Meet Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the men behind “Peter and the Starcatcher”
As a kid, Dave Barry saw his share of Broadway shows.
“The great thing about growing up in Armonk was that you lived in this little town where you knew everybody, but you were 30 miles from Manhattan,” he says. “We used to go to North White Plains to catch the train and it was kind of a wonderful era, the ’50s and ’60s.
“I saw ‘The Music Man’ with Robert Preston which, to this day, is my favorite ever musical,” Barry says. “And I saw ‘I Had a Ball’ with Buddy Hackett, which was horrible, but it was great fun to see. And ‘Half a Sixpence,’ which I later found out had John Cleese in it as a young British actor.”
He also saw Mary Martin as Peter Pan.
“I remember kinda thinking ‘Why is there a lady playing a boy?’ That didn’t work that well for me.”
It hasn’t exactly been a mission of his — he has been busy writing books and award-winning newspaper columns — but tomorrow, Dave Barry will help bring a different Peter Pan to Broadway, one played by a man: New City native Adam Chanler-Berat.
Barry and co-writer Ridley Pearson, who grew up in Greenwich, wrote “Peter and the Starcatchers” — a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s story of the boy who’d never grow up — which opens Sunday at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater, adapted for the stage under a slightly different name: On Broadway, it’s a single starcatcher.
Wags have already dubbed the play “‘Wicked’ for boys,” seeing in it potential for Disney Theatricals to draw flocks of boys to Broadway the way the Stephen Schwartz musical has drawn gaggles of young girls since opening in 2003.
A backstory is born
“Peter and the Starcatchers” began as a question posed by Pearson’s then five-year-old daughter, Paige.
“She wanted to know how Peter Pan met Captain Hook — and I realized there were a lot of unanswered questions: How can he fly, why doesn’t he grow old, why does he detach from his shadow?” says Pearson.
Pearson took those questions to Barry, who plays guitar in a rock band he calls “the worst of the worst.”
(The band’s name is the Rock Bottom Remainders — taken from the publishing term for those books that don’t sell and must be heavily discounted to get rid of. Pearson plays bass; Barry rhythm and lead guitar, covering rock hits from the ’50s and ’60s.)
“When I told Dave I was thinking of writing a prequel to ‘Peter Pan,’ his eyes went wide,” Pearson recalls. “Then I said, ‘Hey, you write booger jokes for a living and I kill people for a living, as a crime writer, maybe if we combined our talents, we could have a suspenseful but funny book about how a boy became Peter Pan.
“One of us took the funny, humorous kid-like characters and one of took the psychopathical villainous piratical characters,” Pearson says, letting the listener deduce which writer took which assignment. “And since a character drove each chapter, the guy whose chapter it was got to right the first draft.”
Before long, they adopted what Pearson calls a third voice — the voice that has seen the duo through five “Peter” books in all, regulars on best-seller lists.
Barry says part of the challenge was that there are several Peter Pan incarnations.
“There’s the J.M. Barrie Peter Pan, which few Americans know, there’s the Disney Peter Pan and the Mary Martin on Broadway Peter Pan. We felt comfortable that we had to hit the main points: He can fly, he never gets old and he’s on an island. We had a lot of room to work with.”
The answer to a lot of the problems — and several of Paige Pearson’s questions — is “star stuff,” which figures prominently in the action of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
The original “Starcatchers” story involves an adventuresome orphan, Peter, (Chanler-Berat, of “Next to Normal” fame) who encounters a girl named Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), two trunks loaded with mysterious cargo and an evil villain named Black Stache, played with a Snidely Whiplash sneer by Christian Borle, from TV’s “Smash.” On Broadway, it is co-directed by Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) and Roger Rees (“Nicholas Nickleby”).
‘A completely different kind of work’
Both writers followed the adaptation through the process and praised Elice for his artistry.
“It was the most fun you could ever imagine,” Pearson says. “At each stage we saw it, it was more refined, more intelligent, funnier and more concise. Dave and I just sat back and said ‘Wow! Where was this guy when we were writing our book?’”
If Barry was nervous being adapted, all fears dissolved when Elice — who had first brought the book to the attention of Disney Theatricals honcho Tom Schumacher — described the scene when Black Stache finally appears.
“He had me laughing till my gut hurt,” Barry recalls. “That’s not at all what we did with Black Stache. But it was just so wonderful. And then when I saw Christian Borle do it, I was so blown away.
“We were so blown away by what (Elice) did,” Barry says. “It would have been more difficult if it had been a meticulous recreation of the book, but it’s not. It’s a completely different kind of work that uses a story we came up with, pretty faithfully,” Barry says. “But we were delighted at what he did with it. There’s so much wordplay. I finally read the script and realized that, even though I’d seen it a few times, there was so much I’d missed. There’s so much going on.”
“Starcatcher” played to raves at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop last spring, with Borle drawing kudos for his over-the-top villain, Black Stache. (Read an interview with Adam Chanler-Berat, during the NYTW run, here.)
Stache or ‘Smash’?
At a reception after the NYTW opening, Pearson says Borle pulled him aside and said “I want you to know that this is my role and I so appreciate the opportunity to play this character and develop this character that I will do everything in my power to play this character whenever this thing plays Broadway.”
Then he went off to shoot “Smash,” the NBC hit about a Broadway-bound Marilyn Monroe musical, raising concerns that Borle — who had created the role before taking the role of composer Tom Levitt on “Smash” — might not be there for “Peter.”
The timing just happened to work out for all parties. “Smash” finished shooting in March, in time for the start of “Starcatcher” previews. Pearson says Borle will be able to play a couple of months in the role he created before reporting back for season 2 of “Smash.”
Barry has had his work adapted for TV (the long-running “Dave’s World” was based on his column) and for the movies (“Big Trouble”) but he calls his first brush with Broadway “fascinating.”
“Compared to making a movie, the process is way more time consuming,” he says. “Less money goes into it, but way more man hours. That’s the beauty of it. With the movie, they cut the final version and that’s it. With this, they’ve been able to test and modify it. It’s fascinating to watch the process.”
What would have happened if, a decade ago, a five-year-old girl hadn’t asked her dad about how Peter Pan met Captain Hook?
“I have thought about that,” Barry says. “There’s no way I would have ever thought of writing books for young people. There’s no way I would have ever thought of collaborating with anybody. And look what’s come of it. Ridley and I are still working together and we’ve had remarkable experiences all because of Paige asking that question.”
Then he pauses a beat before adding: “We’ve locked her in her room and we won’t let her out till she comes up with another question.”
“Peter and the Starcatcher,” Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th St. Opens April 15. $35 to $110. 877-250-2929. www.peterandthestarcatcher.com.
Photos courtesy of O&M Co.: Top, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; middle, New City’s Adam Chanler-Berat is Peter and Christian Borle is Black Stache; bottom, Kevin Del Aguila and Christian Borle.