Thursday, October 24, 2013

Okay to be in Neverland

I had thought I was reasonably well-versed in professional productions of J. M. Barrie's famous play, so it was a real surprise to discover that Leonard Bernstein wrote the songs for a rarely-performed production of Peter Pan, starring Boris Karloff as Captain Hook and Jean Arthur as Peter.

Wendy was played by Marcia Henderson, an actress who had been encouraged to pursue a stage career by writer Sinclair Lewis. The show premiered April 24, 1950, starred Boris Karloff as Hook and Jean Arthur as Peter, and was a success at the time. But it was swiftly eclipsed by the 1954 Broadway Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, the 1953 Disney film, and Bernstein's own works, including of course West Side Story. The fact that the production included songs only for Hook, Wendy, two mermaids, and a pirate chorus probably didn't help.

"Invited to provide only a few dances and incidental cues, [Bernstein] found himself 'losing his head' and surprised the producers by writing seven songs as well, including original lyrics," writes Garth Edwin Sunderland in Prelude, Fugue & Riffs, a publication of the Leonard Bernstein Society.

But "Bernstein was in Europe during the rehearsal period for the show, unable to participate in the creative process as he usually would for a new theatre work." He commissioned a friend, composer Marc Blitzstein to help with the score, which also included instrumental music by Alec Wilder. Many changes in the production occurred between its writing and performance, including the omission of "Captain Hook's Soliloquy" and "Dream With Me," which weren't performed due to the vocal limitations of the cast. The final production comprised five vocal pieces--Bernstein's "arias"--and incidental music.

 Jerome Robbins was originally tapped to direct, but as Jean Arthur was not a singer, he was replaced by English director John Burrell at Arthur's request, and the production was scaled down from a full musical to "a fantasy with music." (Peter Pan on Stage and Screen 1904-2010, Bruce K. Hanson)

Only small-scale productions of Bernstein's Peter Pan were staged until 2001, when conductor Alexander Frey approached the Leonard Bernstein Office with a proposal to record the score in its entirety. The original orchestral parts had been sent to the Bernstein archive at Library of Congress, and thus were able to be restored for a 2006 recording.

Conducted by Alexander Frey with Broadway singers Linda Eder and Daniel Narducci

The songs have varying degrees of congruence with J.M. Barrie's original. "Hook's Soliloquy" includes Barrie's original words--"Better perhaps for Hook, to have had less ambition!" while "Dream With Me" presupposes that Peter does return Wendy's feelings, contradicting Barrie's portrayal of the boy. But the recording is an interesting variation on the Peter Pan songs most of us are familiar with.

And if you're wanting a musical battle like that between the Sharks and the Jets, you won't be disappointed--"Pirate Song" includes a duel between the tenors and the basses.

We are eviler far than the tenors are
It is true that the basses have eviler faces, but we are more evil inside
Ha ha! They are trying to bolster their pride
Not true! Our sweet voices are just a disguise!
Ha ha! Their good heartedness shines in their eyes
Not true! Our sweet voices are just a disguise!


  1. So where did you find this to listen to it? I would love to hear it.

  2. I found both the new CD and the 1950 vinyl on Amazon. Just ordered the vinyl, actually--can't wait to hear Karloff.

    Finding this at all was serendipity--the link was in a commentary I was reading about the relationship between Peter and Wendy. Research strikes again!

  3. Pretty much every choir I was ever in clearly needs to stage the tenor-bass pirate duel.

    1. The sheet music is available. I'm tempted to pass it along to my choir director and see what he says.

  4. Replies
    1. It's marked this entire project, which is good for me to remember right now.