The title, at first glance, appears to be a misprint: “Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan.” The venerated, versatile composer/conductor created four memorable musicals, but 1954’s Peter Pan, which Mary Martin famously performed on the new medium of television, was not one of them.
But dig a little deeper into Broadway history and you’ll discover a hidden treasure. Four years before Martin first strapped on a flying harness, and three years before Walt Disney’s animated version of the story debuted in cinemas, Bernstein wrote an hour’s worth of music for a major Broadway revival of J.M. Barrie’s original play.
In spite of the composer’s celebrity status-Peter Pan falls between his masterpieces On the Town and West Side Story-the score was quickly forgotten, eclipsed by the success of the full-scale musical. But four years ago, a team led by conductor Alexander Frey recreated, re-orchestrated, and recorded the complete score-including music discarded in 1950 and inserted into the subsequent national tour.
The prospect of hearing that rarely performed music in its original context elevates Santa Barbara Theatre’s upcoming production of Peter Pan, which opens December 17 in the Lobero Theatre, into a genuine theatrical event. Remarkably, this will be the first full-scale staging of Barrie’s classic to utilize the entirety of Bernstein’s witty, tender, and evocative score.
The show-which is intended to become an annual holiday event-features flying, sword fighting, and an enormous cast: 13 professional adult actors and 14 children. Frey, an American based in Berlin, will be on hand to conduct the 16-piece pit orchestra.
With a budget of more than $700,000, this is easily the most ambitious project ever undertaken by Santa Barbara Theatre (SBT), a professional company entering its fourth season. It’s also the most personal. Producing Director Albert Ihde, who is staging the show, saw the 1950 New York production-which starred Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff-at age five. It was his first play, and it made a huge impression on him.
The tale of the boy who won’t grow up, his adventures outwitting the pirate Captain Hook, and his relationship with Wendy, a girl who is intrigued by the idea of perpetual adolescence but ultimately rejects it, struck a strong chord in young Albert. “I remember we sat in the balcony,” he said. “When the show was over and the lights came on, I told my mother, ‘I don’t want to go.'”
Ihde recalls owning a “storybook disc” containing some of the music as a kid, and buying the original cast album when it was re-released on an LP in the 1970s. Shortly after he married SBT’s managing director, Ellen Pasternack, in 2004, she noticed it in his record collection, and her questions prompted him to reminisce. A year or so later, they learned that a new edition of the score would soon be available for performance. A thought arose in their heads simultaneously: Could they pull off a creative coup and present the American premiere in Santa Barbara?
Obtaining the rights proved to be a long and difficult journey involving a trip to London (where a troupe with limited resources staged a small-scale version of the show, featuring a three-piece orchestra, in late 2006) and a series of negotiations. When the rights were finally secured, the money raising began: the Lobero Theatre Foundation became a partner, and major donations were secured from the Jackson Family Foundation, Norman Lear, and Michael Towbes.
Pasternack and Ihde plunged into Peter Pan research, obtaining all the information they could find on the history of the play. As dramatized in the film Finding Neverland (which Ihde calls a reasonably accurate portrait of the author and the sources of his inspiration), the play opened in London in December 1904. Barrie turned it into a novel in 1910, and then wrote the script for a silent film version in 1924.
“He kept rewriting all those years,” Ihde said. “Apparently he never came up with an ending he really liked. We’ve come across several of his (subsequently discarded) endings in our research, which are fascinating.”
For this version, Ihde is using the bittersweet ending from the novel, which flashes forward in time to Wendy as an adult. “It’s similar to an ending he tried (to stage) in 1908,” he reported. “So we’re not going far from what his original intent was. We’ve also added some narration from the novel during the scene changes. Every single word is from either the novel or Barrie’s play.”
Like the novel, this production tells the story “from Wendy’s point of view,” Ihde said. “The Peter Pan character is seen through her eyes. She is the one who changes. That’s a big difference from the Mary Martin version, in which Wendy became a secondary character. Here, Wendy is the person the audience will identify with.”
For audiences who love the Peter Pan tale, this production will be an opportunity to return to the source. Ihde compares the experience to seeing Shaw’s play Pygmalion after knowing the work only through its popular musical adaptation, My Fair Lady.
“It’s a classic that still resonates after 100 years,” he said. “It’s a different view of Peter Pan than a lot of people may have. It’s a comic fantasy play with darker themes mixed in.”
“The language is rich and powerful,” said actor Robert Yacko, who plays the dual role of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, Wendy’s father. “We’re calling it an adult play for children. There is a lot adults can relate to, but it also has all the elements kids will be fascinated with.”
Bernstein’s music, in Yacko’s view, is “halfway between opera and musical theater. There is a lot of underscoring. The mermaid chorus number, with all of those warbling female voices, is very operatic. Then there’s a simple song Wendy sings, ‘Build My House,’ which is more legit Broadway-along the lines of ‘Make of Our Hearts One Heart’ from West Side Story.”
Yacko’s big number is “Hook’s Soliloquy,” which Boris Karloff did not sing in the original production, apparently because it was beyond his capabilities. “It’s a wonderfully pompous comic aria,” he said. “The recurring chorus is, ‘Fame, fame, thou glittering bauble, fame.'”
“The score has plenty of Bernstein-isms, such as irregular tempos,” added Pasternack. “The fight scene has jagged rhythms. Dissonance is used to beautiful effect. It’s beautifully true to the mood of each scene. The more I look at it, the more amazing it seems to me.”
Bernstein, who wrote his own lyrics for these songs, did not participate in the opening production. He was off conducting in Europe, and thus was not around to protest when his work was cut, altered, and truncated. While he never returned to the score before his death in 1990, he would no doubt be delighted to discover it has taken on a new life.
As the man who created and hosted the televised Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein was passionate about reaching out to youth, which is probably why he was drawn to Peter Pan in the first place. That and the fact the famously exuberant musician could surely identify with the title character. “His inner child,” Pasternack noted with a smile, “was never far from the surface.”
Previews of Peter Pan begin on Wednesday, December 17, at 7 p.m., with opening night on Friday, December 19. Multiple performances through December 28, 7 p.m. evening performances and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays and on Tuesday, December 23 and Wednesday, December 24. For the full schedule, tickets and information, visit lobero.com or call 963-0761.