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Revisiting Mary Martin's Lighter-Than-Air Exuberance In NBC's 1955 'Peter Pan' Live


This is FRESH AIR. In 1955, 65 million viewers watched a live telecast of "Peter Pan," a recreation of the hit Broadway musical starring Mary Martin and directed by Jerome Robbins. It was so popular it was repeated, also live, the following year. The 1956 version has now been released on DVD, and both versions have been released on Blu-ray. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has watched both telecasts and has this review.


MARY MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) I've gotta crow. I'm just the cleverest fellow 'twas ever my fortune to know. I taught a trick to my shadow to stick to the tip of my toe. I've gotta crow.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: I urge anyone who sat through even part of the deadly "Peter Pan Live!" on NBC television last year to see the original telecast of that musical that VAI has just issued on Blu-ray. What a difference to watch brilliant actors who actually seem to love what they're doing under the direction of someone who knows how to make a show come to life. Mary Martin was one of the great Broadway stars. She made her Broadway debut singing Cole Porter's naughty "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" back 1938 and created another sensation as the Army nurse Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein's megahit "South Pacific," singing "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" while taking a shower on stage. Later, the role of Maria von Trapp in "The Sound Of Music" was written for her. She was a kind of sexy tomboy, slight of build with a piquant voice that carried to the back of the balcony. She was adorable and so sincere. How could you not believe every syllable?


MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) I have a place where dreams are born and time is never planned. It's not on any chart. You must find it with your heart, Never Never Land. It might be miles beyond the moon or right there where you stand. Just keep an open mind, and then suddenly you'll find Never Never Land.

SCHWARTZ: Martin said that her favorite role was Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. Audiences in the theater loved to see her flying across the stage on nearly invisible wires. But she seemed lighter than air, even when she was on the ground. And this was perfectly captured on TV.


MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) I'm flying.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Flying, flying, flying.

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) Look at me way up high. Suddenly here am I. I'm flying. I'm flying.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Flying, flying, flying.

MARTIN: (As Peter Pan, singing) I can soar. I can weave. And what's more, I'm not even trying. High up and as light as I can be. I must be a sight lovely to see. I'm flying...

SCHWARTZ: Her partner in "Peter Pan," as both the stiffly respectable Mr. Darling and the villainous Captain Hook, was Cyril Ritchard, whose star turn arrived in the third act, as he celebrated his evil deeds with a hilarious waltz. Like "Never Never Land," this was one of the numbers added to the original score during its tryout period, with new music by Julie Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.


CYRIL RITCHARD: (As Captain Hook, singing) Who's the swiniest swine in the world?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Captain Hook, Captain Hook.

RITCHARD: (As Captain Hook, singing) Who's the dirtiest dog in this wonderful world?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Captain Hook, Captain Hook.

RITCHARD: (As Captain Hook, singing) Captain of villainy, murder and loot, eager to kill any who says that his hook isn't cute.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's cute.

RITCHARD: (As Captain Hook, singing) Who's the slimiest rat in...

SCHWARTZ: This new Blu-ray disc includes both the original black-and-white kinescopes for the live 1955 and 1956 telecasts. The 1955 version, produced immediately after the Broadway run, is a hair more spontaneous, despite a few technical glitches. In 1960, "Peter Pan" was telecast again with the same stars but with some cast changes - the original Darling children were by then too old for their parts - and a different director. But a new technology called videotape had been introduced. And this later "Peter Pan" could be repeated annually and in full color. The astounding success of "Peter Pan" was certainly the inspiration for the live Broadway musicals NBC has produced over the past couple of years, "The Sound Of Music," "Peter Pan," and this year's better-received "The Wiz." Last year's "Peter Pan" had one significant musical change. In the original Broadway show, Peter's allies against Captain Hook's pirates were an Indian tribe led by the princess, Tiger Lily, played by the diminutive Sondra Lee. But the Indian stereotyping in one song is now too painful to perform. Last year, NBC substituted a more updated number, but it was awful. Watching these 1950s TV versions could be a good way for kids to confront racial insensitivities that have not entirely disappeared, even though the Indians here are good guys and are performed with zestful innocence and charm. I loved "Peter Pan" when I was growing up. My parents took me to see it on Broadway. And I even got Mary Martin's autograph. It's a joy to be able to see a great star at the height of her powers in this exuberant and touching tribute to freedom and youth.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz reviewed the Blu-ray disc of the original 1955 and '56 telecasts of Mary Martin in "Peter Pan" on the VAI label, which also released a DVD of the 1956 telecast. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR.


RYAN GOSLING: (As Jared Vennett) Nobody's buying CD or mortgage bonds anymore, and everybody wants swaps. Swaps are now the most popular product on the street.

STEVE CARELL: (As Mark Baum) That's good for us.

GROSS: That's Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in the new film, "The Big Short," about how Wall Street bankers and traders caused the economic collapse of 2008. Tomorrow, I'll talk with the director, Adam McKay, about making this complicated story entertaining and comprehensible. He also directed "Anchorman." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Airwith Terry Gross.
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