A lot of people watched last year’s big, splashy, one-night-only televised staging of The Sound of Music Live! on NBC. And a lot of people hated it. Like a lot of people. Like really hated it.
And those two things—the Sound of Music’s mammoth ratings and its brutal critical response—combine to make NBC’s second go at a live theatre event on TV, Thursday night’s production of Peter Pan Live!, a must-watch television event. Or, if the pattern from last year is to be repeated, in which the production and star Carrie Underwood were raked through the coals 140-characters and one snarky tweet at a time, Peter Pan Live! is a must-hatewatch event.
Already mocking star Allison Williams’s Peter-Pan pixie and goofy promo materials with the production’s Captain Hook, Christopher Walken, before the live event has even aired, it appears that the social-media wolves are salivating and ready to feast on this song-and-dance prey.
Well, the cast of Peter Pan Live!—speaking on a break from rehearsals for the big show—knows what you thought about last year’s show and what you’re expecting from this year’s. And in the face of all the negativity, they’re still thinking happy thoughts.
“I will say this about last year: today’s audiences like to watch things cynically,” says Williams, who has been rehearsing to play Peter Pan on her off-season break from shooting HBO’s Girls, on which she plays grating goody-two-shoes Marnie Michaels. “And I’m on a show that’s cynical in tone so I’m no stranger to that.”
“Hatewatching is a thing,” she continues. “It’s a whole way of watching something, and it’s not an audience that’s natural to a non-cynical performance. Peter Pan, you cannot watch cynically. If you do, you’re going to hate it, no question. It falls apart instantly.”
With a unique take on last year’s response to Sound of Music Live! is Christian Borle, who played Max in that production and is back to play Smee and Mr. Darling in Peter Pan Live!—apparently having survived the lashings the former received from critics and on Twitter. He begins by stressing the truly unique nature of these productions as one-night-only theatrical events, but on TV for everyone to watch.
“We all want it to be awesome,” he says. “Like last year we all wanted it to be the best thing ever. And it was... good.” (It should be noted that Borle’s voice goes up a full octave as he says “good.”) Should there be any confusion that the Sound of Music cast might have been blissfully ignorant of the response the production received, he clarifies: “We were all hyper-conscious about what those reactions were.”
Understandably, Borle has a lot to get off his chest on the topic. “I don’t mind going on record saying that I was mesmerized by the actors in our community who were so snarky about Sound of Music on Twitter,” he continues. “I just thought, ‘Don’t you ever want to work for NBC? They’re reading all of this.’ Also, just be nice. I don’t understand the impulse to tear down.”
Broadway megastar Kelli O’Hara, who will play Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan Live!, is quick to chime in. “You didn’t see me tweeting last time,” she laughs.
She also shrugs at the impulse to tear down an ambitious and exciting project rather than embrace it and its imperfections, particularly on the part of the musical theatre community, as NBC admirably hires theatre vets like herself and Borle (and, last year, Tony-winners Audra MacDonald and Laura Benanti) to star alongside Hollywood names like Underwood, Williams, and Walken in these productions, shining a spotlight on legit talent.
“Some of those people who were snarky about it might have wanted to be part of it,” she says. “You learn that in second grade, with the mean girls.”
But for all the talk of the Twitter response and hatewatching and the negative reviews for Sound of Music Live!, it doesn’t take a twirling Maria von Trapp to spin the endeavor positively: it was a big, fat hit for NBC. The 22 million people who tuned in live made it NBC’s most-watched Thursday night event in a decade, excluding sports. Counting encores, NBC estimated that over 44 million people had watched some portion of the production by the end of the month.
It should come as no surprise, then, that even in the face of the snark the event received NBC was raring to put together another musical this year. It’s already making a handful of smart decisions. While NBC is still relying on celebrities to sell the production, lead Allison Williams represents a hefty dimming in star-wattage from Carrie Underwood last year—a wise choice considering the ridicule Underwood’s acting received.
This is not to say that Williams as the lead won’t baffle some viewers the same way that the casting of a country singer as a yodeling theatre icon did last year. Anyone unfamiliar with the Peter Pan musical, for example, might not know of the grand tradition of casting women—from Mary Martin to Sandy Duncan—as the titular boy who won’t grow up.
“I called Lena Dunham the night before [the casting] was announced,” Williams says. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the coolest thing. It’s so subversive. You’re going to be in drag.’”
And those who do know the show’s cross-dressing history, particularly those who wore out their VHS tapes of the Mary Martin production that aired on TV in 1960, might balk at the casting of the polarizing Girls star in the cherished role.
Two things, however, are abundantly clear. One, from a short preview of her rehearsal performance, is that Williams certainly boasts the vocal chops to do the part justice. The other is that she’s been preparing for this role all her life.
“A lot of people cried,” she remembers, recalling her friends’ reaction to her being cast. “Which was sweet and also troubling, because it meant that I have never shut up about wanting to be Peter Pan.”
And it’s a life-long dream that she takes very seriously. “When I first heard they were doing Peter Pan, I thought, ‘Well whoever does this, I hope they know what they’ve gotten into. That it’s a really good role and I hope they take care of it,’” Williams says. “Now I’m like, that’s on me now.”
But if the casting of Williams is still questionable—at least until she proves herself Thursday night—convincing Christopher Walken to play Captain Hook is indisputably inspired.
So wry and deadpan that it was almost as if he was parodying himself—in the most delightful sense of that description—it’s hard to get Walken to expound much on why he signed on to the production, at least beyond the play-by-play receiving a call from his agent and thinking, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” (Actual quote.)
“It helps that I was born in musicals,” he offers. “I was a chorus boy until I was nearly 30. I toured with West Side Story. Did a lot of musicals. And then I started being an actor. So this is like a hybrid.”
He speaks about the challenges of doing a live theatrical production without being able to feed off a live audience. (“There’s a big audience, but you can’t see it,” he says, with a wily glint in his eye.) And he speaks about the perks of the two months of rehearsal with the full cast. (“Making a movie, sometimes you don’t even meet the other person in the movie,” he says. “I was in five movies with Jeff Goldblum before I met him. I met him at a stoplight”—the most Christopher Walken-y quote ever.)
But as for all of this hatewatching, pressure-of-a-live-event business? He’s more than happy to leave that to his co-stars to expound upon. And they’re happy to oblige.
“I have full faith that this will happen,” Williams says, prepping her fairy dust for a flurry of happy thoughts. “People will hear the opening strings of music that they know deep, deep down in their heart, and it will make them nostalgic again. And they’ll crumble. And they might get one hate-tweet out really quickly, and then we won’t hear from them for a while—because they’ll have been sucked into the sense memory that hopefully will be Peter Pan.”
First star to the right, tweet on ‘til morning.