When Mary Martin Was the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

In the 1950s, a musical adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ starring Mary Martin became a sensation, attracting the fourth biggest audience of all time for a scripted TV show when a live production was broadcast on NBC.

Ben Yagoda | Longreads | December 2014 | 12 minutes (3,094 words)

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One day early in 1954, Mary Martin and her husband, Richard Halliday, were driving on the Merritt Parkway, near their home in Norwalk, Connecticut. On the car radio came Frank Sinatra’s new hit, “Young at Heart.” It was perfect! That is, the song had the exact sentiment and feel they wanted for the pet project they’d long been planning, a musical version of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan (original subtitle: “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”). Right on the spot, they decided they’d hire whoever had written the song to compose the score for their production.

It turned out that the words were by a young New Yorker, Carolyn Leigh, and the music by the veteran West Coast jazzman Johnny Richards. The next morning the phone rang in Leigh’s apartment, and a man who identified himself as Richard Halliday said that he and Martin wanted her to write the lyrics for Peter Pan. “Naturally, I thought somebody was kidding,” Leigh told a reporter. “That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. So I arranged to call him back at his office, and I did and it was him all right.”

Leigh told Halliday she had a new partner, a young composer named Morris “Moose” Charlap, and in short order the two had a meeting with Martin, Halliday, and Jerome Robbins, who was to direct and choreograph the show. Leigh, who at that point had only seen one musical in her life, recounted years later, “I remember singing a line to Jerry, ‘If I can live a life of crime, and still be home by dinnertime,’ and we got a nod of approval from him.”

She and Charlap went on to write the score (with a little help from some songwriting veterans), and on October 20, 1954, Peter Pan—with Martin as Peter—opened on Broadway to enraptured audiences and rave reviews. Several months later, NBC broadcast the production live on television. It was an even bigger sensation, attracting 65 million viewers—still the fourth biggest audience of all time for a scripted TV show.

NBC hopes to recapture the magic on December 4. Building on the success of last year’s live The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood, it will present with an all-new live Peter, starring Allison Williams (“Girls”) as Peter and Christopher Walken in the role of Captain Hook.

Photo Courtesy: NBC Universal

Allison Williams as Peter. Photo Courtesy: NBC Universal

If may seem odd that Martin played and now Williams is playing Peter—a boy who stops aging precisely at the moment before reaching puberty, and who has a playful but tender romance with a real girl, Wendy. But this casting convention dates from the first production, in 1904, and speaks to the play’s subtle but profound exploration of topics like gender, sexuality, identity, and even mortality, and is doubtless part of its deep appeal to so many children. So is flying, which is central to the play and which suggests the kind of freedom that, in our real lives, we only taste in dreams.

Peter Pan fever strikes kids intensely but randomly. One youngster who got a bad case was Mary Martin. “I cannot even remember a day when I didn’t want to be Peter Pan,” she wrote in her autobiography. “When I was a child, I was sure I could fly. In my dreams I often did, and it was always the same: I ran, raised my arms like a great bird, soared into the sky, flew.”

Living in Hollywood in the 1940s, Martin became fast friends with another actress and devotee of the story, Jean Arthur; whenever they were invited to a costume party, whoever was first to call the other on the phone got to go as Peter. Arthur got first dibs on playing the part on stage, in a successful 1950 Broadway production featuring Boris Karloff as both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling and including a handful of songs by Leonard Bernstein.

In mid-twentieth century America, Peter Pan was in the air, figuratively and literally. Walt Disney was yet another fan, and he bought film rights from the Barrie estate in 1939. Ten years later, he embarked on his animated version of the tale and it was released in 1953. Predictably, the darker themes were bleached out, but the “What Makes the Red Man Red?” production number grows ever more cringe-worthy.

The following year, Halliday and Martin (who was coming off her celebrated performance on Broadway in South Pacific), were approached by Edwin Lester, a West Coast producer, about putting on a new musical production. Their first hire was Jerome Robbins, who had choreographed ballets and Broadway musicals but had never before directed. Robbins also worked on collating the various versions of the script that had been done through the years, trying, as he said, to “find a way of doing it freshly and less stickily, less cutely, more robustly.”

In writing the score, Leigh and Charlap were flying blind. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Leigh later said. “We were only praying to get through it alive.” They achieved that and more, producing a series of songs that perfectly matched the spirit of the production: “I’ve Gotta Crow,” “I Won’t Grow Up,” “I’m Flying,” the lullaby “Lazy Shepherd” (ultimately changed to “Tender Shepherd”), and a heart-wrenching number in which Peter recalls what happened “When I Went Home“:

… the door was barred
And the windows barred
And I knew with an awful dread
That somebody else
Was sleeping in my bed.

Photo via the Library of Congress World Telegram and Sun.

Carolyn Leigh. Photo via the Library of Congress World Telegram and Sun.

