Off to Never Never Land: ‘Peter Pan’ flies again in a new tour after some much needed changes

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NEW YORK — A new, inclusive stage production of “Peter Pan” flies out on a U.S. tour this month, telling the classic tale of a boy who refuses to grow up — but without references that, ironically, have aged poorly.

Gone are elements harmful to Native people, in are a few new songs and the setting of Victorian England has been scrapped in favor of modern America with a multicultural cast.

“Part of the why I wanted to do this is that it will be kids’ first experience in the theater, and I want them not only to fall in love with “Peter Pan,” but to fall in love with the theater and to come back,” says director Lonny Price.

The show is based on the 1954 musical version — originally starring Broadway legend Mary Martin — with a score by Morris Charlap, additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and additional music by Jule Styne.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse, who made history on Broadway in 2023 with her satirical comedy “The Thanksgiving Play,” was tapped to rework the story. She says she found the character of Peter Pan complex, the pirates funny, the music enchanting but the depictions of Indigenous people and women appalling.

In the previous version, there were references to “redskins” throughout, a dance number with cringy gibberish for lyrics called “Ugg-A-Wugg” and Tiger Lily was described as fending off randy braves “with a hatchet.”

“My goal for doing it was to make it not cause harm,” FastHorse says. “Because the music is so beautiful. The story is complicated and beautiful. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it does all those things and has so much magic.”

The tour kicks off in Maryland this week and travels to North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Washington, D.C., South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, California, Missouri, Texas and Georgia.

“Ugg-A-Wugg” has been cut, replaced by the melody from a tune from the little-known 1961 Comden-Green-Styne musical “Subways Are for Sleeping,” married with new lyrics from Amanda Green, Adolph Green’s Tony Award-nominated daughter.

Price also found in the original creators’ papers a “haunting, beautiful” song called “I Went Home,” which tells of a time when Peter returned home and found his window barred and another kid sleeping in his bed. Martin had asked for it to be cut before the premiere, fearing it was too sad. Price put it back in, arguing audiences are more mature these days.

“I think kids can be a little upset now,” he says. “I don’t think it’s upsetting. I think it’s moving. I think it’s just a very moving piece. I don’t think anyone’s heard that song since 1954.” There’s also a reprise of “I Won’t Grow Up” for the second act curtain raiser called “We Hate Those Kinds,” sung by the pirates with lyrics by Green.

FastHorse widened the concept of Native in the musical’s Neverland to encompass several members of under-pressure Indigenous cultures from all over the globe — Africa, Japan and Eastern Europe, among them — who have retreated to Neverland to preserve their culture until they can find a way back. Price hails it as an “elegant solution,” adding FastHorse “ was just the perfect writer for us.”

FastHorse is the first ever Indigenous artist to revise the story, and she has done more than correct the perceptions of Native culture. She’s also deepened the women characters: Tiger Lily and Wendy both sing now, they both dance, they both fight and they speak to each other without Peter.

FastHorse and Price’s version takes place in a modern day, middle class United States not Victorian England. The cast includes children of various races and ethnicities.

“I want every child in this nation to look out their window of the national tour, to look out the window and believe Peter can fly by their window,” says FastHorse. “Our cast looks like America.”

Price stresses that despite the changes, the fabric of the show has been maintained, especially the beautiful language lifted from James M. Barrie’s classic tale, like the notion that the birth of fairies comes from a child’s first laugh.

“Peter Pan” is a hardy vehicle in any case, with five major Broadway revivals, countless tours, NBC’s 2015 “Peter Pan Live” with Allison Williams, the animated series “Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” the Broadway shows “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” and 2023’s live-action “Peter Pan & Wendy,” which added girls to the Lost Boys and featured a Black actor as Tinker Bell.

Price says the appeal of Barrie’s work is intergenerational, grounded in notions of freedom, motherhood, innocence and a very human ambivalence about growing up.

“Kids are afraid of growing up. Some of them want to grow up really fast. I think all adults have this conflicted relationship with growing up. So I think it’s a meditation on that and mortality as well,” says Price. “If you look at all of the themes of it, they’re very primal to us all.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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