EXCLUSIVE: Neil Meron and Craig Zadan’s temporary command center at the Grumman Studios on Long Island has all the charm and none of the warmth of a military bunker. Down the hall, a vast soundstage has been tricked out into the essential locales of Peter Pan: the Darling family nursery in London; Captain Hook’s pirate ship, the Jolly Roger; and Neverland.
On Thursday, NBC’s live presentation of the musical will introduce a new generation to the seductions of the eternal youth, his ragamuffin band of Lost Boys, the proper girl who comes to mother them, and the comically fearsome Captain Hook and the gang of pirates he commands in a quest for revenge. The cast is led by Girls co-star Allison Williams in the title role and the enduringly, endearingly weird Christopher Walken as Hook.
For people of an older generation, the version that NBC first presented in 1955 starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard — repeated the next year and again in 1960 (the last one being the version eventually repeated over the years) will do just fine, thank you.
To Meron, Zadan and NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, however, Peter Pan offered the chance to create a new holiday perennial. The odds of succeeding are in their favor.
For one thing, the producing partners’ track record since their first Broadway musical-for-TV — Gypsy in 1993, starring Bette Midler — is unmatched. Their productions have won 11 Emmy Awards along with six Oscars, two Tonys and a Grammy. In the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately? category, their live presentation of The Sound Of Music starring Carrie Underwood a year ago was a surprise hit, with more than 21 million viewers (less than one-third of the 65 million strong audience for the 1955 broadcast which, it’s worth noting, was the largest TV audience to date).
Peter Pan Live also comes at a significant juncture for Meron and Zadan, who have been producing partners since leaving Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, where they began working together in the late 1970s, around the time Papp’s A Chorus Line moved uptown and dragged Broadway into the modern era.
They’re entering the home stretch of their third time producing the Academy Awards, which will air on Feb. 22 with Neil Patrick Harris hosting. And they’ve just begun decorating the first New York offices of their Storyline Entertainment in the Shubert Organization headquarters atop the Sam S. Shubert Theatre in Shubert Alley, Broadway, USA.
That move signals their deal with Shubert to co-develop and present new shows and revivals for Broadway, after dipping their toes into producing with recent revivals of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and Promises, Promises, starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. With every major studio now staking a Broadway claim, the deal makes sense for both Storyline and Shubert, which would like to occasionally book one of its own shows into the 17 Broadway houses the company commands.
The two men are a study in contrasts: Meron is unassuming and speaks sotto voce, choosing his words carefully. Zadan (whose accomplishments include the still-essential book Sondheim & Company, an oral history of Stephen Sondheim’s shows) is the more demonstrative, jumping in when a point connects with one of his many enthusiasms. In our conversation, Meron took the lead on questions about Hollywood, while Zadan spoke up when the subject of Broadway came up.
JEREMY GERARD: Why Peter Pan?
CRAIG ZADAN: The idea originated for us in 1993. Gypsy with Bette Midler was the first musical we did on TV. The morning after it aired, [the show’s composer] Jule Styne called and said, “I got the family together, our friends, we catered it, we rented big screens — because at that time there no one had big screens — we had the greatest time and all I have to say to you is ‘Next, Peter Pan. And we said, ‘Absolutely, we’d love to do it.’ It took a little longer than we thought… And we like to switch out. After Chicago we did Hairspray, which couldn’t be more different. And Peter Pan couldn’t be more different than Sound Of Music.
NEIL MERON: The flying is the biggest challenge. We had no flying Von Trapps or Nazis in The Sound Of Music. That’s the main difference, besides the difference of tonality. Sound Of Music you can arguably say is a very dramatic piece. It deals with very serious issues. Peter Pan is more of a comedy that deals with a magical reality.
GERARD: The show’s score was written for Mary Martin by Mark (Moose) Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, who were replaced by Styne and the lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green during the tryout in San Francisco. Now I hear that the show we will see Thursday is not entirely Mary Martin’s Peter Pan.