Martin was 40 years old but hardly the most mature actress to have essayed the part. It wasn’t difficult for her to transform herself into Peter: she merely got a short haircut and “flattened my already more-or-less flat front. I never was what one would call amply endowed. Not until I reached fifty.” For Cyril Ritchard, with his background in British “panto,” switching back and forth between Captain Hook and Mr. Darling was a breeze. The supporting cast featured some intriguing players. Martin’s daughter, twelve-year-old Heller Halliday, was originally cast as Wendy, but Robbins argued against it, in part because of the potentially creepiness of the scenes in which Wendy and Peter played “mother” and “father” to the lost boys.

“I was very disappointed,” says Halliday in her Chestertown, Maryland, home, filled with photos of her mother in Peter Pan and other productions. But Robbins had something else I mind for her. She says, “He said, ‘Well, you’ve studied ballet for all your life,’ and so he choreographed a ballet for me.” This was a dance she shared with animals and trees in Neverland.” Heller was also featured in the closing number of the show, a duet with her mother of “I’ve Gotta Crow.”

The part of Wendy went to a young New York actress named Kathleen Nolan, who would later play Kate in television’s The Real McCoys and, later still, become president of the Screen Actors Guild. Joan Tewkesbury, later the screenwriter of Nashville and other Robert Altman films, was an Ostrich, one of the many anthropomorphic creatures who came to life in Robbins’ staging.

One of the first people Robbins called was Sondra Lee, a tiny blonde dancer whom he’d choreographed in the musical High Button Shoes. “When I heard from Jerry, he said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with me, but he wanted me to do this project that he was doing,” says Lee, now a venerated acting and dance teacher, in her Upper West Side apartment. She was initially cast as one of the Lost Boys, but soon after rehearsals began, Robbins gave her the role of the Indian maiden Tiger Lily, Wendy’s rival for Peter’s heart. Lee recalled in her autobiography, I’ve Slept with Everybody, “Our dances were based on children’s games. They were difficult to sustain: you needed so much energy. All the pounding and jumping—it was all pure dance, but we still looked like children playing.”

Possibly as much as any Broadway musical before or since, Peter Pan was infused with dance. Late in the process, Robbins cast Paul Taylor—then a young ballet dancer, later a distinguished choreographer—as “one of Captain Hook’s dancing, singing, brawling, slightly simian pirates.” Taylor recalled in his autobiography that during rehearsal, Robbins seemed “like an enthusiastic camp counselor explaining the rules of an enjoyable rainy-day indoor game.”

Soaring through the air had always been an essential part of Peter Pan, but Robbins saw flying in terms of dance and emphasized it more than ever before. He turned to a young Englishman, Peter Foy, who felt traditional flight equipment produced nothing more than (in the words of the website of the company he created, Flying By Foy) “nervous stunts or a series of static tableaus.” For this production, by contrast, he strived to “create flying sequences that looked natural, coordinated the actor’s movements and could be smoothly integrated into the play’s story line.” To achieve this, he invented what he called the “Inter-Related Pendulum,” which involved two separate suspension points, each controlled by a separate operator, and allowed for dancing in air. As the Times noted in its 2005 obituary of Foy (who would go on to elevate the Flying Nun, and many other characters, into the heights), “Properly flown, actors do not simply dangle. They sail and spin and somersault. They move as their characters would: a horizontal streak for Superman, a soaring diagonal for Peter Pan.”

Despite all the talent, the show opened in San Francisco to bad reviews. Variety deemed the prospect of a Broadway production “debatable” and the music “indifferent.” (An exception was “When I Went Home,” a “second act socko number.”) The paper complained, “In its present form it would be a little difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the Barrie story to understand just what it is all about.”

Deciding they needed to transform Peter Pan from a play with music to a full-fledged musical, the production team invited three veteran songwriters to come to San Francisco to look at the show: the lyric-writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green and the composer Jule Styne. The trio agreed the show could use some more songs and that they could supply it. However, Comden and Green had only an eight-day window before they had to go back to Hollywood to continue work on the MGM musical It’s Always Fair Weather.

The atmosphere was awkward. The two original songwriters watched as the three new ones holed themselves up in a hotel room. “You could hear the faint tick tick tick” of the typewriter, says Sondra Lee. The new team eventually produced a series of numbers that, in some cases, found their way into the production by edging out old ones. That irked Leigh and Charlap, of course. “The producer now has Comden-and-Green-and-Jule-Styne-itis;–and dislikes pretty much nearly everything we do,” Leigh wrote to her agent.

The production was a continual work in progress. “The Indian dance had 20,000 versions,” Lee says. “One night we hit the stage, and no one could remember what we were supposed to do. We all looked at each other and said, ‘Just go somewhere!’”

The show opened in August in Los Angeles, to better reviews, and then it was on to New York, where the tweaking continued. As time went on, the beauty and rightness of the songs—especially Charlap and Leigh’s original efforts—became apparent to all who heard them. According to the singer Sandy Stewart, who was later married to Charlap, Richard Rodgers sat in on rehearsal one day and said to the young composer: “You haven’t written a score, you’ve written an annuity.”

Ironically, the Charlap-Leigh song that had the greatest emotional effect on audiences and the cast, “When I Went Home,” was replaced by a Comden-Green-Styne lullaby, “Distant Melody.” The change stunned Sondra Lee. “I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I thought the song was the story of Peter Pan. It was the story of something children want from their parents that they don’t get, and the fear of being abandoned. I went to Mary, who I hardly knew, really, and just said, ‘Why did you cut that, that song?’ She said, ‘Nobody really responded,’ by which she meant that nobody applauded. I said, ‘Well they didn’t applaud for the Gettysburg Address, either,’ which I don’t think she really got, because it never went back into the show.”

