About the author:
Before garnering Tony nominations for Best Original Score and Best Play for Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice made his Broadway debut co-writing the book of Jersey Boys, which won four Tony Awards and earned Elice and Marshall Brickman a Best Book nomination. Quickly establishing himself as the man with the magic touch, the playwright was tapped to collaborate on the book for The Addams Family before he set his sights on telling the story of The Boy Who Refused To Grow Up. Adapted from the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the pixie-dusted play, starring Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat, debuted in the winter of 2009 at the La Jolla Playhouse. The production earned rave reviews when it opened off-Broadway in 2011 at New York Theatre Workshop before flying into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Below, Elice tells Broadway.com about the process of transporting Peter and the Starcatcher from the page to the stage.
In 2007, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, at the request of Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical Productions, embarked on a series of workshops to adapt Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel, Peter and the Starcatchers—an origin story of Peter Pan—for the stage.
During the first “lab,” they worked entirely from the novel. For the second, they needed some scenes, so the actors would know what to say. They called a mutual acquaintance, me, and asked if I would supply some material. Dave and Ridley came to check it out. Dave, not one to beat around any bush asked, “Who wrote that stuff? We really like it.” Tom Schumacher said, “That guy, sitting over there.” (I raised my hand and grinned sheepishly.) Then, Tom added, “He’s going to write the play.” And sometimes, that’s how you get the gig.
I asked Dave and Ridley two questions. The novel is written for a young reader, but I don’t know how to write children’s theater, so: (A) Could I, while not disenfranchising young people, write the play with an adult sensibility for an adult audience? (They agreed.) And: (B) Could I be free to change events, characters, even some of the story, in order to manage the wide-ranging plot of the novel, and to provide practical staging opportunities for the directors? (They agreed.)
That was the last conversation I’d have with Dave and Ridley until they came to see a workshop production in La Jolla in 2009. One way of looking at it, I suppose, is they cheerfully gave me enough rope to hang myself (what I call The Theory of Plausible Deniability). But, I discovered over time, the authors just happened to be utterly generous, uniquely ego-free, and wildly enthusiastic supporters. Lucky me. Seriously.
Roger and Alex and Disney’s brilliant dramaturg, Ken Cerniglia, had already hit on a great organizing principle: Act One would take place on board two ships at sea, cramped quarters, tiny cabins, claustrophobic, dark, wet, sinister. Act Two would take place on an island, with bright sky and big, open spaces. In the style of Roger’s great RSC triumph, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the actors would play everyone and everything—sailors, pirates, orphans, natives, fish, mermaids, birds...even doors, passageways, masts, storms, jungles. They would also narrate action and memory, giving each of them a privileged relationship with the audience.
I wanted to try to merge the contemporary, irreverent tone of Dave and Ridley’s novel with the style employed by J.M. Barrie a hundred years earlier for the original Peter Pan. Barrie used high comedy and low, alliteration, puns, broad physical gags, songs, even meta-theatrical anachronisms, to reel in his 1904 audience. Then, he’d deliver sentiment so deftly that the end of the play breaks your heart. My challenge would be to write this new play in such a way that it merged the two disparate styles, but also connected the dots between the now-mythic characters and plot points of the original with Dave and Ridley’s reboot.
In the new play, Wendy has not yet been born. Instead, we have Molly, our hero, in a time before girls were encouraged to be heroes; a self-empowered whirlwind with the DNA of Scout Finch and Jo March. We have no Captain Hook either. Instead, we have the pirate who shall become Hook, but not until we’re through with him. He, whom the pitiful pirate kingdom calls Black Stache. We have our own explanations for Stache’s fate, for the ticking crocodile, a dog named Nana and the identity of Wendy’s mother. We have answers to such questions as why Wendy’s brother wears a top hat, why an island is called Neverland. Even Tinker Bell shows up, but not in the way you’d expect. And we have a feral creature, bent low from incessant beating, afraid of his own shadow—the nameless boy at the center of our story. Thanks to Molly, he’ll learn what it is to be a man only to find he must stay a boy forever.
After La Jolla, I asked Dave and Ridley if I could make a slight change to their title, Peter and the Starcatchers. “I want to drop the ‘s’ from Starcatchers,” I said. Naturally enough, they asked why. “At its heart, the play is about how this boy and this girl find their destinies only because of the impossibly difficult thing they accomplish together. At the start, the title could be ‘A Boy and Molly.’ By the end, they’ve become Peter and the Starcatcher. Dropping the ‘s’ is a small change with a big difference.” Again, they agreed. Again, lucky me.
This new play about that hero of old, this boy Peter, is streaky with the sweat and soul of the glorious actors and ingenious designers who gave it life, first of all, in La Jolla, then at New York Theatre Workshop, and now on Broadway. With Roger and Alex’s art, in every moment and every breath of the play. With Wayne Barker’s music, fresh yet inevitable. With Steven Hoggett’s movement, the perfect physical extension of the text. And with James Barrie, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s characters and good will—which I’ve tried to channel for the better part of five years. On April 15, our opening night on Broadway, every one of them were front and center, and each of them make up the very heart of the play.