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Chuck Ross

‘Peter Pan Live’ Was ‘Oddly Awful.’ What NBC Needs to Do to Have These Musical Spectaculars Grow Up

Dec 5, 2014

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.”

peter pan live-title

[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.]

13 Comments

  1. It would be nice if this article was formatted so you could actually read it….

    • Hi Lisa. So sorry you’re having problems reading this blog entry. We checked our systems and the piece seems to be formatted correctly. If you email me here at chkross@TVWeek.com, I will paste a copy of my piece in a return email to you. Thanks, Chuck

      Chuck Ross
  2. I wonder if ratings would have been higher had this been broadcast on a weekend at 7 pm. I don’t know how many families let their kids stay up until 11, or even 10, to catch the show.

  3. I enjoyed the production. At times it was humorous. Love Christopher Walken. It must of have been a challenge for him to sing, dance and read lines at the same time. I am glad that he was cast as Captain Hook. It was entertaining. Too late at night for kids to stay up. As a baby boomer I must have seen Mary Martin and Cyril Ricthard portray Peter Pan at least 20 times. Laughed a lot last night!
    Many good memories. Allison Williams has a great voice and carried the show. Thank you for producing the live telecast.

  4. We attempted to watch this but the audio was so badly out of sync, sometimes up to 1 second behind the mouths that we had to bail after 5 minutes.

  5. Oddly disturbing to see anyone quote comments from Gail Pennington, and even more disturbing to see anyone agree with her opinions. She has got to be one of the worst TV critics writing in any newspaper anywhere. She is a key reason to avoid reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

  6. While I appreciate Chuck’s historic perspective, I disagree with both his historic analysis and his review of last night’s Peter Pan. First, I found nothing “awful” about it. There are things I would have tightened or changed, but all of that’s squarely in the realm of armchair quarterbacking. My hat is off to the cast, crew and especially the immensely talented Glenn Weiss. That said, I don’t see a recently-closed show as the best source material for what I hope will be an annual family viewing tradition. Instead I’d put another familiar production in the hands of Susan Stroman or Rob Marshall and let one of them COLLABORATE with a gifted TV director like Weiss or Beth McCarthy-Miller. As for comparisons to Pat Weaver’s era, there was no TV history or snarky media, social and otherwise, to deal with. So Weaver was free to invent not just a format but an entire medium. His “spectaculars” included lots of symphony concerts and operas (including the world premiere of “Amahl and the Night Visitors”) which are barely visible on PBS these days. In that context, NBC’s decisions in 2014 are arguably even more daring.

  7. If nothing else, it has gotten people talking. The suggestion to do a current Broadway show with the current actors makes a lot of sense. Live TV itself is a lot of work and this group needed more time performing the actual production in front of an audience. Also the new songs, and edited songs for political correctness, did not benefit the production.
    Being the daughter of the news anchor doesn’t make someone a strong enough personality to headline a live production. I would question whether the casting may have had an impact on the ratings. I know a lot of people who didn’t turn into the show because they didn’t believe that Ms. Williams had the experience to earn this type of lead in a major production. And, unlike Carrie Underwood, who has a huge fan following of her own, Allison does not have a huge fan base that will watch just because she is in the show.
    After watching the first hour, I was ready to do my own re-enactment of the Russian Roulette scene from The Deer Hunter.

  8. Bravo to NBC for these spectaculars. As a baby boomer, it brought back memories of the Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard Peter Pan, something I looked forward to seeing every year. I just don’t remember it dragging on for 3 hours, and that is my biggest complaint. It seemed to drag on a bit. Being live, I had no expectation of this being a finely polished filmed event, and although some issues were noticed (I could see the wire lines a few times, the audio wasn’t as loud as I expected) it was great because it was live and not so polished and packaged. I do hope NBC continues to put these on.

  9. Although promised as “live,” it was understandable that some short sequences were obviously pre-shot to allow for fly rigging to be connected. More bothersome was that much of the singing seemed prerecorded to allow for “dancing and singing” which the leads were not capable. Ms. Williams did a nice job, but just didn’t have enough of the spark that Peter requires. Walken is so quirky that Hook ended up always being funny.

  10. Pat Weaver also gave us The Today Show, The Tonight Show, the national daytime morning show , (“Home”) that was the precursor to the 3rd and 4th Hour of “Today” and not to mention NBC Radio’s MONITOR weekend “magazine” series that ran for close to 20 years.

    Too bad Gen.Sarnoff, the head of NBC didn’t agree with some of the things he did, and booted him out of NBC in the late 1950’s.

  11. Nathan Lane … Guys and Dolls. Be there.

  12. Walken was horrible. Johnny Depp would have made for a much better interesting Hook.

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