MERON: The show sort of falls apart in terms of intentions and what exactly Hook wants. So we brought in Irene Mecchi, who did the work on Lion King and Brave and Annie when we did it for TV, and she sort of gave it more structure, a little bit more danger. And we found that Captain Hook wasn’t served musically. We examined the Jule Styne catalogue looking for a number for Hook to make his big opening entrance. [Adolph Green’s daughter, lyricist] Amanda Green, who we brought in to keep the Green DNA, suggested Ambition from Do Re Mi. Chris liked it and Amanda wrote a new lyric, Vengeance. The next song we added is also from Do Re Mi, called I Know About Love. We never felt that Wendy was able to express the feeling that she might have for Peter, so we took that melody and Amanda wrote a lyric called “Only Pretend.” And we felt there was never a musical moment for Hook and Peter, so we took a song from Say Darling called Something’s Always Happening On The River and it became A Wonderful World Without Peter, which Hook sings while he’s dueling Peter, what the world will be like once he gets rid of Peter. And going to Moose Charlap’s trunk, we wanted to give Peter a little bit more of a backstory. We found a song that Mary Martin sang when the show was in San Francisco and was cut, called “When I Went Home.” It’s about Peter when he’s two days old, he flies back to his home in London and sees that life has gone on without him. He’s not invited back in, which allows him to go back to Neverland and be Peter Pan. It’s a moment of reflection that Peter was never allowed to have, the most gorgeous song that comes right after Wendy and the Lost Boys tell Peter that they want to go home.
GERARD: How do you deal with the touchy, un-p.c. subject of the “Indian Princess” Tiger Lily?
MERON: “Ugg-A-Wugg” no longer exists; it’s called “True Blood Brothers.” Amanda worked with a Native American consultant to make sure that we were being responsible and we worked with a Native American consultant in terms of the rhythm of the song to make sure we were able to really bring it up to date and have it exist in this year.
ZADAN: This show feels so much fuller.
MERON: We made it our own. As for Allison, we were casting simultaneously a feature film at Fox that used the catalog of Beach Boys music. Allison had done an audition for us at which she sang, and we thought, ‘Wow, if we weren’t doing Peter Pan at the same time, she’d be great.’ And as things happen in Hollywood, the film got postponed, which freed Allison up for us to bring her to NBC.
GERARD: In the midst of all this, and while you were planning for the 87th Oscars, you announced your co-production deal with the Shuberts.
ZADAN: We have a long history with them, going back to the Joe Papp days. They [Shubert chairman Phil Smith and president Bob Wankel] said, ‘We would like to propose something. We want to get back into producing and we want to offer you to be our partners and we would like to develop new plays and musicals. You’ll do it under our auspices and when a show is ready to go to Broadway, we will co-finance it. We’ll produce it together as partners.’ We were flabbergasted, in a good way, and so happy because we had a great experience on Promises and How To Succeed. But we were aware of the fact that we were doing revivals. We want to do original work, plays and musicals…
MERON: In addition to revivals.
ZADAN: Everything we learned about writing and theater came from Joe Papp. He was such a genius. He treated us like he was our father and we were his kids, he was very generous with his time about educating us. A lot of the things we did after that, like multicultural casting on Annie and Cinderella, all came from Joe. He broke down those traditions, he said, “You don’t have to cast like this.” So even though things have changed drastically, we have a solid base of knowledge about the theater that came from working from him. One of the things we have from three years of doing the Oscars is that we now have relationships with every star in the world. When you do the Academy Awards, you are dealing with every single star, and they come to us and say, ‘I’m dying to do Broadway.’ Jake Gyllenhaal has a wonderful voice and he’s never done a musical. Emily Blunt, oh, my God, in Into the Woods she sings magnificently. Jimmy Marsden, who played Corny Collins in Hairspray, he has a wonderful voice and he’s great dancer. He’s going to be a Broadway star. We’re finding new writers, new songwriters we don’t know about. We’re going to start listening to material, having meetings with these people. The Shuberts are offering us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create new shows.
GERARD: What’s the biggest difference between producing for Broadway and producing a film or TV movie?
MERON: It really isn’t that different on Broadway, the producer has an integral role in how things proceed. Peter Pan and Sound Of Music are incredibly immersive for producers. It’s us and Bob Greenblatt. So it’s somewhat akin, it’s the chance for producers to actually produce. Which is somewhat rare.
ZADAN: The ultimate producing job, though, is the Oscars. It’s the first time as a producer where you don’t have to get permission! We have this great idea — let’s get Barbra Streisand. She hasn’t sung on the Oscars in 35 years, and we think, ‘Okay, we’ve got to call somebody,’ and then we say, ‘No, we call her.’ Last year we thought, ‘Wow, Bette Midler has never sung on the Academy Awards.’ We called Bette and she said she’d love to. There was nobody to consult with, nobody to get approval from. You don’t know this until you get the job, but once you’re hired, the collaboration with the Academy is choosing the host. Once the host is chosen, we go off and put the show together and we present it. The show is done!