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It’s always a tricky and risky proposition to adapt a beloved film into something else, but that’s what’s happening at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, where “Finding Neverland” is being transformed into a musical.
The world premiere is based on the 2004 movie starring Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, the playwright who created Peter Pan. “Finding Neverland” just began its preview period, and I dropped by the A.R.T. to learn more about the show’s film-to-stage evolution.
Like so many creative collaborations, this one started with a phone conversation.
“With a guy called Harvey Weinstein,” British pop idol Gary Barlow told me. He's talking about prolific Hollywood producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein called Barlow to ask if he and his longtime collaborator Eliot Kennedy would write one song for a musical version of the hit film he distributed, “Finding Neverland.”
“By the end of the week I think we were like four songs in,” Kennedy recalled. “We just got so inspired by it. This is before there was a script or anything. It was simply based on going back and watching the movie, which was Harvey’s film.”
The film, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, tells the semi-biographical story about Scottish author J.M. Barrie’s struggle to write Peter Pan in the early 1900s. A fantastical play populated by fairies and flying children was a risky venture at the time. The now iconic fable about growing up was inspired by Barrie’s relationship with a mother and her four sons.
Both songwriters say Weinstein’s film tapped into their connections to Peter Pan, the archetypal man-child.
“It’s probably one of the first films I saw,” Barlow said.
“I think it’s in our cultural DNA,” Kennedy added.
“It’s fundamental throughout our lives,” Barlow concurred.
And Peter Pan is even more relevant to them these days because both Kennedy and Barlow are parents.
In the end, they wrote music and lyrics for 18 songs for “Finding Neverland.” Much of the time they worked alone because they live 200 miles away from each other in England. “Just two guys strumming away in a room,” Barlow recalled.
Then they’d come together long-distance — on the phone or via Facetime — to fine tune their melodies, words and ideas. Both were clearly eager to play a song during our interview, so Kennedy picked up his guitar and they sang the very first one they came up with.
The song was transformed during this week’s dress rehearsal. Even with their extensive resumes and myriad experiences in the music industry, "Finding Neverland” represents Kennedy and Barlow's first foray into musical theater.
“We come from a pop background from making records, and I’ve been in a band for 23 years,” Barlow explained. “At the same time, Eliot’s been a record producer and songwriter — he’s written for Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, a whole host of artists — so we come at this having had experience in making songs.”
“Gary and Eliot have written some incredible ballads,” the A.R.T.’s Diane Paulus confirmed. She’s directing “Finding Neverland," and has led three Tony Award-winning musicals in the past. This means she knows full-well that this genre lives or dies by its songs.
“I think any time you are adapting a film to a musical you have to ask the very basic question: Does this deserve another form?” she said.
Paulus got her answer by re-watching the film. She says she saw ways to explode the story through lyric and song.
“And that’s what Eliot and Gary have done in their score. And they’ve also expanded the emotional core of the piece,” she explained. “You know musicals sing, and you want to get inside the heart of those characters.”
Harvey Weinstein contacted Paulus about “Finding Neverland” after seeing her adaptation of “Pippin” on Broadway. The busy film exec has been closely involved in the new stage production’s development, and responded to an emailed question about why he wanted to make his movie into a musical.
“I always knew that I wanted ‘Finding Neverland’ to live on,” Weinstein wrote."I've made a movie or two in my day, but I'm just learning what it's like to bring a musical to life. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a dream team.”
Apparently Weinstein is satisfied with his decision to call on songwriters Kennedy and Barlow for “Neverland.” “It's as though they are drawing from a bottomless well of inspiration,” he wrote, “and their songs have lifted our show up to new heights.”
Paulus and Kennedy both pointed to a song from the musical called, “Feet Don’t Touch the Ground.” It’s a duet between the young boy Peter and playwright J.M. Barrie.
“So in this song J.M. Barrie is trying to teach Peter how to be a boy, and Peter is trying to teach J.M. Barrie how to be a grown up,” Kennedy said. “So there’s this weird thing going on.”
Eleven-year-old actor Aidan Gemme plays Peter and sings that duet on stage.
“You know Barrie is saying, ‘Hey, whenever something bad happens, I just go to this place where everything is perfect, Neverland.’ And Peter is like, ‘But you have to cope with what’s actually happening.’" Aidan mused. "And towards the end they sort of have convinced each other, but it’s really just, OK, let’s struggle together.”
Aidan was in an earlier version of "Finding Neverland" before Weinstein asked the British songwriters for their music.
“It’s very pop,” Aidan said. “Which I think some people might dislike but I love. And I think it really gives the show a different twist.”
That's the hope. And there are others. At the Tony Awards in June, this actor took the stage with American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson who sang the “Neverland” theme song. It was basically a tease for the musical in development. You don’t usually see that kind of optimistic pre-promotion at the Tony ceremony, so it was a bold move.
The songwriters and film executive Harvey Weinstein have set their sights set on Broadway. For now, though, the musical adaptation is in tweak-mode during the preview period in Cambridge. The cast of 26, crew and creative team can expect a long list of changes to their film-to-stage adaptation in the coming weeks.
Weinstein, Kennedy and Barlow are also collaborating on a concept album, and hope to take “Finding Neverland” to London's West End — where another Weinstein-produced film, “Shakespeare In Love,” is currently on stage and getting mostly positive reviews.