BLOG: Picking On Peter Pan

Pause to Remember Over the Thanksgiving week, the Twin Cities theater world lost one of its most respected figures. Ken Washington's official title at the Guthrie was Director of Company Development, but many of the young actors who came across the Guthrie's stages over the years regarded him as a father figure and source of warm encouragement in an otherwise insane and difficult industry. Here at Minnesota Playlist, you can read a remembrance of the man by one of the young student/actors whose life was touched by Washington. Pan, Pan, Pan! Ever since that strange little man J.M. Barrie, gave the world Peter Pan, we haven't been able to let it go. Of course, there's something appealing to children and adults alike in the idea of the Boy Who Never Grew Up, especially in our current youth-worshipping, nostalgia-sucking culture. These days, we're pretty cool with adult men obsessing over a children's cartoon about talking ponies, so I guess it should be no surprise that Peter Pan is popping up all over the place now. This Thursday, NBC will unleash unto the world it's second attempt at a live television musical for the modern age, the classic Peter Pan musical. After last year's more or less sincere The Sound of Music had the chattering classes lined up by the millions to hate-watch it, NBC appears to have learned what it needs to do to throw red meat to the haters and bring them right back in. Using a computer-generated Tinkerbell is just handing the internet a ready-made meme, and casting Christopher Walken as Captain Hook is a is a move so "What the hell?" that it borders on genius. As you are no doubt already preparing to deploy your razor-sharp wit all over your Twitter feed, you should know that the cast is totally on to you. If this was the only Peter Pan-related stuff going on right now, I would write this off as NBC just picking another classical musical out of a hat. After all, what was the cultural relevance in dusting off The Sound of Music last year? But there is definitely something in the air concerning Mr. Pan, considering that Melissa McCarthy just signed on to play Tinkerbell in a comedic adventure movie about the little pixie, and what appears to be Peter Pan's gritty origin story will be hitting movie theaters soon. So, let's all revel in the magical innocence of Never Land, where we never, ever have to grow up... The Boy Who Never Grew Up to Have a Complex and Nuanced View of Other Peoples …except there's this one small thing that's hard to get over with Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie had many accomplishments in his life, but he definitely did not receive the award for "Understanding and Appreciation of Native American Culture". Peter Pan's story prominently features "Indians" from the (and I swear I am not making this up) "Piccaninny Tribe", who are constantly referred to as "redskins" and "savages". Disney sure upped the racist ante (as they normally did) with infamous songs like "What Made the Red Man Red?", while the 1954 Broadway musical introduced the world to the even uglier "Ugg A Wugg". There is long history of terrible stereotypical presentations of Native Americans in Peter Pan, and, for the most part, society has given it a pass. But society is learning! We know those things are wrong now, and boy are our faces red… damn it, no! Sorry. Look, the point is, people have been trying to get around Barrie's childish Victorian view of Native Americans, and it's getting better, mostly, sort of. The 1991 movie "sequel" to Peter Pan, Hook just skipped over any mention of Indians at all. A famous theatrical production at the Stratford Festival in 2010 changed the tribe to Amazons (as in the mythical Greek women, not a South American tribe). The current Pan movie has tried to replace the Indian tribe with a generic group of multi-ethnic "wild people", but cast the extremely white Rooney Mara as Princess Tiger Lily, which is already being protested. A Peck of Protest It's tempting for some people (especially older, whiter people) to view all this as simply "political correctness" gone amuck; but it should be noted that groups working for better portrayals of their people in entertainment have actually started to win as of late. Take, for example, the Don't Buy Miss Saigon Coalition, whose actions helped force the Ordway to promise to stop bringing that musical to town (though, at this point, it kind of sounds like an alcoholic promising that they'll never drink again). Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, an ostensibly satirical show which was the subject of protest in Minneapolis, found itself being canceled at Stanford recently. (But don't worry, crusaders against political correctness: the students decided to stage a musical review called "Did We Offend You?" in its place.) Then there are things that are just plain weird. South African playwright Brett Bailey's Exhibit B has been drawing protests over in Europe for the installation show's deliberate aping of Victorian-era Human Zoos. Is something like that racism? Or is it commentary on racism? Trying to Be Better In the aggregate, producers are trying to be better. For every "serious" artist who wants to get something right up in your face, there is someone else who just wants to enjoy something they used to love without all the bad baggage. This is why NBC has now taken great pains to replace the stupid "Ugg a Wugg" song in Peter Pan with something a little less offensive. Here at home, Children's Theater Company has been giving the musical its own overhaul, changing the "Indian tribe" to an all-female counterpoint to the Lost Boys and rewriting the music to follow suit. The company that controls the licensing rights to the musical is actually considering putting CTC's changes into the official script, making them the gold standard for all future licensed productions around the world. Will all these changes fix everything? Probably not. But, at the very least, they're big steps in the right direction. And, for those of you already foaming at the mouth over "political correctness", please let Peter Brosius at CTC explain why all of this is necessary. Now, if only we could start convincing sports teams… Musical Theatre Diplomacy I've just got one more historical/political mire to wade into this week: the Cuban embargo. For over five decades following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US has placed extreme sanctions on the island nation. Even though we negotiate and trade with other authoritarian nations (hello, Saudi Arabia!) with terrible human rights records (how ya doin', China?), some of whom we fought an actual war with (Hey, Vietnam!), President Obama recently reauthorized the continuing embargo of our neighbor to the south of Florida. Politicians act like breaking the blockade can never be done, but maybe that's because they haven't tried the raw power of rock musicals yet. Yes, friends, a full-on Broadway production of Rent is headed to Cuba. Let the healing begin.
Headshot of Derek Lee Miller
Derek Lee Miller

Derek Lee Miller is an actor, puppeteer, writer, designer, builder and musician (basically, he'll do anything to make a buck). He is a founding ensemble member of Transatlantic Love Affair.