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19 Things You Might Not Know About Peter Pan the Musical

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What’s the way to Neverland? Second to the right, and straight on ’til morning! Or, turn to NBC. Since 1955, the network has broadcast the Broadway musical version of J. M. Barrie’s story about the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up to the delight of children (and children-at-heart) across the nation. Before tuning in to the latest iteration of the musical, starring Allison Williams (Girls) and Christopher Walken (come on) tonight, arm yourself with these 19 little-known facts about the show.

1. The curtain rose on the first Broadway version of Peter Pan in 1905.

Nina Boucicault (Peter Pan) and Hilda Trevelyan (Wendy) in the original 1904 production. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

J. M. Barrie first wrote Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, for the stage in 1904. It premiered at the Duke of York's Theatre on December 27, 1904, and ran for 145 performances. While it continued to run in London (and would for decades), the show opened on the Great White Way the following year. While today we most often think of Peter Pan as a book, Barrie wouldn't write a novelization of his story until 1911; he called it Peter and Wendy.

2. Maude Adams was Broadway’s first Peter.

According to Slate, famed theater producer Charles Frohman—he also produced the New York premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895—insisted that Barrie cast his protégé, Maude Adams, in the title role. While another woman, Nina Boucicault, debuted as Peter in London in 1904 (Adams wasn’t available until the following summer), it was Frohman’s suggestion to cast a woman as Peter that led to the gender-bending casting tradition. Frohman reasoned that a man wouldn’t be able to convincingly play Peter (a young boy), but casting a real boy was out of the question since English law prohibited the appearance of minors onstage after 9:00 p.m.

3. The musical version we know and love today—and which NBC will Broadcast live tonight—made its Broadway debut in 1954.

According to Playbill, Peter Pan first appeared on Broadway in 1950. But because it only had five songs (written by Leonard Bernstein), it was more of a play with musical numbers than an actual musical. The first full-length musical production opened in 1954. It was directed by Jerome Robbins and starred Mary Martin as Peter Pan and Australian actor Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. While Robbins helmed productions of On the Town, The King and I, The Pajama Game, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as choreographed for the New York City Ballet (of which he later became ballet master), he’s most well-known for conceiving, choreographing, and directing West Side Story

4. Robbins brought in the big guns to spruce up the musical.

Most of the Peter Pan music was written by Mark “Moose” Charlap, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. But, after the show flopped in a pre-Broadway West Coast tour, Robbins enlisted the help of composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green to beef up the score. They’re responsible for some of the play’s most memorable songs, including "Neverland," "Wendy," "Oh, My Mysterious Lady," "Ugg-a-wugg," "Distant Melody,” and "Captain Hook's Waltz."

5. Pan lyricists Comden and Green worked together longer than any other Broadway writing team in history. 

Adolph Green and Betty Comden in 2001. (Gabe Palacio / Getty Images)

Betty Comden and Adolph Green met in 1938 in New York City and soon after, with Judy Tuvim (who would later change her name to Judy Holliday), Alvin Hammer, and John Frank, formed the performing group The Revuers. They would perform satirical song and dance shows at the Greenwich Village nightclub The Village Vanguard. In 1944, Comden and Green joined forces with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins to create On the Town. The rest, as they say, is history. The duo would go on to pen dozens of Broadway shows and movie musicals in Hollywood, including 1952’s Singing in the Rain

In 1980, Comden and Green were named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1991, they received Kennedy Center Honors.

6. Jule Styne wrote a classic Christmas carol. 

Legendary composer Jule Styne not only lent his talents to Peter Pan and created some of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s most enduring tunes (including songs for Gypsy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Funny Girl), he earned a spot in the Christmas canon. Styne wrote “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” in 1945.

7. Only one man has ever played Peter Pan in Robbins’ version of the show.

And he only sang one number. Originally an understudy, Jack Noseworthy flew as Peter in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, an anthology tribute to Robbins’ work, in 1989 when Charlotte d’Amboise, the principal Peter Pan, was unable to take the stage. 

