Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Premature Defense of "Peter Pan Live"

Allison Williams gets all glammed up for NBC's Peter Pan Live!

Last year, NBC took a gamble and tried something that hadn't been done in decades: a live Broadcast of a full scale musical. The Sound of Music was the show, and Grammy-winner Carrie Underwood was chosen to play the lead role of Maria in an obvious attempt to court her sizable fan base (spoiler alert: it worked). From the moment Underwood was announced, a vocal segment of the population began proclaiming the endeavour a disaster waiting to happen. These people began looking forward to the show with the same gleeful cynicism that caused them to eagerly devour the many missteps of the ambitious but flawed TV show Smash (a show I still miss from time to time, ill-advised Bollywood numbers and all).

The Sound of Music Live premiered to big numbers, although critical reaction ranged from "not terrible" to "unholy affront to the gods of film and theatre." But the numbers are really all that matter, and with 18 million viewers Underwood and company were clear winners. High on their success, NBC announced their intent to make these live musicals an annual event, with this year's edition being Peter Pan. The 1954 musical is best remembered for Mary Martin's Tony-winning performance as the Boy Who Won't Grow Up, which was preserved via an incredibly popular television Broadcast that was eventually released on home video. Attempting to fill Martin's big shoes is Allison Williams, who is perhaps the fourth or fifth most famous person to appear on HBO's buzzed about but only haphazardly viewed Girls, and her nemesis Captain Hook will be played by Oscar-winning film actor Christopher Walken.

Like last year, many are dubious about the artistic prospects of this broadcast. Williams is a largely unknown commodity, and Walken at this point is probably more famous for his distinctively bizarre mannerisms than his acting talent. I will admit that I fully expect it to be a disaster (I cannot imagine Walken in any kind of musical situation that doesn't involve more cowbell), partly due to casting and partly due to the fact that Peter Pan is a much weaker show than The Sound of Music, which for all its saccharine sweetness does feature a solid narrative and songs so catchy they have entered the popular consciousness. That said, anyone who complains about the existence of Peter Pan Live is missing the point.

First and foremost, a live musical broadcast like this is massive exposure for musical theatre at a time when it is not at the forefront of the pop culture conversation. Even if Pan draws only half the audience of The Sound of Music, that is still 9 million people who took 3 hours out of their day to watch a musical. For comparison's sake, the Broadway production of Wicked would have to sell out every performance for nearly 12 years to be seen by that many people (and it is playing Broadway's biggest theatre). That is a lot of people being exposed to theatre, and if even a fraction of a percent of those viewers are then motivated to buy tickets to a live performance it will be a lot of extra bodies in seats.

One major complaint levied against NBC (and most film adaptations of musicals, really) is that they opt for Hollywood talent over actors with theatrical backgrounds for the leads, robbing arguably more qualified people of work. While casting filmed musicals exclusively with Broadway talent is nice in theory, it is also wilfully ignoring the business side of the industry. The fact of the matter is that name talent attracts both viewers and investors, and without someone like Walken involved it is far less likely the whole enterprise would even get off the ground.

And while the two leads in  Peter Pan have dubious connections to the theatre at best, the supporting cast and ensemble are stuffed to the brim with Broadway talent. This is both work and exposure for some of Broadway's best and brightest (Kelli O'Hara and Christian Borle both have pivotal roles), and as anyone in the industry will tell you TV pays a good deal more than theatre. The money from a project like this will help give these hard working actors a financial cushion so they can continue to pursue passion projects like The Bridges of Madison County or Peter and the Starcatcher.

Now yes, you could argue that a subpar production would ultimately turn people off of live theatre. But in the same way that seeing a bad movie doesn't make people swear off films forever, I don't believe seeing one or even a few bad musicals is enough to make people avoid them for the rest of their lives. The prohibitive cost of live theatre is doing a lot more to turn people away from the medium than one or two bad productions.

So feel free to watch Peter Pan Live and (not so) secretly root for it to be awful. That is everyone's right, and no one can stop you. In all honesty, I would much rather the broadcast reach legendary levels of awfulness than have it just be mediocre. But in between any snarky comments and barbed critiques, do keep in mind that whatever the artistic quality of the show, it is doing a lot of good for the theatrical community. NBC has been one of Broadway's biggest Hollywood allies, casting scores of New York talent for its various shows. Mounting a live broadcast on this scale is no easy feat, and it would have been much easier for the network to schedule a Saturday Night Live clip show during Peter Pan's 3 hour slot. But NBC has chosen to present a Broadway musical to a wider audience, and has looked locally for most of their onscreen and behind the scenes talent. We should be grateful, even if we are secretly hoping for them to cast Jessie Mueller and Norbert Leo Butz in their already announced Music Man.

One final thought: Tony winners Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Broderick couldn't do anything to help ABC's telemovie version of the same show, proving Broadway talent does not automatically equal success.

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