Thursday, December 4, 2014

Remembering Television's Original Peter Pan

Mary Martin as Peter Pan.
With NBC mounting a new live production of Peter Pan on December 4th, I wanted to pay homage to the network's earlier version starring Mary Martin. That classic television special premiered almost 60 years ago, originally as an episode of the anthology series Producer's Showcase. Its success was immediate—Peter Pan became the most watched program in the brief history of network TV. Even more surprisingly, it provided what turned out to be its star's signature role.

In Ronald L. Davis' book Mary Martin, Broadway Legend, the author includes this quote from Ms. Martin: "Peter Pan is perhaps the most important thing, to me, that I have ever done in theater." That's high praise from a legendary star who is also identified with two Rodgers and Hammerstein classic stage musicals: South Pacific and The Sound of Music.

Whole books have been devoted to the history of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which was originally written as a play in 1904 and later transformed into a novel (also known as Peter and Wendy). Actually, Peter made his first appearance as a character in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird (portions of which were later published as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens). Barrie bequeathed all profits from Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.

Martin was 41--but didn't look
her age!
In 1954, producer Edwin Lester and stage director Jerome Robbins came up with the idea to transform Barrie's Peter Pan into a Broadway musical. Ironically, just a year before, Walt Disney had adapted Barrie's play into an animated film with songs (though it's not really a musical). Lester hit the jackpot when Mary Martin agreed to play Peter Pan, a part typically portrayed by actresses. Martin was already a huge Broadway star, having won a Tony award for South Pacific.

From the beginning, the intent was to mount a stage musical and then "film" it for NBC television. Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh wrote the songs for the original version, which included now-favorites "I've Gotta Crow" and "I'm Flying." After a West Coast tryout, director Robbins decided to add more songs and turned to Jule Styne (already a popular songwriter) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who had teamed with Leonard Bernstein for On the Town). The most notable contributions from Styne, Comden and Green were the songs "Never Never Land" and "Wendy."

Cyril Ritchard made a delightful
Captain Hook.
The Peter Pan musical opened on Broadway in October 1954 and, despite a planned limited run that lasted just 152 performances, earned Tony awards for Mary Martin and her co-star Cyril Ritchard (who, as is tradition, played Mr. Darling and Captain Hook).

The stage musical was then recreated on NBC's sound stages for Producer's Showcase and broadcast in March 1955. It was both a popular and critical success, earning Mary Martin an Emmy. NBC showed another live telecast with the same cast the following year. Then, in 1960, NBC mounted a third production, which was recorded as a stand-alone television special. This version was subsequently rebroadcast on NBC in 1963, 1966, 1973, and 1989. It has since been shown on the Disney Channel and released on DVD.

Sandy Duncan as Peter.
Although the Mary Martin Peter Pan (as dubbed by its fans) is the most famous, there have other adaptations of the Broadway musical on stage and on television. Sandy Duncan received a Tony nomination for a 1980 revival, which co-starred George Rose as Captain Hook.  In 1991, gymnast Cathy Rigby starred in a “theater in the round” revival. She also received a Tony nomination and later reprised the role in 1992 and 1998. My wife and I saw Lulu (To Sir, With Love) as Peter Pan in a West End production in the mid-1980s (she was fabulous!).

Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye.
Despite the steady stage revivals, the only attempt to replace Mary Martin as Peter Pan on TV occurred in 1976. The Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast an entirely new musical with songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. Mia Farrow portrayed Peter with Danny Kaye as Captain Hook. Despite a game cast, it was a rather mundane affair that was quickly dismissed by critics and viewers.

That brings us back to NBC’s Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. I hope it captures the spirit of the original, which Mary Martin described aptly in the aforementioned biography: “Neverland is the way I would like real life to be...timeless, free, mischievous, filled with gaiety, tenderness, and magic."


  1. I saw Miss Martin on Broadway as Peter Pan and was still young enough to be totally captivated by it in that child like way. And of course I watched all 3 of the original airings of the play in the 50s on TV - it was quite the TV event in those days. Not looking forward to tonight's play however - I don't think from what I have seen on preview that Allison can sing or act - she appears very flat. But then I hated last year's 'live' broadcast of Sound of Music too, which I also saw Miss Martin in on Broadway. Maybe I just 'grew' up? The older versions are usually the best.

    1. How awesome to have been able to see Miss Martin on Broadway! What a wonderful memory!

  2. Mary Martin was so delightful as Peter Pan! I loved her exuberance! I was also delighted with Cyril Ritchard, in part because he was the only other Cyril I had heard of, at the time, besides my grandfather. I will watch the new version tonight, in homage to the magic of Never Never Land.

  3. Those songs with Mary Martin singing them are perfection. I wish the current TV production well and hope they are able to capture some of the magic.

  4. I loved Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, Rick. I tried to keep an open mind for tonight's new version, but as you will see in my blog post, it was quite a disappointment. Thanks for your tribute to the best of the Peter Pans!

  5. Missed last night's special but watched one of the early Mary Martin versions, which I recall only vaguely. I DO remember being intrigued with Cyril Ritchard as Capt. Hook, though, and was fascinated by the actor's name - with the accent on the second syllable of his last name (as it was pronounced then, whether correctly or not).

  6. Mary Martin WAS Peter Pan. She was truly unique. With her classy voice and style, she was able to sing virtually any genre with ease, from big band, to Disney, to opera, to blues, and the results were always memorable. She loved everything about performing, and that love, coupled with her love of audiences, which crossed the footlights like a bolt of lightening, she was a true legend. She was also a gracious lady who was in person everything I thought she would be. I had the privilege of seeing her in "The Sound of Music" and "Legends." She was riveting in both. Why is "Peter Pan" forever associated with Mary Martin? Because no matter who else sings, flies, and refuses to grow up, she can't match the indefinable charm, grace and talent that all came together in Mary Martin.