Peter Pan is now more than 100 years old, but we continue to think of him as the winsome child who can take us to magical places.
The story of how author James M. Barrie created the iconic character is captured in “Finding Neverland,” the touring Broadway musical that comes to the Schuster Center Jan. 15-20. The show, based on the 2004 film, is directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus with an original score by composer Gary Barlow and Grammy winner Eliot Kennedy.
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“The characters in the musical are all based on real people,” says Ruby Gibbs, who plays the role of Sylvia, the mother, in the current production. “J.M. Barrie was a real person who first met members of the Davies family in the park one day. He was inspired by the boys’ playfulness and the mother’s grace and power to write Peter Pan.”
Gibbs says the real story of Barrie and Sylvia is a bit unclear and perhaps darker than portrayed in the film and the musical. “Some of the details have been changed to heighten the story,” she explains. “In the musical, it’s more of a love story, but there’s a question as to whether they were romantically involved in real life. For sure, they were very close.”
One of her favorite songs in the musical is “All That Matters.” “I am lucky enough to sing one of the most beautiful power ballads in musical theater,” she says. “A power ballad is a song that’s epic, a force. This one comes at a moment where Sylvia finds her strength and every night it reminds me how lucky I am to have this job and to get to sing this song in cities across the country.”
The musical also incorporates the backstory and inspiration behind some of the best-known parts of the original story — such as the crocodile and Captain Hook. “At the end,” says Gibbs, “Barrie comes to Sylvia’s house with the entire cast of his Peter Pan and they perform a condensed version of the show for Sylvia so that she can also be taken to Neverland.”
Gibbs, who remembers being fascinated by Disney’s “Peter Pan” at the age of three, says “Finding Neverland” is all about finding your inner child, your sense of play, and recognizing that even in the darkest times there is beauty to be found if you choose to see it.”
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Why we love fantasy
Jim Farrelly, professor of English and director of film studies at the University of Dayton, teaches a “Fantasy and Magic” course at UD and says by their nature, fantasy stories appeal to children and adults of all ages. “We all move from innocence to experience as we grow up and then in old age look back nostalgically and remember the passages we went through on our journeys through life,” he says. “Fantasy literature takes us places that revive our souls.”
Farrelly’s college students are well into their teens when they take his course. “They rediscover the ‘fantastic worlds’ of the primal forms of myth, fairy tales, and folktales that delighted them in their youth and are now re-imagined as stories that not only entertain, but teach lifelong lessons they draw on throughout their lives.”
Peter Pan, he says, is such a story.
How Peter came into the world
Although James Barrie never had his own children, he spent a great deal of time playing with the children of his good friends, Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies. It was while writing and acting out skits with the Davies children that Barrie developed the characters and plot he would use in the writing of the full-length play version of “Peter Pan.” Barrie also drew his inspiration from the boys’ parents; he modeled Mr. Darling after the young lawyer, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, while Mrs. Darling was based on the refined, nurturing mother, Sylvia Davies.
From the beginning, Barrie knew he wanted his characters actually to fly across the stage. During production, several security measures were put in place to keep the flying and other special effects secret from the public until opening night. When the flying harnesses were complete, Barrie invited the Llewelyn Davies boys for a test run to soar through the theater. The show opened on Dec. 27, 1904 in London and was considered an immediate success.
“’Finding Neverland’ is a full-blown Broadway musical with all the bells and whistles to rattle the audience and help the audience understand how Barrie came to invent Peter Pan as a character who could be forever young and live in the magical world of Neverland with all of its adventures and freedoms,” says Farrelly. “But ‘Finding Neverland’ does not rest its case in fantasy. In the play, as in the film version, Barrie is struggling in a relationship to bring solace into the life of a family that is struggling with a mother’s sickness and the sad plight of her four children. In the process he discovers a renewed imaginative energy and creates a world for them to find renewed joy and hope.”
In the end, he says, the characters and the audience get to suspend their disbelief and escape to a Neverland that restores them and girds them for the challenges they face in the real world.
After Sylvia and Arthur’s early deaths, Barrie adopted their five boys. In 1929, Barrie presented all rights to “Peter Pan” to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London, which continues to receive income from all of the various productions mounted all over the world. This gift entitled the hospital to all the proceeds from the sale of any book, play or associated sale of “Peter Pan” with the stipulation that the total sum earned never to be revealed. This is known as, “The Peter Pan Gift.”
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