darling’s Teddy bear into the ocean.

Sonia Saraiya for Salon also made some excellent points about the distance between Neverland and the real world:

… this version of “Peter Pan” is like a time capsule from 1904, unwilling to do anything to disturb the fragile social norms of a bunch of long-dead white Brits… The result was a lot of hilarious queer subtext — hilarious not because a bunch of women in a love quadrangle is inherently funny, but because it was so obvious that NBC had no intention of creating that subtext. The plot has something to do with all women wanting sex from Peter while he calls them “Mother”; also hilarious, but also depressingly unintentional.

And finally, here’s another – and truly hokey – scene from Peter Pan Live, with a tango-ing Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. Yes, in a way, it’s dreadful, but at the same time it is also wonderfully innocent and charming and knowing and all-round straightforwardly splendid. I would have been very happy to have contributed a step or two to making this happen.

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