This week, we talk to author Ridley Pearson about the hit Broadway show Peter & The Starcatcher. While Ridley is probably best known for his Kingdom Keeper series, he also co-wrote (along with Dave Barry) the Starcatchers series, which act as prequels to the story of Peter Pan.
The Starcatcher books chronicle how a little orphan boy becomes the mighty Peter Pan!
I won’t lie. I love the books! In fact, when I met Ridley on the Disney Dream two years ago, he was surprised that I had brought ALL of them with me for him to sign! During our conversation then, he told me that a stage show based on the first book of the series would soon open in New York. And now here we are, almost two years later, and Peter & The Starcatcher is a hit show on Broadway.
I actually saw the show twice in its off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop. But, now that it’s been successfully on Broadway for a few months, they announced it will be closing in early 2013. If you haven’t seen the show yet, and you’re in the NYC area, now is the time to go see it!
I talked to Ridley just before the show opened off-Broadway, and thought this would be a great time for you folks to hear what he has to say.
JEFF: Tell us about Peter & The Starcatcher. How did it get from the page to the stage?
RIDLEY: Well, Dave Barry and I co-wrote a series of prequels to the legendary Peter Pan story, about how a boy became Peter Pan, and we had just a terrific time doing it. It really made an affinity with kids and adults alike – and it connected with the Disney Company in ways that have just changed our lives forever! One of the more interesting aspects of this is that Disney Theatrical grabbed up the rights when there was a little pause.
JEFF: Someone else had the rights to the book originally?
RIDLEY: At first, it was Disney Animation that held the rights, then Disney Theatrical snatched it up from them. They spent the last four years developing a stage play written by Rick Elice, who co-wrote the popular Broadway show Jersey Boys. Rick is a brilliant guy, a brilliant playwright. Somehow he got this book down to a two-hour stage play with five songs, all of which take your breath away.
It’s quite a feat what he and Disney Theatrical have pulled off because unlike so much of the standard Disney fare on Broadway, it doesn’t have the big colorful production values and the 40 song musical elements.
It’s just a group of 12 actors who play 50 roles. As far as I can recall, the only props on stage are two ropes, a chest, a chair, and a ladder. And that’s it.
JEFF: Very minimal compared to other Disney stage shows like The Lion King and Mary Poppins.
RIDLEY: Yes, very much so. Very minimal. And it’s sort of grey and dark in costuming, which is not the norm for Disney Broadway shows, or Broadway in general.
But the actors are simply brilliant because they can play so many roles, switching them so quickly, that it challenges the audience to stay with what is happening on stage. This isn’t a play you can nod off to! It keeps you right on the edge of your seat with both its story and its humor.
And it tells the story in a very interesting way. I thought, when I first saw it, that it might be difficult for kids to grasp. I thought, wow – this is really engaging! But sure enough, the kids come in and see it and they just eat it up. They get it quicker than the adults! They’re laughing at the jokes quicker than the adults are laughing at them! And that just shows Rick’s brilliance because it works fine for all ages and just takes your breath away.
JEFF: It’s amazing to me that there are only 12 actors but they play 50 characters. How do they pull off the costume changes?
RIDLEY: There are CONSTANT costume changes! It all goes along with that minimalist approach. Somebody takes a hat, puts it on backwards, and then they are a different character. The audience learns that very quickly. To me, that’s the brilliance of it: because the audience is engaged, they’re part of the narrative. If you don’t interpret the costume changes quickly, you don’t get what’s going on.
But the thing is, you do! The direction of Roger Rees and Alex Timbers is so good that you do get what’s going on, and so can a six year old. Don’t ask me how that’s possible, but I sat there in La Jolla, California, and watched this thing shopped in front of live audiences, and everyone got it and loved it!
JEFF: So you’ve seen it multiple times?
RIDLEY: Oh, my gosh, I’ve seen it in so many variations and so many times. And here I am, heading back this Friday to see it again. What’s also great about the play is that it’s different to me every time I see it. It’s that good. You never get tired of this thing!
