TV Critic Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch nailed it when she wrote of last night’s “Peter Pan Live” on NBC, “Christopher Walken, whose casting seemed a stroke of genius, was oddly awful as Captain Hook. At points, he seemed to be sleepwalking; other times, he was frenzied.”
Indeed, on the whole, the production itself was “oddly awful.” So, artistically, NBC is 0-2 with the two live musicals it’s aired in the past two years.
Yet I also agree with Pennington when she says: “Producing a full-scale musical and airing it live during the Christmas holidays is a fantastic idea, and NBC deserves a big round of applause for doing it two years in a row.”
“Peter Pan Live” was a much more ambitious production than last year’s live airing of “The Sound of Music,” in which Carrie Underwood, as Maria, was pitch-perfect in her singing and tone-deaf in her acting.
Allison Williams, who played Peter Pan, was a better actress than Underwood was in “Music,” but isn’t as strong a singer. And as Variety’s TV columnist Brian Lowry observed, Williams “seemed far less boyish — and buoyant — than other famous occupants of the Peter Pan role on stage.”
To be fair, those others whom so many of us identify with the role — Mary Martin, Cathy Rigby and Sandy Duncan — had hundreds of performances, before live audiences, to hone their roles.
Undeniably, the TV “Peter Pan” that is so close to the hearts of many of us baby boomers was the one with Mary Martin, co-starring Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. But when that version first appeared, live on TV in 1955, it was actually the final performance of a show Martin and Ritchard, along with many others in the cast, had been playing for months, before live audiences in San Francisco and Los Angeles and on Broadway.
Still, I love the full-circle nature of what NBC is doing with these musicals. Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt and his colleagues realize that in this world of fragmented TV viewing, one key to drawing big audiences is event programming.
The event programming strategy was first espoused in the 1950s, in the early days of TV, by the gentleman who had Greenblatt’s job at NBC back then, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver (who also was actress Sigourney Weaver’s dad). And the original 1955 airing of “Peter Pan” was a very deliberate part of his strategy.
That version of “ ‘Peter Pan’ represented a conscious strategy by NBC to reinvent broadcasting,” writes journalism professor James L. Baughman in his perceptive 2007 book “Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-1961.”
He continues, writing that Weaver “believed that television should not follow radio’s rules and rely on weekly and daily series. More viewers would be captured if NBC emphasized special productions like ‘Peter Pan.’”
Weaver, Baughman noted, was thus dubbed “Mr. Spectacular.”
Shows such as “Peter Pan” and other spectaculars had a very specific business purpose. Before joining NBC, Weaver had worked in marketing at the American Tobacco Company and at ad agency Young & Rubicam.
In Weaver’s days “at Young & Rubicam, programming was controlled by advertising agencies and sponsors,” notes Erik Barnouw in his well-researched 1975 book “Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television.” He adds, “Weaver was determined that the control should shift to the networks.”
Part of that strategy, Barnouw continues, was Weaver’s “espousal of the ‘spectacular.’ Contracts with sponsors for television time were revised by Weaver to allow the network to ‘withhold’ occasional time periods for special programs,” for which NBC would then find sponsors that were usually not the same ones who controlled that time period. Previously, Barnouw writes, “such preemptions had always been possible but had involved reimbursement of talent costs to the sponsor and of commissions to advertising agencies — all of which discouraged special programs. Weaver institutionalized the special.”
Furthermore, Weaver said that spectaculars were “designed to create ‘excitement and controversy and washday gossip,’ and to ‘challenge the robotry of habit viewing.’”
I hope NBC continues to broadcast these live holiday musical specials — but actually airs them live nationwide. And I like the idea that they are Broadway shows. At some point NBC has said it will do a version of “The Music Man” live. Maybe NBC could shelve that for awhile.
Instead, how about this idea for next time: Make it a show that recently closed on Broadway, and use those cast members. And perform the live TV version in front of a live studio audience. The concept of what NBC is doing is right. It’s just in the execution that it needs some fine-tuning.
As Weaver once wrote in one of his famous memos — as quoted in Barnouw’s book — “Let us dare to think and let us think with daring.”
[To read an Open Mic piece by Chuck Ross about a Peter Pan project that had the potential of being great, but was never produced, please click here. And to read an Open Mic piece by Ross about the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan, please click here.]