jakub | January 26, 2024

Fixing Peter Pan…and Its ‘Indian’ Problem


You’d be hard pressed to grow up in the U.K. or America and not become enchanted with the story of Peter Pan, the flying, green-clad, mischievous scamp who won’t grow up. That is to say hard pressed unless you grew up part of a North American Indigenous community.

“I had no interest in it growing up,” says playwright Larissa FastHorse, who become the first known Native writer to have a play produced on Broadway when her The Thanksgiving Play came to the Main Stem last season. She grew up in South Dakota, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. That community was decidedly less enamored with the tale. “All I’d heard about it was the harm, so I avoided it.”

Far from avoiding it now, FastHorse is actually actively working on a production of Peter Pan, a new national tour of the 1954 musical version (that originally starred Broadway legend Mary Martin). 

Featuring a score by Moose Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, that musical adaptation of the 1904 J.M. Barrie play has become one of the most beloved takes on the story. The original Broadway run was quickly followed with not one, not two, but three television productions featuring Martin in the title role. It’s seldom not had a major production since, including five major Broadway revivals starring Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby—the latter of whom continued to play the role for decades and also had a performance filmed for broadcast. And then there was NBC’s 2015 Peter Pan Live starring Allison Williams—the list goes on and on. 

This latest tour began previews in December 2023 at Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Ordway Center, and will officially open next month at Baltimore, Maryland’s Hippodrome.


Lonny Price
Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Director Lonny Price had been trying to get a revival of Peter Pan together for years, mostly because he adored it. “I’ve loved it since I was a kid, and I love the score,” Price says fondly. “I find it very moving, this idea of not growing up. For me, Neverland is the theatre, a place where you run away to and never grow up. We play! Everyone who has made their lives in the theatre has gone to Neverland, to a place where dreams are born and you keep your imagination alive. I find that a very moving and beautiful metaphor.”

It was that element of Barrie’s tale, the heart of the story, that inspired Price to put his own mark on a new production of the show—but he knew from the jump that they would have to address what he calls the “big stain of a problem.”

When Peter takes the Darling children to Neverland, they meet the Lost Boys, a rowdy band of pirates. And, for some unexplained reason, they also meet a tribe of “Indians” seemingly there to hunt and be hunted like savage animals. When they make nice with the Lost Boys and celebrate their new partnership, everyone sings “Ugg-a-Wugg,” a dance number with cringy, vaguely Indigenous-sounding (to a white ear) gibberish for lyrics. Yikes.

“It was very hurtful,” FastHorse says of finally reading the script shortly before beginning work on this current production. “Why are Native people the only ones that can’t seem to master English—everyone else has. There’s an assumption that we exist as something to be hunted and fought with and battled and killed. To see our reality put out there as something fun and silly was difficult.”

FastHorse said she was particularly amazed while reading through the script—a script that schoolchildren worldwide read with regularity—when she came upon a character description of Tiger Lily (the leader of the play’s Native tribe). The script described the character as “the belle of the Henny Penny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.”

As FastHorse frankly points out: “That’s rape culture. There are a lot of things that really shocked me that we’ve been letting kids read this.”

It was Price that convinced FastHorse to come aboard the project. The director saw FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, a wickedly funny and satirical work that follows a group of progressive, white grade-school educators attempting to stage a respectful Thanksgiving pageant. The only problem is: they don't know any Native Americans. 

“10 minutes in, I was like, we have to have her,” Price says of the first time he saw the play. “It was so witty. It was so smart. It was so clearly addressing PC issues in a way that wasn’t pedantic. It was dramatic, and it was doing it in a way that was delightful and shining a light on the problem in a way that was not damning or pointing fingers—it just made you understand things in a different way.”


Larissa FastHorse


FastHorse admits when she initially got the call, she was an immediate “no.” But her agent encouraged her to give the script a read and take a weekend before officially rejecting the offer. And of course when she read the script, she indeed found all the horrors she’d heard about—but she was surprised to find something else, too.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is really good,'” FastHorse remembers. “I love when pieces for families and intergenerational audiences are complicated, and Peter Pan has a lot of complexity to it. Peter himself is an incredibly complex character. And then there’s this ridiculous fun and silliness and laughter, all the things I love in an incredible musical.” 

