Simple Songs: Bernstein’s Peter Pan
by Carol J. Oja
In 1950, a year after the debut of his Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety,” Leonard Bernstein contributed songs and incidental music for a Broadway production of Peter Pan, the beloved early twentieth-century play about an impish boy with super-powers, who flies through the air with abandon and refuses to grow up. Peter Lawrence, whom Bernstein had worked with at Ballet Theatre, directed the production in 1950, which starred Jean Arthur as Peter Pan, Boris Karloff as Captain Hook/George Darling, and Marcia Henderson as Wendy. A success in its day, the show ran for 321 performances, then fell on hard times when a national tour closed before completion. Yet it remains little-known, eclipsed by Mary Martin’s performance as Peter Pan in the much more famous Broadway musical of the same name, which appeared four years later. As a result, Bard’s SummerScape Festival is reimagining a work that, except for a major recording by Andrew Frey in 2005, has largely been buried for 68 years.
The songs and lyrics for Peter Pan reveal the wise and tender side of Bernstein, pondering the mysteries of human existence. They also show a rapport with children and teenagers, which was a consistent priority in Bernstein’s work, whether in the juvenile delinquents of West Side Story or the educational mission of the Young People’s Concerts. At face value, the tunes in Peter Pan are simple, with straightforward Broadway formal structures and little of Bernstein’s characteristic edgy dissonance. At the same time, several of them fit into a distinctive strain in Bernstein’s output: that is, songs with melodies of piercing translucence which deliver a message of hope or quiet contemplation. Later examples include “Somewhere” from West Side Story and “Simple Song” from Mass.
There are several such gems in Peter Pan. “My House,” for example, embraces the concept of home while affirming basic human values. The lyrics leap across the decades and speak to our current scandal-scarred crisis of leadership, ending with:
“Make the floor of faith,
Make the walls of truth,
Put a roof of peace above.
Only build my house of love.”
The basic thrust of this number presages “Take Care of This House” from Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (reworked as A White House Cantata.)
Similarly, “Who Am I?” tenderly poses existential questions, spinning a guileless melody while exploring a child’s darkest fears. The verse conjures up a bedtime scene in which nocturnal anxieties descend when a parent leaves the room:
“Funny, the thoughts I have at night,
So diff’rent from the thoughts I have by day.
The moment Mama switches off the light,
A thousand diff’rent questions come my way and stay.”
At first Wendy asks, “Oh, who on earth am I? Did I ever live before as a mountain lion or as a fly?” Then she acknowledges mortality, drawing on childlike imagery: “Someday I’ll die. Will I ever live again as a rooster or a hen?” (“Who Am I?” was rapturously transfigured in a cover by Nina Simone on her album Nina Simone and Piano, where she reimagines it as a powerful anthem about reincarnation.)
Bernstein squeezed his work on Peter Pan into a career that was unfolding at an astonishing pace, and correspondence from the early 1950s reveals conflict about whether scores for Broadway counted as serious artistic endeavors. “I have written an extra aria for Captain Hook (what shit!) to grace the new road production of Peter Pan,” he wrote to Aaron Copland in October 1951, “and am now starting on the long hard road of writing some real things.” The music he considered “real” included “my little opry” (Trouble in Tahiti, which debuted in 1952), also “a piano sonata, and a new idea for an orchestra piece.” But then Bernstein’s career took place in a culture that valorized classical music while judging commercial genres as lesser stuff. In reviewing Peter Pan for the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson asserted such a hierarchy, yet with a positive twist: “Leonard Bernstein has taken time off from serious work to write a melodic, colorful and dramatic score that is not afraid to be simple in style.” As it turned out, Bernstein’s career embodied such mixed messages, making “who am I?” a lifelong focus of both angst and contemplation.
Carol J. Oja is on the faculty of Harvard University and author of Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Oxford University Press).
Restoring, and Revisiting, Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan
by Garth Edwin Sunderland
The history of Leonard Bernstein’s songs and incidental music for J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan is a complicated one. His involvement in the 1950 Broadway production, starring Boris Karloff and Jean Arthur, was relatively minimal in comparison to his other Broadway works. Invited to provide only a few dances and incidental cues, he found himself “losing his head,” and surprised the producers by writing seven songs as well, including original lyrics.
Bernstein was in Europe during the rehearsal period for the show, unable to participate in the creative process as he usually would for a new theatre work. Many curious changes were made to the score after it left his hands. The lovely Dream With Me was jettisoned as Wendy’s final song, and an additional scene was created for the death of Hook which sutured Plank Round and Neverland together with new lyrics of dubious authorship (they were certainly not written by Bernstein or Barrie), to provide a pat moral to this morally ambiguous story. For the original cast recording, Bernstein’s instrumental numbers, for reasons unknown, were replaced with new cues by Alec Wilder, and the songs themselves were altered to accommodate spoken narration and new introductions. For the national tour, with Lawrence Tibbett as Hook, Bernstein contributed a new song, Captain Hook’s Soliloquy, but the tour was cancelled mid-run, and the song went unheard for decades.
