Stage mishaps a soar point for Bar­rie’s hero

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - World - TROY LEN­NON HIS­TORY ED­I­TOR

It was the last night of the Kal­go­or­lie sea­son for the play Peter Pan, do­ing its first Aus­tralian tour in 1908. Play­ing the ti­tle role was Amer­i­can ac­tor Min­nie Tit­tell Brune, who since ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia in 1904 had be­come one of the most pop­u­lar stars of the stage in the coun­try.

Crit­ics and au­di­ences had loved her per­for­mance. One writer stat­ing that Brune “acted with a vi­va­cious­ness that was nec­es­sary to the piece and her mis­chievous though hu­man child­ish pranks were charm­ing.’’

But on this July night at Kal­go­or­lie’s His Majesty’s The­atre some­thing went badly wrong with the set.

Ac­cord­ing to a news­pa­per re­port “a heavy solid iron frame­work and hor­i­zon­tal bar, used by six boys in a play­ing scene, fell across Miss Tit­tell Brune’s right foot, which badly crushed some of her toes.”

She cried out in pain, but “gamely” con­tin­ued through the long­est act of the play, limp­ing the whole time. A doc­tor tended to her foot at in­ter­val and she bravely took the stage again for the fi­nal two acts. For­tu­nately no per­ma­nent dam­age was done and in Au­gust she con­tin­ued the tour in Mel­bourne.

It was not the first time some­thing had gone wrong in a pro­duc­tion of James Matthew “J.M.” Bar­rie’s fa­mous play, nor would it be the last. The tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of stag­ing a story in which chil­dren fly makes it hard to avoid mishaps — a fact that is ex­ploited for its comic po­ten­tial in the new show Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which opens on Wed­nes­day at the Syd­ney Lyric The­atre.

Peter Pan made his de­but in Bar­rie’s 1902 novel The Lit­tle White Bird. In that book Peter is a one-week-old boy who flies out of his bed­room win­dow to Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens where he has to live with the birds af­ter los­ing his power of flight. He later asks the queen of the fairies to grant him the wish to be able to fly again. He flies back to the win­dow of his mother’s house but finds it locked and his mother hold­ing an­other baby. He spends the rest of his days re­sist­ing grow­ing up.

Bar­rie’s own brother had died on the day be­fore his 14th birth­day and had there­fore never grown up, which be­came part of the in­spi­ra­tion for sto­ries he created for sons of his friends Sylvia and Arthur Llewe­lyn Davies. He of­ten acted out scenes with the boys.

The suc­cess of The Lit­tle White Bird, led to a full-length play. Bar­rie re­quested a wo­man be cast in the lead role, be­cause laws for­bade chil­dren un­der 14 be­ing in pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tions. Nina Bouci­cault, 37, was cast as Peter. Bar­rie also re­quested spe­cial equip­ment be de­signed to make Peter and the chil­dren fly. But on De­cem­ber 21, 1904, the night be­fore the show was sched­uled to open, a me­chan­i­cal lift col­lapsed bring­ing down a large part of the set.

The open­ing had to be post­poned un­til De­cem­ber 26. For­tu­nately, that show went with­out a hitch and re­views were gen­er­ally pos­i­tive. The Guardian called it “ab­so­lutely orig­i­nal — the prod­uct of a unique imag­i­na­tion”.

In 1905 the play opened in the US star­ring Maude Adams in the lead role, to huge box-of­fice suc­cess and rave re­views. Her cos­tume pop­u­larised what be­came known as the “Peter Pan col­lar”. A young Walt Dis­ney went to see the show and be­came ob­sessed with the story. He even played Peter in a school pro­duc­tion and rigged a way of mak­ing Peter fly and crash into the au­di­ence.

In 1911, Bar­rie pub­lished a book of the story ti­tled Peter And Wendy, which be­came an in­stant best­seller. The play con­tin­ued hav­ing sev­eral suc­cess­ful re­vivals and it was not un­til 1924 that the story was first adapted to film. Bar­rie re­jected sug­ges­tions that stars such as Mary Pick­ford play Peter and se­lected 17-year-old Betty Bron­son. The au­thor later com­plained the film was too much like the stage play.

In 1950, Leonard Bern­stein re­vived the play as a mu­si­cal, with Boris Karloff play­ing Cap­tain Hook and Jean Arthur as Peter. But Bern­stein’s score had to be cut to just five songs be­cause most of the cast had limited singing ranges.

Per­haps the most fa­mous adap­ta­tion was the 1953 an­i­mated fea­ture by Dis­ney. Al­though he filmed a live ac­tion ver­sion as ref­er­ence for his an­i­ma­tors there were no mishaps on set. How­ever an­i­ma­tor, Fred Moore, died in a car ac­ci­dent in 1952 while it was still in pro­duc­tion.

One of the most fa­mous pro­duc­tions was a 1954 Broad­way mu­si­cal star­ring Mary Martin.

In 1960, dur­ing re­hearsals for a TV per­for­mance of the show, Martin crashed into the wall of the TV stu­dio. She was in The Sound Of Mu­sic at the time and had to per­form wear­ing a cast on her arm.

Nina Bouci­cault as Peter Pan in the first stage pro­duc­tion; (in­set) Mary Martin soars high in her TV per­for­mance.

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