Today marks the anniversary of the debut of the Peter Pan stage play by J.M. Barrie. Let’s take a look back at this monumental moment for The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
Before Peter Pan became a book or a Disney animated classic, it was a stage play by J.M. Barrie (also called The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up). The curtain went up (and so did Peter, Tink, and the Darling children) for the first time on this winter’s day. Learn more about Peter’s origins in this post.
Origins of Peter Pan
Peter Pan is perhaps most widely known today from the Walt Disney Animation Studios film, and while his origins are in the world of theater, the character was first created for a little known novel.
J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, features Peter Pan in a couple of chapters, serving as the first time this now popular character would be revealed to readers.
The Peter Pan whom readers saw in The Little White Bird was a little different from the Peter Pan you may be familiar with today. Barrie’s imagination fueled The Little White Bird, and the original story of Peter Pan focused on the fictional idea that all babies were at one point birds.
The inspiration for such iconic Peter Pan sequences as “You Can Fly” can be envisioned from the very beginning given this storyline; however, in The Little White Bird, Peter Pan himself was actually a very minor character.
In another work, Barrie expanded upon Pan as a minor character in The Little White Bird and gave him his own storylines through a series of adventures in an all-new novel, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906.)
But most famously, Barrie authored Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, a play based on the character from his earlier novel that opened in London on December 27, 1904.
Audiences fell in love with the play following its debut, and the work was met with positive reviews by both critics and everyday viewers alike; however, Barrie continued to revise the work for years before publishing it to be read.
Due to Barrie’s multiple revisions, the script was not officially published until 1928. Years earlier in 1911, amid the success of the original 1904 production, Barrie wrote another novel titled Peter and Wendy. The novel’s storyline was inspired by Barrie’s revision to the play, and it in turn inspired later productions that culminated in the end scene of the Charlap/Leigh interpretation of the story as a musical.
Some very well-known names in the theater industry had a hand in the stage play versions of Peter Pan even just a couple of years before the Disney animated feature film made its debut.
The first musical production of Peter Pan was performed in 1950, and the songs themselves were written by Leonard Bernstein, the renowned American conductor and composer known for such works as West Side Story and Wonderful Town.
Another well-known name made it into the 1950 production, too, with Boris Karloff playing the roles of both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. (Karloff is most known for his role as Frankenstein’s monster in the classic 1931 film Frankenstein along with two sequels in 1935 and 1939. Who knew Frankenstein would go on to perform in a musical production of Peter Pan?)
The Peter Pan musical that audiences are likely the most familiar with today debuted in the 1954 production with music by Mark “Moose” Charlap and lyricist Carolyn Leigh.
During a pre-Broadway run of the show, the new musical was met with mixed reviews resulting in an overhaul wherein the play’s director, Jerome Robbins, sought out assistants from the experts as composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green got to work on the production. Their hard work paid off, transforming the subpar show into the first full-length musical version of the Peter Pan play performed live on stage.
The Women Behind Peter Pan
Women provide a lot of the magic behind live on-stage productions of Peter Pan, with the title role itself often being played by some very talented female performers.
When the original production of Peter Pan opened, the title role was played by Maude Adams, who though often described by her peers as shy and quiet, excelled at bringing Barrie’s youthful character to life on stage.
She had been performing on Broadway since 1888, and following her 1905 role as Peter Pan, she went on to star in a number of plays by J.M. Barrie throughout her career. As Peter Pan became a success, she returned to the production to reprise her role for performances in 1906, 1912, and 1915.
When the first musical version of Peter Pan debuted in 1954, actress Mary Martin played the lead role using the skills she learned performing in the Broadway debut of South Pacific. Martin only played Peter Pan in 152 performances, never returning for any revival productions; however, viewers at the time often remembered her for her role of Peter Pan as portrayed through a screen.
In 1955, Martin’s Peter Pan was shown to people all across the country when NBC televised a production of the musical for the first time. Audiences were captivated by watching Martin in full color right from their living rooms, etching her into the memories of musical fans from that time.
If you happened to see Peter Pan on Broadway in the ’90s, chances are you might remember Cathy Rigby.
A former gymnast who competed in the 1972 Olympics may seem like an unlikely casting choice for a world renowned musical, but throughout Rigby’s illustrious career many today remember her most for her performance in Peter Pan. She played the role of Peter Pan both on Broadway and in touring productions for 30 years, with her last appearance taking place in 2005.
Since the debut of the Peter Pan stage play, the story has had a lasting legacy on people of all ages and from all around the world, and with so many spin-offs, sequels, prequels, plays, musicals, animated films, and even theme park attractions, it is impossible to contain the legacy of the opening of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play into one blog.
Next time you play Peter Pan from Disney+ though, or take a ride on Peter Pan’s Flight, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the play that took this little-known character to the stage and ultimately into our living rooms and some of our favorite vacation destinations.