Of course, Peter Pan has been played by male actors in other stage productions, most notably the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wendy and Peter Pan and Peter and the Starcatcher

8. Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard both won Tonys for their roles in the 1954 Broadway production. 

Sadly, The Pajama Game—directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Bob Fosse—was named Best Musical over Peter Pan that year. Martin would also win an Emmy for her portrayal of Peter in NBC’s 1955 live broadcast of the show—but more on that in a bit.

9. Cyril Ritchard was not only a pirate, but an elf. 

He provided the voice for Elrond in the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. 

10. The 1954 Broadway production was a family affair for Mary Martin. 

Martin’s daughter, Heller Halliday, played the role of Liza the maid in the original Broadway production and in the 1955 NBC broadcast

11. NBC cut the original Broadway production of Robbins’ Peter Pan short in order to broadcast a live version of the show.

The original 1954 musical version of Peter Pan ran for 152 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre. This was much shorter than expected. According to Playbill, NBC paid to close the production early and re-tool the show for a live television broadcast.

12. Peter Pan was the first full-length Broadway production to air on color TV.

On March 7, 1955, NBC brought Peter Pan into the homes of millions of Americans. The show, with its original Broadway cast (with the exception of Michael Darling—Broadway’s Joseph Stafford was replaced by Tom Halloran), aired as part of NBC’s Producers’ Showcase series.

13. The original Peter Pan broadcast drew over 65 million viewers.

At the time, this was the largest television audience to tune in for any single program. (To compare, an estimated 108.4 million people watched the 2013 Super Bowl while the Friends series finale in 2004 drew an estimated 52.5 million pairs of eyes.)

14. The 2014 Peter Pan Live! will be the fourth live television performance of the musical.

After the mammoth success of NBC’s Peter Pan broadcast in 1955, the network restaged it again the following year. A new version, also starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard but with a new supporting cast, was broadcast in 1960. The 1960 broadcast was released on VHS in 1990, therefore making it the version most near-and-dear to Millennials’ and Gen Xers’ hearts. 

15. Allison Williams is the fourth woman to don Peter’s green tights.

Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby (in the 1979 and 1990 Broadway revivals, respectively) portrayed Robbins’ version of the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up before her. 

16. Mary Martin and Maureen Bailey (who played Wendy in the 1960 version) would later reunite on stage.

Bailey joined the cast (as an ensemble member and Liesl understudy) of The Sound of Music on Broadway during its 1959-1963 run. Martin played Maria. 

17. Sondra Lee (Tiger Lily in the 1960 version) published a memoir in 2009 called I’ve Slept with Everybody.

In it, she insinuates that she had a romantic relationship with Marlon Brando—and publishes love letters and postcards that seem to prove it!

18. J. K. Simmons played Captain Hook.

J. K. Simmons (Whiplash, The Closer, Juno) danced the tarantella as Captain Hook opposite Cathy Rigby in the 1991 Broadway production. He also played Mr. Darling.

19. In fact, Captain Hook and Mr. Darling are always played by the same actor—except in the 2014 version.

The double casting trick, in which Captain Hook and Mr. Darling are played by the same person, provides a clever parallelism between the reality of the Darlings' London and the dream world that is Neverland. It’s only fitting that the disciplinarian father would transform into the villainous pirate.

NBC abandoned this trope for its 2014 broadcast of Peter Pan Live!, in which Christopher Walken will play Captain Hook. But to keep the spirit (if not the significance) of the double casting alive, Christian Borle will play both Mr. Darling (opposite Kelli O’Hara’s Mrs. Darling) and Hook’s sidekick Smee. 

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.


Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.


Raw dough.

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.


Kids trick-or-treating.

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.


The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.


Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.


Kids knocking on a door in costume.

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.


Sugar skulls with decoration.

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.


Little girl trick-or-treating.

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


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