Peter Pan opened at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater on October 20, 1954. Everything went smoothly, except for Paul Taylor’s big moment, when he was beaten up by a kangaroo, then thrown off the rear of the stage. On opening night, he veered off course and crashed into the proscenium, breaking his nose.

If the reviewers noticed the mishap, they didn’t say anything. In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote, “It’s the way Peter Pan should always have been and wasn’t.” The show played to sellout or near-sellout houses; Martin would win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and Ritchard for Best Actor. Martin was completely immersed in the production and the role, and was especially cognizant of children’s reactions. (Not so Robbins, who hadn’t signed on to direct a kids’ show; Martin reported that he especially hated it when the kids would shout, “Look out, Peter!”) After each performance, she stayed in costume, and character, until she had greeted and given fairy dust to the very last young audience member.

One innovation of the production was little noticed at the time, but was a harbinger of things to come. Peter Pan was the first Broadway production where the actors’ voices were amplified through portable microphones.

Watching the success of the show with great interest was Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, president of NBC. One of the ways he’d tried to establishing the network’s identity was through the “spectacular”—one-off, highly promoted programs that had an air of prestige (and, not coincidentally, directed power and attention toward the network and away from individual sponsors). Spectaculars were almost always musicals, and Peter Pan, with its star power and family appeal, fit perfectly. NBC and its parent company, RCA, were also heavily invested in the new color-television technology, and even though there were only 15,000 color sets in existence, the musical would be an ideal way to promote the concept. So as to play up the feeling of specialness, the Broadway production would have to close, but that wasn’t so bad: even though it was playing to near-capacity houses, expenses were so high that recouping the initial investment was a long way off. The $225,000 fee the Peacock was offering would take care of that in one fell swoop.

Peter Pan closed on Broadway in February, after a 152-performance run. Five sets were reassembled at a Brooklyn studio, and, after a brief rehearsal period, the production was presented live to the nation on March 7. (It couldn’t be filmed because Disney controlled motion picture results, and all that remains is a grainy black and white kinescope.)

The show succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. Its 65 million viewers, according to Collier’s magazine, constituted not only the biggest TV audience ever but “the largest audience ever assembled for anything at any time.” The critics recognized that it was a historic event. Variety’s review led off, “Television grew up last night even if Peter Pan wouldn’t,” and said the production “was so brilliantly staged and performed that the millions around their sets must’ve been willing to forgive TV for lesser attempts at the spectacular.” Times critic Jack Gould, in a rave of unusual proportions, called it “perhaps television’s happy hour,” not only because of the brilliance of the staging, the songs, and performers but because of the synergistic possibilities it suggested: “The greatness of the ‘Peter Pan’ telecast stemmed from a marriage of media under ideal circumstances. The advantages of ‘live’ television and the advantages of living theater were merged as one.”

There was an encore live television performance in 1956, and, in 1960, a taped production—the last time Mary Martin would be Peter. During rehearsals, she was playing the role of Maria in the Broadway musical The Sound of Music. Each night, after the curtain fell, she would sprint across West 44th Street from the Lunt-Fontanne to the Helen Hayes Theatre to don the familiar outfit and strap on the flying wires.

Just before the production aired, Martin had her very last flying dream. She was soaring through the Holland Tunnel, “straight through, between the car tops and the tunnel top. Never touched a thing, not a single car or the tip of a finger. It was the best flying dream I ever had. Bliss.”

Once again the reviews and ratings were excellent. The production, finally preserved on tape, was rebroadcast in 1963, 1966 and 1973, just often enough to give the show landmark status in baby boomers’ cultural landscape. Rights issues, as well as the perception that the production, and the now less than state-of-the-art production values, were too old-fashioned to cut it anymore, kept Peter Pan off the air until 1989, when a VHS tape was produced and marketed. Now, boomers’ children could be entranced by the show; and, for the first time, it could be binge-watched.

On December 4 (provided they can stay up that late), some boomers’ kids’ kids will have a chance to experience a refurbished Peter Pan of their own. The producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, have interpolated some Comden-Green-Styne songs from other shows, with new lyrics by Amanda Green, Adolph’s daughter. She’s also overhauled “Ugg-a-Wugg”—ethnically insensitive to today’s ears, if not outright offensive—with new words and a new title, “True Blood Brothers.”

And when the show airs, a Leigh-Charlap song, the one Variety called “a second-act socko number,” will be back in its rightful place. Meron and Zadan decided their audience would be able to handle the sadness of “When I Went Home.”

“We felt that would work for our production, because we wanted to go into our characters a little bit more,” Meron told Entertainment Weekly, referring to the number’s melancholy quality. “We wanted to show a little bit of what went on inside of Peter. We restored the song, and it’s gorgeous.”

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Ben Yagoda is the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Memoir: A History, and The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, to be published in January 2015.

Editor: Mike Dang

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