Who knew a little fairy dust could be so powerful?
Like its orphan hero, the Broadway underdog Peter and the Starcatcher soared, grabbing nine Tony nominations — the most nods for any play this year. Behind the stellar cast is an equally starry creative team, led by co-Directors Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) & Roger Rees (most recently as an actor in The Addams Family) and writer Rick Elice (Jersey Boys).
As they prepare for Tony night and a recently announced Peter national tour, this “dream team” sat down to answer a few questions about the show, their collaboration and their careers. First up, the playwright (and a Tony nominee this year for Best Score) Rick Elice…
Peter feels like such a collaborative, improvisational work and yet the script is so intricate and detailed. What was the genesis of the script?
In 2007, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers embarked on a series of workshops to adapt Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel, Peter and the Starcatchers – an origin story of Peter Pan – for the stage. During the first “lab,” they worked entirely from the novel. But they needed some sort of introduction that would explain how narrative voices would be used in a potential play. They called a mutual acquaintance, me, and I wrote them a prologue. The first workshop led to a second, for which they needed some scenes, so the actors would know what to say. They called a mutual acquaintance, me, and asked if I would supply some dialogue and some ideas for scenes that weren’t in the novel. Dave and Ridley came to check it out. Dave, not one to beat around any bush, asked “Who wrote that stuff? We really like it.” Tom Schumacher of Disney, who had underwritten the workshops, said, “That guy, sitting over there.” (I raised my hand and grinned sheepishly.) Then, Tom added, “He’s going to write the play.” And sometimes, that’s how you get the gig. So basically, it’s important to know directors who don’t have lots of friends who are writers.
Did you participate actively in rehearsals and did the cast influence the script? Is there still wiggle room for play in the piece even now that it has been “frozen” on Broadway?
I was at rehearsals every day, or close to it – (sometimes I had to do laundry). I wouldn’t have missed them. In La Jolla, I was rewriting whole sections, so I often sat in the room, glued to my keyboard. I just liked being in a room with so much great, creative energy. And I was getting to know the actors, and enjoyed the very particular pleasure of writing to various actors’ specific talents. Between La Jolla and New York Theatre Workshop, I did major rewriting to accommodate a change in cast size, and a conceptual change that dramatically altered the two title roles – something we only learned through La Jolla’s great “Page to Stage” program, of which we were a part. At Theatre Workshop, I was there every day, because I was jealous of the limited rehearsal time, and, by this time, had become great friends with the actors. So to have a free ticket into the room was a treat. Also, like a tailor at the local laundry, it was very efficient to have me there to do rewrites, and develop new sequences “on premises” – based on our finally having a set. For Broadway, we gave the actors a new script on the first day that had some big structural changes, and over the course of rehearsals, I was able to do very specific work. I love being at rehearsals a lot. I have the rest of my life to be somewhere else.
Wiggle room? Well, actors of the caliber in Peter are so alive in their roles that wiggle room isn’t necessary. Also, the physical tasks at hand require that everybody know what everybody is doing moment to moment, or someone could be hurt. So no – the text is the text and the production is the production. There are one or two “cadenza” moments, where the duration of certain things may vary from night to night, at the discretion of one or two of the actors. It’s lovely when audience members say the whole thing has this entirely improvised feel, but believe me, it’s all worked out very carefully by the extraordinary ensemble of actors, the choreographer, the directors, the stage managers. It’s a tribute to them that the play has that improvised feel.
Speaking of collaboration, your partner Roger Rees is the co-director of the piece. You’ve collaborated before on a play as writers (Double Double) so clearly you enjoy working together. What are the best and worst parts of working with your significant other?
It’s difficult not to be able to complain about the director when I get home at night. But it’s wonderful to be able to shop for opening night gifts together. Seriously, I don’t know much about any general or theoretical advantage or impediment. I’m happy to tell you that because Roger, specifically, is such a wonderful, generous, knowledgeable theater artist, my life and my work are immeasurably blessed. Of course, I’d say the same about Alex Timbers, and we don’t cohabit.
There’s a delightful density to the references and throwaway lines in Peter (a Philip Glass joke!); were there any personal favorite detours or jokes that had to be trimmed for pacing or because they were just too obscure?
Uh huh. But I’m not giving that stuff away. I might find some use for it when we do the show in London.
This isn’t your first time at the Tony rodeo, so to speak. What makes being nominated for Peter different than when you got the nod for Jersey Boys [Best Book of a Musical]?
There’s not much difference, actually. The nomination for Jersey Boys was an overwhelming exclamation point to a long journey that began in La Jolla. The same for Peter – including the La Jolla part. May I never be so old or jaded that working on Broadway – my dream since I was knee-high to a showstopper – is less than thrilling. Or that a Tony nomination is not a reason to jump up and down on a chair until it breaks.
Now that Jersey Boys is such a solid, longstanding smash, can you look back and say what the most challenging aspect of bringing it to the stage was for you? Is there one thing you still wish you could change and get “right”?
Writing a musical about real people and real events was an interesting roller coaster for me and Marshall Brickman – that’s the Oscar-winning Marshall Brickman, by the way – because you are continually addressing the conflict between what actually happened and dramatic necessity. There was a line in the show, “You ask four guys what happened, you get seventeen different answers.” After speaking to these guys individually, we realized that people remember things the way they need to, the way they want to, and out of that came the realization that there is no one true version of their story. But then, out of that, came the structure for the show. Which is four guys remembering what happened, and their memories sometimes reinforce each other, and sometimes they contradict each other. It’s Roshomon-esque. It’s not a documentary and it’s not fiction; it’s four guys’ real lives up there.
The one thing I would change is, I wish my dad had been healthy enough to attend the opening night on Broadway with my mom. But he got better and was able to come to the Chicago opening two years later, so how great is that!!
I work as an advertising copywriter for a “day job” and I know you have a background in advertising as well. Is there something about that world that prepares you for a life in the theater? What was the most difficult campaign you worked on and why? Is there one campaign you’re proudest of?
Copywriting is, I think, like writing a good postcard. It forces you away from extra adjectives, superfluous bullshit. Good advertising gets right to the point. It’s good to be able to write a scene that way sometimes. Also, advertising is a deadline business. So writer’s block is a luxury I’ve never been able to afford.
The ad campaign I’m proudest of is the one we did for The Lion King. I won’t go into specifics, but we had a strong strategy that was appreciated right away by Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, who ran the theater division at the time. They have separately and collectively saved my life many times since, professionally and personally. So TLK holds a very dear place in my heart. Not really an answer to your question, but what the hell.
As for the most difficult – I won’t say. Advertisers take a sacred oath of discretion, as well you know. Never to be violated.
Peter Pan never wants to grow up. If you could go back and be a kid again, how old would you want to be and why?
I was a miserable child, and something of a habitual liar. So I’m much better off at my age now, since the misery and habitual lying form the basis of what is now a good ear for dialogue and a keen appreciation of pathos.
Check back next week when we talk to directors Roger Rees & Alex Timbers!