JEFF: Was it always the plan to keep it minimalist and so separate it from the other, large Disney Broadway shows?
RIDLEY: This is really the brainchild of Thomas Schumacher and Michele Steckler. Rick has been on it from the very start, even before Jersey Boys was a success. He worked for Disney back then, and he was handed this book, read it, and went to Tom with it. He said “We have to do this, it’s incredible!”
Since Peter Pan started as a play, he thought they should make this one a play as well. Tom read it and liked it, but he didn’t jump on it the same way Rick did. When they finally sat down and talked about it, I think Tom’s vision was something very different than what he and Disney Theater had done up to that point. He saw this more as Nicholas Nickleby, and so he engaged Roger Rees, whom he knew, and he said we ought to bring that sentiment to this show. He wanted to bring a raw theatrical element to it, not the usual over-the-top production.
Roger had worked with Alex Timbers before, so they became co-directors. They just came up with this amazing look. It was all done organically, and I think that’s why it works so well. Tom didn’t want to hire an A-list writer and music person – I mean, of course, I did!
But he wanted to go back to the roots of the show. And its roots were J.M. Barrie writing it as a play. When we first worked the piece (and I use the term ‘we’ very liberally, because all I did was sit and watch), Tom and the group did it as a workshop at Williams College. They brought together a group of college kids and they just read from the book.
And that’s how they started. I met Rick in the audience back then, but had no idea who he was because Jersey Boys hadn’t happened yet. Rick was watching it all and how the story was being told. It was quite funny and good back then, but nothing like it is now.
JEFF: So it seems like you were involved, but not overly involved, in the development of the show.
RIDLEY: I was involved the way a peeping tom was involved!
Once Dave and I signed away the rights, we really couldn’t do anything about it. Normally, you put on a blindfold and walk away. But this time, because I had met Tom in the past, I expressed an interest in it, really just to learn more about theatre. I love theatre and grew up with it. I wanted to see it backstage on a professional level. Tom said they had no problem if we came to be flies on the wall. We were welcome, anytime.
We made dates through these last four years to kind of show up to see what they were doing. And they were nice enough to involve us. All we did was sit in the back row and watch. With our jaws on the floor! And they’d say “What do you think?” and we’d say “it’s brilliant!” And they’d say “Good, we’ll call you again in six months.”
It’s been a wonderful relationship because we’ve just been blown away by what they’ve done.
JEFF: Aside from the musical aspect, are there any major changes to the story?
RIDLEY: What’s interesting, I think, is that kids and adults who read the books will recognize them in the story that’s told on stage. It’s not the same story and yet it’s the same story, and that’s where I think scriptwriters and playwrights are at their most brilliant. They can grab the essence of a piece and yet tell it very differently.
I don’t how he (Rick Elice) did it, but he did it. Is it true to the book? I feel it absolutely is, but in no way does it follow the plot of the book! You’ll just have to see it. I don’t mean that as a criticism, believe me. It really feels like the book. It really captures the essence, and then some.
JEFF: That’s good to hear! I think that’s the point: it has to capture the essence because you can’t follow it word for word, page by page. If it follows the heart of the story, that’s all we need. That’s the kind of show I want to see.
RIDLEY: How one does that, I really don’t know! I look at Rick’s words and they are not our words, and I look at his order of the story and it’s not our order. And yet when the curtain falls and there’s a tear in my eye (and there is every time it falls), I’m thinking, my gosh, he got this, he nailed this!
JEFF: Is there any particular part of the show that’s really special to you?
RIDLEY: There is one musical number that (and I’m biased) will go down in New York theater history! There’s a scene, a musical number, that is one of the funniest, most charming things. You’ll take it away with you. You’ll think about it six months later. I can’t even tell you what it is, but you’ll say I remember – it’s brilliant.
Thanks for your time, Ridley!
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