"They haven't done live musicals on TV since the '50s," Christopher Walken reminisced at a recent press event for NBC's upcoming Peter Pan LIVE!, the network's second such production in two years. Live performance on television came to an abrupt end, the Tony nominee and soon-to-be Captain Hook remembered, once video tape was invented: "Before that, everything was live. There were ninety shows every week and they were all live. On Saturday night, there was no traffic, you go to the movie theater, there was nobody there. Everybody was at home watching Milton Berle." With Peter Pan and last year's The Sound of Music Live, NBC is managing to give modern audiences a taste of that bygone experience.
"People talk about the high of doing live stuff," said Broadway favorite and upcoming The King and I star Kelli O'Hara, who will be playing Mrs. Darling. "It's so cliché, but it's true. There's like this tingling, and you feel like you've taken something…And you'll see it and it'll be palpable. People will be just crackling with energy and nerves."
"It's intimidating," Walken continued. "You rehearse a Broadway show and then you do previews and then it opens and it either does well or it doesn't. But this is more like getting ready for a big football game or something."
Peter Pan LIVE!, which will air December 4 at 8/7 c, will be produced by The Sound of Music LIVE! producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. This new production of the beloved musical features a book by J.M. Barrie, who wrote the stories on which the show is based. The score features all the classic songs from "I've Got a Crow" to "I'm Flying." There will also be several newly added tunes adapted by Tony-nominated lyricist Amanda Green, who also happens to be the daughter of Peter Pan co-lyricist Adolph Green.
"It's a real privilege to have a Green among us because she has real authority," posited Allison Williams, the production's Peter Pan and, as the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, is someone who knows a thing or two about famous fathers. In fact, Williams recently shared the spotlight with her own dad when Brian Williams' announcement of the Peter Pan casting on the nightly news featured a photo of Allison as a toddler dressed in a tiny Peter Pan costume.
"I've been [Peter Pan] a little bit in my heart ever since I was two," the upcoming boy who wouldn't grow up explained. "Never Tink. Never Wendy. But always Peter Pan." The actress, who watched the Mary Martin film version of the musical "religiously," went on, "We had a VHS of her and I try to remember, did I know she was a woman? And I don't know. She was Peter Pan, and that was all that mattered to me. So that's my goal for little kids who watch this."
Williams does hope the production will make believers out of adults as well, even in our current live-tweeting, hate-watching culture. "Give yourself two and a half hours off where you don't have to be cynical, you don't have to be sarcastic," Williams suggested. "Just let it happen to you the way it's supposed to." But Williams' main concerns are really about the little ones watching at home, just like she did, once upon a time ago. "Those are the people for whom I need this magic to come to life," she insisted.
O'Hara also has the children in Peter Pan's audience at the forefront of her mind, but for a different reason. "Hopefully it breeds a new group of kids who want to go see a live production," said O'Hara, "That's my hope for it. How else are we gonna do that? These men, Craig and Neil and Bob [Greenblatt, head of NBC], they're trying to keep it alive."
What story is better suited than Peter Pan to reawaken our hearts to the magic of live theater? "I just saw my first staged production of it this summer," said O'Hara, who also confessed that even as an adult, she was fully absorbed. "It still makes you cry. And when they say clap for the fairy, you're there [claps] with all your might."