11/21/2014 11:02 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

The Peter Principle

There have been a few stories about changes being made to the new production of Peter Pan that NBC will broadcast live on December 4, starring Allison Williams. Most notably, songs are being cut and (more notably) added.

Normally I'm not big on changes to existing works, but understand sometimes they're necessary. (Hey, productions edit Shakespeare. If it's good enough to do to Will, you have to allow for some leeway with other mere mortals...) There seem to be quite a few alterations here in this NBC Peter Pan, and I withhold judgment -- but whether or not the changes are good, I at least like the way they're going about them.

What they're doing with the new songs is something very uncommon when such a thing is done for a Broadway" revisiting." Usually, new composers are brought in to try to emulate the original style (which I find painful because the new numbers leap out as not remotely as good) or use well-known songs by the original composers or far worse, by others of the era (which stand out awkwardly because they don't fit, meant for something else entirely). But here, they're using existing though lesser-known songs written by the original composers from other shows but then having the daughter (Amanda Green) of one of the original lyricists (Adolph Green) write new words to fit Peter Pan. (It's not just "all in the family" -- she's a lyricist herself of several musicals, and even has a Tony nomination.) Moreover, they also are bringing back a song cut during 1954 tryout of the original show, written by Carolyn Leigh and Moose Charlap..

(Historical note: Peter Pan has two sets of writing teams. The original team was Leigh and Charlap, whose songs included "I Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up." But when the original producers got concerned about the show, they brought in the more experienced Betty Comden-Adolph Green and Jule Styne, among whose songs were "Never Never Land," "Distant Melody," and "Captain Hook's Waltz.")

They are also cutting one song, which is justifiable, because it was really only written to take advantage of Mary Martin's coloratura voice, "Mysterious Lady." And rewriting the most obvious song to deal with, the problematic and today very awkward "Ugg-a-Wugg," giving it new words by Ms. Green, now to be called "True Blood Brothers," which is a line in the original song.

More on the songs in a moment. But first, there are some changes I've read of that are another matter.

The main changes I don't like, though, have nothing to do with songs. Traditionally, the actor who plays Captain Hook (here, Christopher Walken) also plays the father, Mr. Darling (even dating back to the original J.M. Barrie play), but they're not doing that here. Now, it seems dead-on clear that the original intent has an actual dramatic point to it (as well as being fun), and it appears unfortunate to change that. It's not essential that they be the same actor, so it has the potential to work, but doing so walking on incredibly very thin ice. But worse, to me, is that they're trying to have their cake and eat it too, and the actor who plays Mr. Darling (the terrific Christian Borle) will also play Hook's assistant, Smee. That strikes me as idiotic. Maybe it will work -- but in concept, and until proven otherwise, I think it's terrible. Very misguided.

(The only saving grace is that if anyone can bring it off, it might be Borle, who most recently was the rival barber, Pirelli, in the PBS production of Sweeney Todd and played Max Detweiler in last year's live version of The Sound of Music on NBC. Oddly enough, he also won a Tony Award for Peter and the Starcatcher, a wonderful play that's a sort of prequel to, of all things, Peter Pan. He's probably most recognized for playing the composer on the NBC series Smash. He'll probably be very good as both the father and Smee -- but I don't believe the same actor should be playing them.)

They're also giving a new song to Mrs. Darling, in large part because they producers say that since have Kelli O'Hara in the role, how could they not find a song for someone that good. I love Kelli O'Hara -- she's great. But that's no reason to add a song. If the song fits the moment...then terrific, I look forward to seeing Kelli O'Hara perform it. But Mrs. Darling has a pretty small focus in the show, and I hope it's kept in proper perspective, to deepen the character perhaps but not imbalance things.

All that aside, what they're doing with the song, could be interesting, and as I said, at least they're doing it sort of right.

We'll see...

But that brings us to the main reason I set out to write this -- not just to give some thoughts in advance on the changes, but because it's now public knowledge which three, little-known Comden-Green- Styne songs from other shows are being added, I thought it would be nice to let you hear the original songs. A sort of semi-preview, as it were.

One song being used is "Ambition" from Do Re Mi. This was originally sung by the show's star Phil Silvers, to the young protégé he's discovered and is trying to connive, played by Nancy Dussault (who some may recall as the mother on the series, Too Close for Comfort). It's being adapted to a song called, "Vengeance," now to be sung by Captain Hook.

Another of the adapted songs is "I Know About Love," also from Do Re Mi, where it was performed by John Reardon. In the upcoming Peter Pan, will be called "Only Pretend", to be sung by Wendy about her feelings for Peter.

And the third song -- well, actually, this third song is the one that got me thinking about writing this piece in the first place, so that I could have an excuse to post it. It's hardly a great song by Broadway standards, but it's always been one of my favorites since I was a little kid, and my parents had the album, which they'd bought after seeing the show on a trip to New York. Though hardly great, it's one of those songs that hit you just right as a kidling, and stayed with me. It's just so tuneful and rousing and about rivers, which I've always loved, too. Yet there's a wistfulness to it, as well, that added a texture I found so appealing. The song is "Something's Always Happening on the River," from a little-known show, Say, Darling. It's sung here by David Wayne. And in the upcoming TV production of Peter Pan, the song will be adapted to be sung by both Peter and Captain Hook, as "A Wonderful World Without Peter."


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.