Hate The Idea Of 'Peter Pan Live'? NBC Is Counting On It

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on December 4, 2014 7:40 am

It's one of the biggest ironies of NBC's gamble tonight with the blockbuster production Peter Pan Live!

This incredibly earnest TV musical just might succeed if enough people hate it.

That's because one inspiration for this megamusical is a different live production last year that drew record audiences, even as a Twitterverse full of critics complained about it online in real time.

"It's a tone that's risky," says star Allison Williams. She's tackling the lead role as her first big project apart from her co-starring gig on HBO's Girls.

"People like to 'hate watch' things; people are very cynical, that's a much more fun way to watch television," adds Williams, speaking during a behind the scenes video for the show on YouTube. "People are afraid to admit they like things. ... Why have we been taught that it's not OK to genuinely like anything anymore? ... Peter Pan lives and breathes by people believing in fairies. I mean, that's a literal moment in [the musical]."

Still, the reason "hate watching" surfaces as a topic connected to Peter Pan Live! is because that's believed to be one factor in the success of the live musical NBC aired last year, The Sound of Music Live!

From Cameron Diaz complaining that "HDTV makes everything ... look fake" to Ronan Farrow carping that the plot was about a man leaving his fiancee "to boink the nanny," social media filled up with people who seemed to tune in mostly to take shots at the uneven production.

American Idol champ Carrie Underwood got high marks for her singing but much more mixed reviews for her acting, which one Tweet carped had "all the charisma of a UPS truck." Saturday Night Live even delivered a parody featuring the return of former cast member Kristen Wiig as Dooneese, the odd-acting girl with a high forehead and tiny Barbie hands.

But The Sound of Music drew nearly 22 million viewers, including the first week of DVR replays, earning NBC's largest nonsports Thursday night audience in four years.

Which is likely why the network stepped up with an even bigger production for Peter Pan Live!, including Oscar-winner Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.

"Frankly, it's intimidating," Walken — known for playing psychopaths and killers in movies — says in the behind-the-scenes video.

"I've been in show business since I was 5 years old," adds the star, who was a song-and-dance man early in his career. "In those days it was the birth of TV in New York; there were all these live shows from New York, before videotape, and they used a lot of kids because TV was very family-oriented. ... So I'm doing what I did when I was 10 years old."

The presence of an Oscar-winner like Walken — who compares doing the live show to playing a high-stakes football game — is just one of the signs that NBC wants critical raves along with the hate-watchers this time.

They also have: Oscar-nominated actress Minnie Driver playing a grown-up Wendy; a computer-generated Tinker Bell; giant sets that include a pirate ship; and, of course, a fair amount of flying.

But they also have to contend with a pretty hefty legacy.

Jerome Robbins' Broadway version of Peter Pan debuted in 1954. NBC broadcast it a year later, with stage star Mary Martin re-creating her Broadway performance as Peter.

Martin was first in a line of actresses to play the boy who never grew up on stage and TV, including Sandy Duncan and gymnast Cathy Rigby, whose Emmy-winning Peter Pan production aired on the A&E channel in 2000.

Now Allison Williams, also known as daughter to NBC News anchor Brian Williams, has a chance to make her own mark in the role. There's a lot that can go wrong, from glitches with the ambitious special effects to the odd pacing problems The Sound of Music seemed to have, as the actors performed show-stopping numbers in a studio with no audience.

This is also a crucial moment for network television. As viewership of traditional TV drops, networks are scrambling to make must-see events from all their programming, hoping viewers will watch it live.

A Sound of Music-size blockbuster audience for this Peter Pan Live! could create an annual holiday tradition of live musical theater on television.

All NBC has to do is convince an audience of social media-wielding critics that sincerity can be a lot more fun than snark.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's report on a supernova of a television program. NBC has staked millions of dollars in two hours of airtime tonight on a boy who never wants to grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE!")

ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Peter Pan) Just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and up you'll go.

(MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: (Singing, as Peter Pan) I'm flying.

INSKEEP: "Peter Pan Live!" revives the classic children's tale. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans thinks that - as they say on TV - this program is so crazy, it just might work.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: One of the biggest ironies of NBC's gamble with "Peter Pan Live!" is that this incredibly earnest musical just might succeed on TV if people hate it enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE!")

WILLIAMS: (Singing, as Peter Pan) I won't grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE! BEHIND-THE-SCENES")

WILLIAMS: It's a tone that's risky. People like to hate-watch things. People are very cynical. That's a much more fun way to watch television.

DEGGANS: That's Allison Williams, NBC's new Peter Pan, speaking in a behind-the-scenes video.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE! BEHIND-THE-SCENES")

WILLIAMS: Why have we been taught that it's not OK to genuinely like anything anymore?

DEGGANS: She's talking about the notion that modern audiences might watch just to snicker at the show's sentimentality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE! BEHIND-THE-SCENES")

WILLIAMS: Peter Pan lives and breathes by people believing in fairies.

DEGGANS: This idea of hate-watching arises because of the biggest reason NBC's trying "Peter Pan Live!" right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE!")

CARRIE UNDERWOOD: (Singing, as Maria) The hills are alive with the sound of music.

DEGGANS: Nearly 22 million people last year watched NBC's performance of "The Sound Of Music" both live and by DVR. That was the network's largest non-sports Thursday audience in four years, but the show and star Carrie Underwood also generated a tidal wave of snarky Twitter comments and negative reviews, often centered on Underwood's stiff acting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE! BEHIND-THE-SCENES")

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: Frankly, it's intimidating.

DEGGANS: Christopher Walken, speaking in a behind-the-scenes video, plays Captain Hook. Fans who know him as a film actor might not realize he started as a musical performer, singing and dancing as a child on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN LIVE! BEHIND-THE-SCENES")

WALKEN: It's almost like the whole team, we're getting ready to play this big football game and December 4 comes and you go and you do it, and you do your best and it's an event, you know.

DEGGANS: The presence of an Oscar-winner like Walken is just one of the signs that NBC wants critical raves along with the hate-watchers this time. They have Oscar-nominated Minnie Driver playing a grown-up Wendy, a computer-generated Tinker Bell, giant sets that includes a pirate ship and of course, the flying - but they also have to contend with a pretty hefty legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Announcing) NBC presents Mary Martin, as Peter Pan.

DEGGANS: Jerome Robbins's Broadway version of "Peter Pan" debuted in 1954. NBC broadcast a version of it a year later with stage star Mary Martin re-creating her Broadway performance as Peter. Martin began a line of actresses who played the boy who never grew up on stage and TV, including Sandy Duncan and gymnast Cathy Rigby, whose Emmy-winning "Peter Pan" production aired on the A and E channel in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN," 2000)

CATHY RIGBY: (Singing, as Peter Pan) Conceited? Not me. It's just that I am what I am - and I'm me.

DEGGANS: Now Allison Williams, best known as a co-star on HBO's "Girls," has a chance to make her own mark in the role. Not to add pressure, but this is also a crucial moment for network television. As viewership of traditional TV drops, networks are scrambling to make must-see events from all of their programming that viewers will watch live. A "Sound Of Music"-sized blockbuster audience for this "Peter Pan" could create an annual holiday tradition of live musical theater on television. All NBC has to do is convince an audience of social media-wielding critics that sincerity can be a lot more fun than snark.

I'm Eric Deggans.

INSKEEP: You're listening to the blockbuster program called MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.