The commercials have begun, and it’s sure to be worthwhile, but for anyone who was there five-plus decades ago for the Mary Martin-Cyril Ritchard television versions of Peter Pan, the new one starring Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, to be shown live Dec. 4 on NBC, can’t possibly equal, let alone surpass a true TV classic.
Rather, it’s bound to be, at best, like last year’s The Sound of Music, in which Carrie Underwood acquitted herself okay in the role of Maria, also made famous first on Broadway by Mary Martin, and by Julie Andrews in the beloved film version. The Underwood production as a whole was fine, fun, and a successful return to television of live theatrical performance, so successful that it spawned Peter Pan. And like the Underwood production, it really doesn’t matter whether Williams or even Walken—an inspired casting—are good enough or even any good: At worst, viewers will enjoy the heart-tugging songs by the great composers and lyricists Mark “Moose” Charlap, Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and spoken lines like Peter’s “I don’t want to grow up and learn about solemn things. I just always want to be a little boy and have fun!”
But instead of waiting until Thursday night, why not head over to YouTube to watch the Martin/Ritchard version of the boy who won’t grow up, then see for yourself how it stands up? True, the video quality isn’t up to today’s standards–it is 1960, after all. But the production—set design, costumes, choreography (by Jerome Robbins), orchestrations, and above all else, singing and acting, are flawless and unforgettable.
Actually, the 1960 TV production was the third, following 1955 and 1956 versions of the 1954 Broadway production that brought Tony Awards to both Martin and Ritchard, who unlike Walken, played both Hook and Mr. Darling, the children’s delightfully forlorn father. Martin also won an Emmy for the 1955 TV version.
The same cast returned in 1960 except for the kids, who had grown, ironically but inevitably. It was rebroadcast several times after, and released on home video in the ’90s. Today, sadly, all the key players are gone, save for Sondra Lee, who played Tiger Lily. Now 82 and living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lee once coached Jane Fonda and teaches at the Actors’ Studio.
But they all live on, appropriately in eternal youth, on YouTube.
“Didn’t get past 13 minutes before I sobbed,” wrote one viewer. “Nostalgia just hit me inside like I’ve never felt. I’ll never be 6 years old again.”
“When i was a kid i used to dance to the tiger lily dance haha,” wrote another. And a third: “I know every word by heart! Hooray for the kids born in the 50’s…To love this show and wonderful music, How sad to be a kid today..with no imagination…I never grew up, thanks to this story!”
The poignancy of the Peter Pan story was brought home in this comment: “I’ll have to admit, the ending is kind of sad. Reminds us of the child that tends to die in many of us.”
Indeed, Peter Pan ends with Peter returning years later to the Darling household only to find that Wendy, the eldest daughter who loved him but chose to return home to her family from Peter’s magical island Neverland.
“I’m old Peter, I’m ever so much more than 20. I grew up a long time ago,” she tells him, no longer able to fly back with him again to do his spring cleaning and tell him more stories. But see if you don’t cry with her as her daughter Jane, who looks and talks exactly as her mother did when she first met Peter, flies away with him in her place.
And see if you don’t clap along with fairy-believing children everywhere when Peter enlists their help in reviving the poisoned Tinker Bell, and when he declares, victoriously, to Captain Hook, “I am youth! I am joy! I am freedom!”
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