Bernstein’s music for Peter Pan lay fallow for over half a century, largely forgotten save for a very few sporadic, small-scale productions. But in 2001, the conductor Alexander Frey came to the Leonard Bernstein Office with the proposal to record the score in its entirety, including Dream With Me and Captain Hook’s Soliloquy, for which new orchestrations were created by Sid Ramin and myself. However, the only musical materials available at the time of the recording were a set of parts created by a civic theatre in the 1980s. It became clear that to enable the work to thrive, a new edition would need to be created.
The greatest challenge in preparing that new edition was determining what, exactly, Peter Pan should be – to untangle the thicket of changes, cuts, transpositions, and omissions that history had woven around the score, return the specific cues and songs to Bernstein’s original musical intentions, and to present the music in a theatrically viable way that could be usefully employed in a production of Barrie’s play. The unexpected discovery of the original Broadway pit parts in our collection at the Library of Congress was a great help in this process. When the new edition was completed, in 2007, the major barrier to productions of Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan was broken, and his score can now be heard as the theatrical wonder that it is.
For this Bernstein Centennial production at Bard’s SummerScape it has been my great pleasure to revisit this score a decade later, and to create a new orchestration for a chamber ensemble to match the intimate scale of Christopher Alden’s exciting new production. My goal, as always, has been to preserve Bernstein’s musical intentions, while allowing the score a new transparency in the adaptation from a Broadway pit orchestra into this much smaller mixed quintet. Creating this new orchestration has been a true joy, and my hope is that, in tune with Christopher’s unique approach to the J.M. Barrie play, it can allow for new insights into this mysterious, sad, joyful, strange, and beautiful work.
Garth Edwin Sunderland is Vice President for Creative Projects at the Leonard Bernstein Office
Copyright © 2018 by Amberson Holdings LLC, used by permission of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan
by Alison Lurie
James Matthew Barrie was born to poverty and obscurity in a remote Scottish village; he was the ninth of ten children of a cottage weaver. The hope of the family was James’ brilliant older brother David, who shone at lessons and planned to enter Edinburgh University. But when David was thirteen he was killed in a skating accident. The entire family was demoralized, and the mother took to her bed with grief. James, who was six at the time, vowed to take David’s place in his mother’s heart and make the family fortune.
He fulfilled that vow—but with a curious fairy-tale twist. Though he grew older, James Barrie never, in both the physical and psychological sense, quite grew up. In appearance he remained a boy, just over five feet tall, slight, youthful of feature, and with a thin, high voice. Perhaps because of an accident of heredity, perhaps because of a glandular disorder, for most of his life he looked far younger than his years. Emotionally too he seemed like an adolescent boy—enjoying children’s stories and games, and able to fall in love sentimentally and idealistically but not to form an adult relationship with a woman.
Intellectually, however, Barrie was anyone’s equal. He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1883, and rapidly became a successful journalist, essayist, and dramatist. Some of his plays, like The Admirable Crichton (1902), Peter Pan (1904) and What Every Woman Knows (1908) are still performed today. Personally, though, Barrie’s life was unsatisfactory. In 1894 he had married a young actress, but from the start they were unhappy together. They had no children, and contemporary reports suggest that the union was based on romantic affection rather than physical passion. A few years later, however, Barrie began what was to be the longest and happiest relationship of his life. He fell in love, not with another woman but with an entire family.
One day in 1897 Barrie was walking his St. Bernard in Kensington Gardens, a London park. The tiny man and the huge dog made friends with two little boys, George and Jack Davies, then aged five and four, who were playing in the park with their nurse and baby brother. Soon they were meeting almost every day. Barrie, who loved children, was a delightful companion; he played exciting games with the boys and told them wonderful stories. Many of his tales were about a “lost boy” called Peter Pan, who had fallen out of his pram and now lived in the park and was friends with animals and birds and fairies. At a London dinner party later that year, Barrie was introduced to the boys’ parents, Arthur and Sylvia Davies. Gradually he became a regular guest in their house, and a kind of adopted uncle to the Davies children, always willing to enter into their make-believe games of pirates and Indians and wild animals and desert islands, and to suggest new ones. It was these long, happy summer days that were later to provide the inspiration for his famous play.
The first appearance in print of Peter Pan was in an obscure Barrie novel, The Little White Bird (1902). One chapter of this novel, later published separately under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) elaborates on the fairy tales Barrie first told the Davies children when they were four and five. Peter too is very young; he lives on an island in a pond on the park and sleeps in a nest made out of a five-pound note lost by the poet Shelley.