She decided to talk to Price and find out if he was really ready to make a version of the story that, as FastHorse puts it, “doesn’t cause harm.” As it turned out, that was exactly what Price wanted to do, too. Though recent productions that made far less drastic changes have brought in Indigenous consultants to help spruce things up a bit, FastHorse is the first ever Indigeous artist given the chance to actually write those revisions, and with a hefty amount of artistic freedom too.

FastHorse says her main task was finding a way to fix the Indigenous representation while also keeping the conflict that propels the story forward. As she began to think about how to do that, it became clear that the solution would be bigger than removing hurtful language. Why was there a Native American-coded tribe in Neverland to begin with?

“My idea was that it’s not Native Americans,” she explains. In FastHorse’s Neverland, Barrie’s “Indians” have become a collection of Indigenous individuals, each the last of their culture, from around the globe. And, she says, this idea came partially from Barrie’s story itself. If Peter and the Lost Boys fly to Neverland to never grow up, why can’t Neverland serve as a sort of protection for different groups as well? 

“They all go to Neverland to preserve their culture. Neverland is something that’s helping them and saving them, keeping their culture alive until maybe one day they can find a way to bring it back.”

This shift also helped the production avoid problematic casting choices—no redface is on display in this Peter Pan. “We’ve gone back to [the actors’] cultural origins,” FastHorse says of Sarafina Bush’s costume design. “We’ve used clothes that are representative of where they came from, so each culture has their own look and their own personality.”

This doesn’t mean FastHorse wanted to fully erase the Native American legacy of Peter Pan. She says preserving some version of that—again, in a way that doesn’t cause harm—was important, a way of acknowledging the story’s troubled past even while moving forward. For this Peter Pan, that meant keeping the character of Tiger Lily (“Its such an iconic name, so we wanted to keep that,” FastHorse says) and casting four Indigenous actors in the company. 

And then there’s “Ugg-a-Wugg.” It turns out there was just no saving that particular transgression. “We’ve cut it,” says Price. “We were never going to do that.” 

As much a fan of the theatre as he is a practitioner, Price looked to the catalogue of Styne, Comden, and Green (one of two writing teams that contributed songs to the musical’s score) for a song that could be interpolated as a replacement—Price says they were looking for something they could call a “friendship song.” The solution ended up coming from the short-lived, and now mostly forgotten, 1961 musical Subways Are for Sleeping, a delightful tune titled, “Comes Once in a Lifetime.” Luckily Green was on hand to re-write her dad’s lyrics. And you’ll be happy to know it's gibberish free!

But FastHorse says these changes were only the beginning of her to-do list in revising the book. Peter Pan the play was first performed in 1904. Though it’s had countless new productions and adaptations in the 120 years since, the vast majority of them have remained remarkably close to Barrie’s original script—the 1954 musical does not credit a book writer, instead billing the evening as if songs were just inserted into the original play.

Unsurprisingly, that means the script carries a lot more of 1904 along with it than just the treatment of its Indigenous characters. Nearly three hours long, the musical was also originally performed in three acts, primarily because changing scenery from the Darling children’s bedroom to the skies of London and then to Neverland would not have been possible without a pause due to the limitations of 1904 stagecraft. And it would have still been fairly difficult in 1954, too.

FastHorse has restructured the show to fit a more modern two-act setup, which meant cutting almost an hour of material, finding new ways to keep moving past songs that used to be act finales, and also finding and building to a moment that would newly be the evening’s single act break.

She has also revisited the story’s treatment of its women, both Indigenous and otherwise. “I worked a lot on Wendy and Tiger Lily,” FastHorse says. “They both sing now, they both dance, they both fight. I’m very proud that Tiger Lily and Wendy actually speak to each other at one point without Peter.” Yes, at last, a Peter Pan that passes the Bechdel Test. Hawa Kamara plays Wendy and Raye Zaragoza plays Tiger Lily.


Nolan Almeida, Kenny Ramos, and Raye Zaragoza
Matthew Murphy

“She’s such a great book writer because she’s not precious,” Price says of their work together. “She’s willing to let things go. And she’s funny. Economical and funny are two huge boxes that hardly anybody checks, much less both.”

Speaking of women, there’s another elephant in the room when it comes to Peter Pan and its 1904 conventions. For nearly its entire history across countless productions and adaptations, the title role has almost exclusively been played by women despite Peter being a male character. Where that comes from is somewhat unclear, depending on where you go looking for answers. It may have had to do with laws restricting minors working in London past 9 PM. And it’s certainly made some producers feel more confident knowing their show rests on the shoulders of an adult leading lady in lieu of a child. But these days, this performance tradition has mostly continued because it’s what audiences are used to.

Price and FastHorse wanted to change that. Casting Peter as a woman was never done for any specific dramatic reason, and both artists wanted to be more thoughtful and decisive with casting this time around. “Kids know what gender is,” FastHorse says. “To have a woman play a man means something to them.” She remembers taking her then-three-year-old godson to a production of Pinocchio that had cast a young woman in the title role. Even at three years old, the child was asking FastHorse why they kept saying “he” about a “she.” In 2024, any notion that a character is being misgendered, or worse—that a woman playing a man is in any way intended to be funny—just doesn't have a place in Price and FastHorse's Peter Pan.

“We’re fortunately raising children to have a much broader understanding of gender, so we can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist anymore,” FastHorse says. “I think it’s deeply irresponsible to pretend gender isn't there.”


Nolan Almeida and Hawa Kamara
Matthew Murphy

But when it came to casting, Price and FastHorse found this particular goal more difficult than they’d expected.

“Peter is a tough character,” Price says. “When women play it, you forgive them for their edge. Put that on a young man, and he’s an asshole and you don’t want to watch him all night. You have to love and want to get on the train with this person.” 

Price says there was a moment in auditions that he considered losing this dream and casting a woman after all.

And then they found Nolan Almeida. “Lonny and I have been clutching our hands under the table trying not to sob all the time because he’s just so beautiful and so talented,” shares FastHorse.

You might think that songs written for the great Mary Martin—who also created the golden age leading lady roles of Nellie in South Pacific and Maria in The Sound of Music—wouldn’t fit comfortably onto a male voice. Price says that couldn’t be less of an issue: “The minute you hear Nolan, you’ll think it was written for him.”

Price wants to be clear that while this new production is radically different, they’ve been careful to keep what made Peter Pan special and beloved to begin with. “We’ve not thrown the baby out with the bathwater,” he says. “All those beautiful speeches about when the first baby laughed and the birth of the fairy, Barrie’s beautiful poetry—it’s so gorgeous, the writing. We’ve been able to keep what people love about this material and make it a little smarter.”

They’re also hoping their take on the tale will widen its audience. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and almost every subsequent iteration of it, takes place in Victorian England, with Peter visiting a clearly wealthy family to whisk their children off to Neverland. FastHorse and Price’s version takes place in modern day United States, and the diverse casting ensures that each and every audience member will see someone who looks like them on stage. 

“This is the first show many children are going to see,” Price explains emotionally. “I don’t only want them to fall in love with Peter Pan. I want them to fall in love with the theatre.”

FastHorse completely agrees: “My goal in this was that every child that comes to this show will leave the theatre and believe they can look out their window and see Peter fly by. Not a Victorian child’s window, not a wealthy child’s window, not a white child’s window. They can believe their window, that Peter will come to them.”

Think lovely thoughts—and up we all go.

For a full touring itinerary for FastHorse and Price's Peter Pan, visit PeterPanOnTour.com.

0
of

See Production Photos from the Peter Pan North American Tour





Source link