Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Peter Pan, Criticism, and Hatewatching

Cathy Rigby, the eternal boy, in Peter Pan.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed (obsessed) with the 1960 taped telecast of Mary Martin's Peter Pan. She was perfect (perfect) as the boy who never grew up. After that, every time my friends and I played Peter Pan--which was a lot, because I was a really bossy kid--I was Peter, standing atop the jungle gym with my legs defiantly splayed and my hands on my hips. Rebecca was Wendy, Emily was John, and my brother was Michael, because he was the smallest.

When I was ten, Cathy Rigby came to Baltimore as Peter Pan. My parents bought tickets, and I was so excited. Also when I was ten, my grandfather died. His funeral was the same week as the show. My mom's friend Kathie took me to see Peter fly over the audience and sprinkle us with fairy dust while my parents sat shiva with my grandmother. I escaped from reality for those two hours, and it was nothing shy of magical.

Peter was my first love. Okay, just after Mickey Dolenz from The Monkees, but still. S/he showed me that gender was fluid and that happy thoughts can make you fly.

Like so many others, I cried during Finding Neverland in 2004, but unlike a lot of other people (I'm assuming here) I was deep in the thick of figuring our what to write about for my Master's thesis, and the movie secured what I had always known would be the focus of my research: Peter Pan. My thesis, "The Feminine Dialectic in Peter Pan," focused on the original 1904 straight production, but I couldn't escape reading about the musical during my research. You know, for funsies.

All of this is to give context to my thoughts about tonight's Peter Pan Live event on NBC.
One of my prize possessions, and a fab 30th birthday gift,
an impossibly intricate grownup pop-up book of Peter Pan by Robert Sabuda.
One might assume that, because of my attachment to the original material, that I'd automatically be wary of this new production. And, truth be told, I think that there were probably better choices out there than Allison Williams to play Peter. (I promise this is my one piece of snark in this post: I've been dreaming of playing Peter my whole life, too, and I bet if my dad was a famous NBC anchor, they might let me do it, too. The end.)

But my whole dramaturgical and theatre-going career has been built on a foundation of hope, kindness, and finding the love, and I can't help but be SO INCREDIBLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS. Yes, I went into The Sound of Music Live with sarcasm, but I felt uncomfortable the whole time--like I was jumping on a bandwagon--and though I kept watching to see what trainwreck would happen next, the scene I talk about whenever people bring the event up is The Goddess Audra singing "Climb Every Mountain," bringing everyone--including Carrie Underwood--to tears, and essentially telling her "you're playing Maria von Trapp right now. It's not going great. Who cares? Buck up and bring this thing home."

Finding the love.
Mary Martin as Peter Pan on Broadway in the 1950s.
I've been called a Pollyanna when it comes to criticism, but I honestly don't understand why criticism has to be nasty. It can be constructive, but it doesn't have to be mean. Too often--and particularly in this post-ironic media world we live in--the meaner one is when discussing popular cultural events, the "smarter" folks might think they are. Or at least that's the perception. An argument can keep a conversation going longer than a stream of compliments, and may feel more satisfying.


But contrary to what some people thought when I told them I was getting my MA in Theatre History and Criticism ("You're going to learn how to be a critic? But you're so nice!"), one can be critical without being wholly negative. I--and many of my colleagues--prefer to focus on form and function rather than starting a conversation with "Here's what I didn't like." And the least constructive form of criticism comes when people go into an event expecting not to like it. Like finding the words of god in the phone book, you can find anything you want if you go into it with a specific intention and look hard enough.

I might not be completely excited about some things that I'm thinking might happen tonight, but I have to be open to possibilities. I've been very interested in some of the changes that are being made to the script, libretto, and music, particularly with the Indians. It seems as though they're coming at the changes from an interesting historical and dramaturgical angle, even going so far as to hire the daughter of one of the original songwriters, which I think is a really interesting approach!

And since Peter Pan has been around for over a century at this point, it has been subject to so much change already. It's reflected the needs and desires of its audience for a long time. For example, I was skeptical at first about casting actual boy actors in movies, but realized that the change reflected a change in technology and medium: the only reason women are traditionally cast as Peter to begin with is that they're lighter to lift on wires, and that's not a consideration on film. This is something I have to remember with tonight's promise of computer-generated Tink and Peter's Shadow.
Disney Junior's Jake and the Neverland Pirates.
The Kid is really into Jake and the Neverland Pirates right now, and while I have some quibbles with the show--there's a girl pirate, which I recognize reflects female viewers, which of course I fully support, but GIRLS DON'T END UP IN NEVER LAND BECAUSE THEY'RE TOO SMART--ahem. Sorry for the stream of consciousness.  And Hook is too whimsical and not scary enough. But if you look at Peter Pan as an eternal childhood game of Pirates and Indians, each using their creativity to imagine what their "character" would do, it fits perfectly with the original narrative, and is a reflection of how our kids play.

Evidenced by The Kid insisting that he's Jake, his dad (whose real name is Jake, which gets confusing) is Captain Hook, and I'm Izzy, thrusting objects into our hands, and "swordfighting." Or making up pirate narratives, asking Captain Hook questions about his life. Sometimes living with The Kid is like a never-ending improv game.

I love that he knows who Captain Hook is, where Never Land is, and is falling in love with my first narrative. L'dor v'dor.

OK, TLDR: haters gonna hate. I'm going to tune in tonight to watch Christopher Walken chew scenery to shreds. And I'm hoping to love it.