Navigate to News section

Fiddler on the Tube

Peter Pan Live! was good, but NBC should really take us back to Anatevka

Rachel Shukert
December 05, 2014
Photo from the NBC broadcast of 'Peter Pan Live!' (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
Photo from the NBC broadcast of 'Peter Pan Live!' (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

After a week of terrible news across the country, Americans gathered around their televisions last night, tuned in to NBC, and allowed themselves to be swept away by the magic and true meaning of Peter Pan: that youth is the only thing that matters.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But devotion at the altar of never growing up is not the only questionable message inherent in the beloved musical that NBC gave its patented live treatment to—complete with their now characteristic stunt casting, gorgeous but too-vast sets, and oddly lethargic pacing that makes you realize that an audience gives the performers at least as much energy as they offer back.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first: Allison Williams is a better singer than I thought she was. If 1 is your average girl who always got a good part in her high school musical, and 10 is Audra McDonald, I give her about a 5, which is also about what I give Anne Hathaway and she won an Oscar for singing one song better than anyone thought she was going to. Williams’ acting was fine, I guess, even if her plummy English accent made her sound less like the excitable leader of a band of feral wilderness boys than Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day. Christopher Walken was fun, because who doesn’t love Christopher Walken, especially when he’s tap-dancing and made up to look like Michelle Visage from RuPaul’s Drag Race? The Lost Boys danced their hearts out, and so did the pirates, although it all seemed like they were about the same age. The miniature set of London was a marvel, and then Minnie Driver came in at the end as Old Wendy to show us what screen acting is really all about.

But none of these high—or at least, not dismally low—points managed to mask some of Peter Pan’s more vexing issues. For example, is it really less racist to dress Tiger Lily in the costume of a Ukrainian ice dancer and her muscular Indians in nothing more than loincloths and body paint than in those flame-retardant pajamas/cheap Halloween costumes they wore in the Mary Martin original? Is the message we want to send to the young girls of today that the greatest adventure of their lives will involve cooking for and cleaning up after a bunch of 20-something men who refuse to grow up? And, most importantly, is a slight, if charming, musical that is basically told through a series of brief vignettes and sold on the charisma of its stars (Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, and, as Hook, the great Cyril Ritchard) really the best choice for a slot that needs to stretch to 3-plus hours in order to sell premium advertising time?

The answer is, of course not. For that, we need something with a real narrative: the story of a family facing impossible odds; something uplifting, yet wrenching; something full of laughs—and full of tears. The Music Man has already been announced for next year (and being that it’s my favorite musical of all time, my stomach is already tied up in knots over it), but Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have a four-year deal to produce these extravaganzas, so is it too much to ask that in 2016 they might attempt to appeal to another group of people who have a lot of buying power and a big consumer holiday in December? Ladies and Gentlemen, think about it: Fiddler on the Roof Live! Mandy Patinkin is technically too old to play Tevye, but I don’t give a shit and neither will he. Lisa Kudrow, now in a major career ascendancy, would be a hilarious Golde, but I wouldn’t kick Patti LuPone out of the shtetl either. Bette Midler started her career as Tzeitel in the original production; I can’t wait for her to come full circle as Yente. And who hasn’t, in their own nightmares, seen the spectral tornado of Barbra Streisand rising from a decaying cemetery, bottomless fury in her eyes as she schreis hysterically about her pearls?

Think about it, NBC. I beg of you. Next year, I know we’ll be in River City, but the year after that? After all, Anatevka is our home.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.