The play of Peter Pan (and the novel that Barrie later made from it, originally published in 1911 as Peter and Wendy) is directed to older children and tells a different story. In its outer form it is a classic British pantomime. A pantomime had several stock characters: a young hero and heroine, the Principal Boy and Principal Girl, both always played by young actresses; the Good Fairy (and sometimes a Bad Fairy as well); the Demon King, or principal villain; and the Dame, a comic old-woman character portrayed by a male comic in drag. Barrie’s Peter Pan contains most of the stock characters and incidents, though it is far more than a conventional pantomime. Its Neverland is the world of childhood imagination; it is also a refuge from the adult world of rules and duties. It is people with a jumble of characters from the games Barrie played with the Davies boys. Peter Pan, the boy who has refused to grow up, is among other things an incarnation of the Greek god Pan, who figured so often in late Victorian and Edwardian literature.
Though its materials were part of the popular culture of the time, Peter Pan is also deeply connected to Barrie’s private life. The name “Wendy” was taken from the mispronunciation of another young friend of Barrie’s, Margaret Henley, who had died at the age of six; she had called herself Barrie’s “friendly” but had trouble with her consonants. Sylvia Davies, whom Barrie loved and admired as the perfect mother, is obviously Mrs. Darling; and Arthur Davies, who was often impatient with Barrie’s presence in the house, is gently mocked as Mr. Darling.
As for Peter Pan, many writers have seen him as a supernatural incarnation of Barrie himself: eternally young in spirit, the ideal companion and daring leader in childhood games. But he is also as Barrie could not be, a real child. Others have identified Peter with Barrie’s dead brother David, a “lost boy” in the euphemism of the time, who can never grow older and lives underground in what may perhaps be a land of the dead.
A darker side of James Barrie’s vision appears in the character of Captain Hook, who significantly also turns out to be named James. Barrie suffered paralysis of the right arm brought on by writer’s cramp, and Hook too has an injured right arm. The captain is pursued by a crocodile who has swallowed a clock—at once one of the wittiest and most sinister images ever created of the way we are all stalked by devouring Time—perhaps especially those of us who cling to our lost childhood and youth.
In the end the crocodile of time did come for Barrie and the people he cared for most. One by one the Davies boys grew up and ceased to be his playmates; Arthur and Sylvia Davies died young, and the perfect family of which he had been an adopted member was scattered. But the play and the book that grew out of this innocent but passionate relationship has endured to delight generations of children all over the world.
Alison Lurie is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and scholar, and the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of American Literature emerita at Cornell University
Music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein
After the play by J. M. Barrie
Directed by Christopher Alden
Choreography by Jack Ferver
Music Direction by Michael A. Ferrara MM '15
Orchestrations by Garth Edwin Sunderland
Text Adaptation by Christopher Alden and Peter Littlefield
Scenic Design by Marsha Ginsberg
Costume Design by Terese Wadden
Lighting Design by JAX Messenger
Sound Design by Stowe Nelson
with Jack Ferver, Rona Figueroa, Erin Markey, William Michals, Peter Smith, Catherine Bloom '18, Milo Cramer '12, Jewel Evans '18, Alec Glass '18, and Charles Mai '18
“The kiss we never dared
We'll dare in dreaming...”
—“Dream With Me,” Leonard Bernstein, Peter Pan
Definitely not your grandparents’ Peter Pan! Internationally renowned director Christopher Alden reveals a darker side to J. M. Barrie’s fantasy of childhood and the inner child in a psychologically gripping new production, by turns whimsical and sinister, transfigured with a joyous and shimmering score by Leonard Bernstein. Originally composed for a 1950 Broadway production, Bernstein’s Peter Pan songs have long lain like secret jewels, waiting to be rediscovered. Now Alden (revered for his New York City Opera production of Bernstein’s A Quiet Place) restores them to thrilling life in an intimate, contemporary staging, specially commissioned for the worldwide celebration of Bernstein’s centenary year.
Suitable for audiences aged 12 and up
“Bewitching . . . a black comic pearl . . . poses precocious existential questions [with] pensive tenderness.”—New York Times on Bernstein’s score
Opening Night Reception for Members
Sunday, July 1 at 1 pm
Wednesday, July 11
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Available for select performances. Ticketing fees apply, gratuity and beverages not included.
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June 29 at 7:30 pm
June 30 at 7:30 pm
July 1 at 2 pm
July 4 at 2 pm
July 5 at 7 pm
July 6 at 7 pm
July 7 at 2 pm
July 7 at 7:30 pm
July 8 at 2 pm
July 8 at 7 pm
July 11 at 2 pm
July 12 at 7 pm
July 13 at 7:30 pm
July 14 at 2 pm
July 14 at 7:30 pm
July 15 at 2 pm
July 15 at 7 pm
July 18 at 2 pm
July 19 at 7 pm
July 20 at 7:30 pm
July 21 at 2 pm
July 21 at 7:30 pm
July 22 at 2 pm
July 22 at 7 pm
Fisher Center, LUMA Theater
Tickets start at $25; $5 tickets for Bard undergraduate and graduate students are made possible by the Passloff Pass and available in advance for select performances.
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