Firsthand: Rick Elice on the Great Ride That Became Peter and the Starcatcher
As it nears the end of its New York journey and on the heels of a national tour, the scribe behind the unexpected, acclaimed play looks back on its path from page to stage.
Seven years is a significant, even biblical number. And, as we hurl ourselves headlong into 2014, it describes as well the time that Peter and the Starcatcher — in all its incarnations — has been part of my life.
In June 2007, excited at the prospect of escaping a dreary New York summer, I agreed to meet with Roger Rees and Alex Timbers up at Williamstown Theater Festival to discuss a project they were going to direct together, based on a novel, Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, that Tom Schumacher (head of Disney Theatricals) had given to them.
I hopped on a train, and four hours later, weary and travel-stained, I found myself in a room with Roger and Alex. They eyed me carefully. Then they looked at my face.
For hours, they talked about this boy, Peter, and eventually said, "We'd like you to write a play." I was flattered, naturally, but in the course of thinking about what sort of play it would be, one question kept nagging at me, which was — who the hell is Peter?
And then, it dawned on me. Oh, that Peter. Since I was a small boy, I thoroughly enjoyed his peanut butter, but only when Roger and Alex spoke to me did I discover he was some kid who stayed young forever, so much a part of our culture that there's even a psychological disorder named after him. The Peter Pan Complex. Who knew?
The first lab for the play-in-progress took place at Williamstown that summer. The second, in a church hall in Manhattan, that fall. By then, Roger, Alex, Ken Cerniglia (our brilliant dramaturg) and I had pretty much figured out what to keep from the novel and what needed to be invented, or reinvented, for the stage. And I set to writing. In April 2008, a group of actors assembled to read the full play (such as it was) for the first time. Which sent me back to the keyboard for another few months. During that time, Roger and Alex secured us a slot at La Jolla Playhouse (thank you, Chris Ashley!), for February 2009.
The directors put together an amazing cast, and we shipped out to SoCal for two months. Every night we had a talkback with the audience, and I kept hearing the same comment. "What's so heroic about Peter?" Turns out, I had been too faithful to the novel, which begins with Peter already the leader, the most attractive and interesting of his crowd. And that's fine for a novel, I guess. In a play, I learned, it's kind of unsatisfying when the central character doesn't change. Go figure.
So, after La Jolla, I asked Dave and Ridley if I could make a slight change to their title, Peter and the Starcatchers. "I want to drop the plural ‘s' from Starcatchers," I said. Naturally enough, they asked why. "At its heart, the play is about how this boy and this girl find their destinies only because of the difficult thing they accomplish together. By the end, they've become Peter and the Starcatcher. Dropping the ‘s' is a small change with a big difference." So I went back to the keyboard, and Roger and Alex went to Jim Nicola at New York Theatre Workshop, and got us a slot for February 2011.
In the NYTW version of the play, we now had Molly as our hero, in a time before girls were encouraged to be heroes; a self-empowered, super-bright, isolated kid with the DNA of Scout Finch and Jo March. And we have a feral, filthy creature, bent low from beating, afraid of his own shadow: the nameless boy at the center of our story. Thanks to Molly, he'll learn what it is to be a man, only to find he must stay a boy forever. And suddenly, with that rewrite, the play began to cook.
The new and improved version of Peter and the Starcatcher — with the design team destined to sweep the Tony Awards — opened at New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, and became a trendy downtown hit. A slightly modified version of that play opened on Broadway a year later, in April 2012. Talk about a gamble… (Thank you, Nancy Gibbs, Greg Schaffert, Eva Price, Tom Smedes, Tom Schumacher!) The challenge was to keep the lightning-in-a-bottle, do-it-yourself esthetic that made the production so special, in the much-larger, fancy-ass environment of Broadway. Roger, Alex, the cast, and the designers pulled this off so spectacularly that, a month after we opened, we were nominated for nine Tony Awards, and a month after that, we had won five.
Then, about a year ago, our intrepid clutch of producers decided to move our show to off-Broadway, where it could have a longer life. In March 2013, Peter and the Starcatcher reopened at the intimate New World Stages. Amazingly, many of the actors moved with us, and the new cast members were as terrific as their predecessors. The directors asked for the full Broadway production to be moved, and the producers agreed. After several hundred performances, I can tell you the play seems somehow grander in this more intimate space — with all of its magic intact. The only element that is "less than" the Broadway experience is the price of tickets. Off-Broadway was a shrewd move that brought us a whole new audience and paved the way for the national tour, which launched in Denver in August and will be traveling the country throughout 2014 — a neat trick for a play. So, even though we are nearing the end of our time in New York, the magic of Peter and the Starcatcher will travel, intact — the result of seven years of collaboration, ingenuity, family, love. These are the elements, I think you'll find, that are the secret to staying (or at least feeling) young forever. Thank you, Peter. It's been a wild ride.