William Faulkner might not be the first author one expects writer and one-time actor Rick Elice to quote when describing his adaptation of Peter and the Starcatcher, the current hit Broadway show he adapted from the children’s novel entitled Peter and the Starcatchers, penned by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. But to hear Elice discuss the show, a labor of love about which he is clearly passionate about, grateful for, and humbled by, such a reference seems perfectly fitting.
“There is a line in one of his works where a guy is recounting the great love of his life,” Elice recalls, “and he says something like ‘my foot got stuck in the door.’ That’s how I feel about this show. It became a real passion project for all of us.”
Peter, in both book and stage form, is a prequel of sorts to J. M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan. But even though it provides a backstory for the character, the tale of an orphan named Peter (played by Adam Chanler-Berat), his young friend Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and an irreverent mix of characters that must work to guard a mysterious treasure of an ingredient known as “starstuff,” the work stands on its own. And much like the people that came together in Peter, the show’s history also portrays a series of comrades who teamed up, united by the quest of guarding something very special to them.
Tom Schumacher, currently president of Disney Theatrical Group, owned the rights to the novel (Disney owns Hyperion books, which published it). He approached his friend Roger Rees, Elice’s partner, to direct the work, and Elice, who has written the books for Jersey Boys and The Addams Family musicals, came onboard to adapt it. Rees and Alex Timbers, who worked on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson together, also teamed up as co-directors on Peter.
Peter Pan may never grow up, but this play sure metamorphosed through a workshop in Williamstown and a subsequent run in 2009 as part of the page-to-stage program at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse. Elice altered dialogue so that it would be more suitable for an adult audience, and fiddled with the youthful orphan characters as well.
“I wanted to keep some of the darkness to be found in Dickens novel,” he explains. “The idea of fresh air and sunlight on their bodies for the first time was moving to me, but you had to see they came from a place where they had none of that, the kind of awfulness they faced every day.” He created a put-upon, lipless character named Jim, while Peter was more of a leader from the start.
“The audience kept asking about characters other than Peter,” he says. “Peter was heroic throughout, and less interesting.”
Eventually, the show moved to the East Village’s New York Theatre Workshop, and Elice performed a bit more surgery on his cast. Told to trim it down from 16 to 12 players, the role of a nanny would be played by a man in the company and poor Jim’s attributes were folded into Peter’s. “I ascribed all of those feral, filthy, almost sub-human qualities into the role of someone who will leave those traits behind,” Elice explains. “He’ll become first a boy named Peter, and then Peter Pan, the mythological hero that we know.”
Audience reaction has been quite favorable. Peter was nominated for five Drama Desk awards last year and opened to positive reviews on Broadway this spring, where it is currently running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Earlier this month, the production received nine Tony nominations, including for Best Play, Best Director, and Best Featured Actor (Christian Borle, for his acrobatic turn as Black ‘Stache). Just this week, the Broadway League confirmed is more Tony nominations than any other new American play in its history.
Part of the success of the show rests in another choice Elice made in adapting the work. Dropping the “s” at the end of the books title might seem like a cosmetic alteration, but it actually represents a sea change for the work, making Molly the only female character in the show as establishing Peter as a feminist work.
“If you have this great gift named Celia Keenan-Bolger, such a rock at the center of everything, that’s a great thing for any writer to live up to,” Elice says. “She’s so sweet and so smart and so talented. So I imbued Molly with the DNA of Jo March and Scout Finch, super-smart, active female characters who insist on being center stage in their own story. As a man, I wanted to take a crack at writing that, providing inspiration the way similar characters inspired women of my generation.” Elice was equally quick to lavish praise on co-stars Borle and Chanler-Berat.
Elice’s next project is a musical inspired by George Mallory, the mountaineer who died during a 1924 expedition along Mount Everest. “It’s great to plunge right into something else,” he adds.
Not that Elice isn’t loving Peter’s success. “It’s awfully nice when the phone rings and it isn’t someone complaining!” he jokes. But he’s also quick to cite what he calls the “greatest compensation” of the Peter experience.
“I’ve lost a whole lot of cynicism,” he says. “I remember watching Meryl Streep on Inside the Actor’s Studio, and she said her least favorite word was ‘cynicism.’ She said that it’s the source of all evils in our culture, and that if we could get rid of some of that we’d be better off.”
“This play is very much about a collective sensibility. It’s good to be part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s the chief methodology of this production – the plot and the theme overlap,” Elice elaborates. “I found myself understanding what Meryl was saying for the first time.
“Getting to know these people has made me much more optimistic about the world, people, connectivity. I’m a much happier guy.”
More information about Peter and the Starcatcher can be found at http://peterandthestarcatcher.com/.
Tags: adam Chanler-berat, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Dave Barry, Disney Theatrical Group, East Village, Hyperiom Books, New York Theatre Workshop, Peter adn the Starcatchers, Rick Elice, Ridley Pearson, Tom Schumacher, William Faulkner
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