Mt. Vernon Register-News

Features

January 24, 2014

Why is Peter Pan usually played by a woman?

Earlier this week, NBC announced plans to follow their hugely successful live version of "The Sound of Music" with a live adaptation of the musical version of "Peter Pan." The choice seems like a no-brainer: Back in 1955, the network aired a live broadcast of the Broadway production starring Mary Martin to 65 million viewers, and that version has since become a beloved cultural institution through subsequent airings and home video.

What is surprising is the suggested cast. NBC Entertainment's chairman initially joked that he wants Miley Cyrus for the title role, then "hinted" that Peter Pan may be played by a male actor instead. This is a big deal to fans, since the character is nearly always played by a woman. Why have so few men stepped into the role of the eternally young boy?

Initially, the interests of a producer, the logistics of casting, and even English law may have played a part. After that, it became tradition. In his 1979 book, "J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan," English writer and director Andrew Birkin recounts the backstory for the first stage productions. Broadway producer Charles Frohman enthusiastically agreed to produce the play, and he made a couple of suggestions to the author. First, that it be titled, simply, "Peter Pan"; Barrie's working title was "The Great White Father," which is what Barrie has the Indians call Peter. (That phrase has uncertain origins but was - and is - used by some Native Americans to refer to white leaders.) Second, Frohman asked that, in America, the starring role of Peter be played by his protégé, Maude Adams. Frohman reasoned that a man would be wrong for the part, and if they cast a boy, the other children "would have to be scaled down in proportion." English law prohibited the use of minors under 14 on stage after 9 p.m. So a woman it was.

Nina Boucicault, the sister of the show's director Dion Boucicault, was tapped for the lead in England, and she originated the role in December of 1904. (Adams wasn't available to work until the following summer, and so Frohman, "impatient to see the play produced," set up the West End production with Boucicault first, in time for Christmas.)

As Birkin explained to me via email, actresses Cecilia Loftus and Pauline Chase were cast in the seasons following the initial London production, and "even the 1924 silent movie had a girl - Betty Bronson - playing Peter." From there, casting a woman for stage adaptations became the norm, and the majority of prominent productions have seen a female in the title role.

Jerome Robbins' musical version, a vehicle for Mary Martin, extended this tradition. Only one man, Jack Noseworthy, has played this version of Peter on Broadway, and he was an understudy in Jerome Robbins' "Broadway," an anthology of musical numbers from various shows (Charlotte d'Amboise was the principal Peter Pan). Only one song featured the impish boy character.

There have been a few recent exceptions. Since the 1980s, the Royal Shakespeare Company has frequently employed adult male actors in its production of the play, and is currently doing so with actor Sam Swann. The Broadway and off-Broadway productions of the "prequel" to Barrie's story, "Peter and the Starcatcher," featured male actors. And in nearly every film adaptation, Peter has been played (or voiced) by a male.

According to Birkin, Barrie always wished to see a boy play Peter on stage, though he never lived to see it occur. (In 1921, he tried to convince Charlie Chaplin to direct and star in a screen version. Chaplin considered it, but the film never came to fruition.) If NBC does wind up casting a male in the part, it will join those other exceptions as a fulfillment of the author's wishes.

What youthful guy - aside from the supposedly retired Justin Bieber - would have the star power to pull in ratings the way Carrie Underwood did for "The Sound of Music"? None come to mind. But Birkin doesn't think age really matters. "It's the spirit that's important rather than the letter," he says. "I always loved Tyrone Guthrie's comment, that any actor playing Peter must be 'as delicate as a moth, as deadly as a bomb.' "



 

1
Text Only
Features
  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 15, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-11 at 4.49.09 PM.png Train, entertain your pets with these 3 smartphone apps

    While they may not have thumbs to use the phone, pets can benefit from smartphone apps designed specifically for them.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Millions of Android phones, tablets vulnerable to Heartbleed bug

    Millions of smartphones and tablets running Google's Android operating system have the Heartbleed software bug, in a sign of how broadly the flaw extends beyond the Web and into consumer devices.

    April 11, 2014

  • DayCareCosts.jpg Day care's cost can exceed college tuition in some states

    Most parents will deal with an even larger kid-related expense long before college, and it's a cost that very few of them are as prepared for: day care.

    April 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • 10 tips for surviving a severe allergy season

    My colleague Brady Dennis reported recently that the arrival of warmer weather will soon unleash a pollen tsunami in parts of the country where the winter has been especially long and cold. Here are some survival tips from Clifford W. Bassett, an allergy specialist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

    April 9, 2014

  • To get quality care, it helps to be the right kind of patient

    I am a family physician. Sometimes I must step out of the comfort of my clinical role and into that of patient or family caregiver. Generally, these trips to the other side of the exam table inspire a fair amount of anxiety.

    April 8, 2014

  • A man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal

    Although not as celebrated as the late American amnesiac H.M., for my money K.C. taught us more important and poignant things about how memory works. He showed how we make memories personal and personally meaningful. He also had a heck of a life story.

    April 7, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks