By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts
Acclaimed Director Diane Paulus was hooked on Finding Neverland by a line the nefarious Captain Hook says to the story’s author himself, J.M. Barrie:
“You can go back to being what everyone expects you to be,” the iron-wristed pirate says. “Or you can find the courage to write your own story.”
That taunting dare resonated deeply within Paulus as a director, mother and artist. “Because that could mean literally, ‘write your own story,’” she said. “Or it could mean, ‘Write the story of your life.’”
Barrie stared that question down the snout of the crocodile 105 years ago when he found the courage to write the story of Peter Pan and, in doing so, essentially encrypt the spirit of the Lost Boy into the DNA of a century of children to follow.
“J.M. Barrie was a visionary,” said Finding Neverland co-composer Gary Barlow. “Even in 1904, his mind was 100 years ahead of his time.”
The story of Peter Pan, Paulus said, is a clarion call to anyone of any age to ask themselves: When do we wake up and live the life that we know we need to live — not the life we think we should be living?
And that is the story Finding Neverland ultimately tells. The innovative Broadway musical is based on the 2004 Oscar-winning film of the same name. It follows Barrie as he summons the courage to become the writer — and the man — he yearns to be. Barrie finds the inspiration he’s been missing when he meets a widow and her four young sons who inspire him to conjure the magical world of Neverland.
It was surprisingly risky for Barrie to present his original play to high-society London theatergoers, a twist that provides much of the dramatic spine of the musical. “At the time J.M. Barrie wrote the play in London, it was incredibly radical and actually quite dangerous,” said British book writer James Graham. “This was a post-Victorian society that was very rigid. By putting children and the dog on the stage, J.M Barrie flipped the power dynamics of the London theatre. It was quite shocking to the theatre establishment.”
Paulus also loved how Finding Neverland takes the audience backstage with Barrie and his lovable theatre company.
“Finding Neverland is a complete love letter to theatre,” said Paulus, who was included in Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Paulus also helmed the national touring production of Pippin.
“I love stories that take us backstage, that take us through all the trials and tribulations and the fear that go into making art,” Paulus said. “All sorts of people who have seen Finding Neverland have then said to themselves, ‘Oh my goodness — what am I doing with my life? I’ve got to wake up, do what I love and take a risk. That’s where the riches of life will lie.’”
To tell Barrie’s unconventional story on Broadway, Paulus gathered a decidedly unconventional (and trans-Atlantic) creative team. American Choreographer Mia Michaels is a three-time Emmy winner for her work on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Barlow is the architect of the enduring British pop band Take That, which has produced 28 top-40 singles since 1989. He recently was voted the greatest British songwriter of all time — a field that includes the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber. “Gary is furiously well-known and well-liked here in England,” said co-composer Eliot Kennedy, who has had No. 1 hits with the Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Aretha Franklin and more. Graham (Privacy) is known not in Britain for writing fanciful musicals but rather plays about urgent social and political issues such as how technology is eroding our privacy and sense of self. Putting them all together, Graham said, shows how Paulus has a “forensic knowledge for how to build a musical.”
And that’s exactly why they all worked so well together, Michaels added.
“Diane is not afraid of anything,” she said. “She likes to surround herself with really creative people and then this very powerful, life force happens between them.”
Kennedy and Barlow couldn’t quite believe it when they were approached by Paulus and Oscar winning producer Harvey Weinstein about scoring Finding Neverland.
“We said to Diane, ‘Look, we’re not musical theatre writers — we’re pop-tarts,” Kennedy said with a laugh. But Paulus has worked with unconventional artists since she began writing her own theatrical story in the New York fringe scene two decades ago — and she had a gut instinct about the music she wanted for FINDING NEVERLAND. “I knew we had to explode the imagination of J.M. Barrie on that stage,” Paulus said. “And that really led me to understand how a pop score by Gary and Eliot could function in that story.”
Still, when the “pop-tarts” brought their initial song ideas to Paulus, “there was only one song we thought she’d really love, because it really sounded like a musical theatre song,” Kennedy said. “But she hated it. She told us, ‘Guys, don’t think about this too much. Just do what you do.’ And so that’s what we did.”
And that is why, Kennedy added, Paulus is a genius.
“I think that’s probably an overused word,” he said. “But she is. She is a genius, and not in the way that those dudes in an Apple shop are geniuses. She is a visionary.