One of the first shows I saw on Broadway was Beauty and the Beast*. Even at 15 years old, I remember feeling perplexed by a subplot that did not exist in the movie. Evidently, the Beast never learned to read, and Belle needs to teach him how to read, and when he is learning to read he transforms into a bratty child. “Told ‘ya!” is his response to Belle when he correctly predicts a plot twist in the book she is reading to him… a line that always elicits giggles from children in the audience.
Unlike Beauty and the Beast, which forces adults to cringe through that condescending subplot for only two minutes, Finding Neverland is a two-and-a-half hour extension of that legacy started by Beast’s illiteracy. In short: Broadway musicals marketed toward children are allowed to stunt character development and sacrifice plausibility by creating adult characters that transgress in maturity for the sake of “comedy.”
To provide credit where credit is due, the many children in the audience seemed to enjoy the show immensely. The predominant genre for the songs could be described as “American-Idol ballads”—uptempo, inspirational numbers with plenty of belting from the principle actors. While not a single song is memorable for its melody, the high production values behind the pirate-ship number “Stronger” make the Act 1 closer a highlight. Similarly, the special-effects used in the reprise of “Neverland,” which include lots of glittery confetti and a wind machine, provide an artistic perspective on the death of a major character.
One might argue that the emphasis on flare over style was appropriate given the musical’s connection to Peter Pan. Ironically, though, the far-superior movie upon which this musical is based does a much better job of capturing the multi-generational appeal of Peter Pan. The J.M. Barrie of the movie (played by Johnny Depp) is understated. He is an adult struggling between his feelings of inadequacy as a writer and his new-found responsibilities to a sick friend’s four boys. J.M. Barrie in this musical (Kevin Kern) walks the fine line between cloying and creepy. He dreams about throwing peas into the hair of a supercilious guest at a dinner party. He rejects his responsibilities toward the theater company that employs him so he can run around Kensington Park wearing a pirate cap. He creates Peter Pan and Captain Hook to explore two sides of his personality—an interesting subtext of Peter Pan that is too explicitly stated (and repeated) in Finding Neverland.
Here are some of the lessons this musical teaches about London circa 1904:
- Adults must fit into one of two categories: they are either juveniles who laugh and smile often while encouraging children to be imaginative, or they are anti-imagination sticks-in-mud.
- Related to the first note: the anti-fun adults will inevitably shift to the preferred “fun” category when they are exposed to the magic of Peter Pan. This shift generally occurs over the course of a song, for character development must occur either instantly or not at all.
- British vocabularies were remarkably limited. Most sentences needed to include the word “silly” or “imagination.” Some examples: “Playing in the park is just silly.” “One should not take my play seriously. It’s really just silliness.” Overuse of the word “imagination” was related to the Brit’s apparent need to reiterate a work’s theme dozens of times just in case an audience member might have missed it.
- Creative ideas were always initiated by a chance happening. Light reflected on a spoon—that looks like a fairy. Need an antagonist? Gaze upon that hook-shaped shadow superimposed by your friend’s cane.
- Children were not allowed to be actors so much as machines that step to center-stage on cue, deliver an audience-pleasing line like, “I won’t go to bed—that’s what I always say!” and retreat backstage during the obligatory laughter. I do not blame the young actors—their performances are stunted by a bad script and repetitive staging. Still, gifted performances from the children in this year’s traveling companies of Matilda and Fun Home emphasize the superiority of those two shows.
Not all movies are meant to become Broadway musicals, and Finding Neverland has reserved its place near the bottom of such adaptations. Some of its individual parts reach the level of tolerable mediocrity, but when taken as whole, it is seeped so deeply by its own simplicity that it fails to create an interesting story or plausible characters.
*Horler-family fact: My father predicted that Beauty and the Beast would be produced as a musical a full three years prior to its Broadway premier. The 1992 Oscar awards telecast included lavish stagings for the three original songs from Beauty and the Beast, to which Norm said, “I bet they turn that into a Broadway musical.” A 13-year-old me responded, “Dad, that’s ridiculous! They would never be able to do the talking objects.” If that conversation were the type of thing that my father remembered, he would owe me an “I told you so.”