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Leonard Bernstein's 'Peter Pan' Flies Again

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Leonard Bernstein Leonard Bernstein's Peter Pan....
Did you hear that right?
Almost 60 years after its premiere, an almost forgotten play with music gets its definitive hearing.

Albert Ihde and Ellen Pasternack's nuptials involved much more than the union of two souls -- there was also the ritual joining together of their record collections, which ran a close second for the founding couple behind Santa Barbara Theatre. And when Pasternack first heard Ihde's original recording of Leonard Bernstein's little-known score for “Peter Pan," which debuted on Broadway in 1950, she was gobsmacked.

“I said to him, 'This is a lost masterpiece,' “ Pasternack recalls of that moment in summer 2004. “ 'Where has this been?' “

In a rehearsal room behind her, half a dozen scruffy actors are practicing the steps of the pirate dance from the show's first American revival of note, which opens Friday at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. (Bernstein's “Peter Pan" has resurfaced only sporadically since, including a production by a Midwest theater company 20 years ago, but even the composer's estate is fuzzy on the details.) The production comes amid a flurry of activity worldwide celebrating the 90th anniversary of the composer's birth, but the timing is serendipitous -- “Peter Pan's" return is the culmination of events stretching back more than half a century.

Technically not considered a musical but rather a play with music, Bernstein's version of the J.M. Barrie classic opened on April 24, 1950, with then-49-year-old Jean Arthur in the title role and Boris Karloff as Capt. Hook. Critics such as Brooks Atkinson embraced the production; the New York Times theater maven called it “a melodic, colorful and dramatic score that is not afraid to be simple in spirit."

Simple for Bernstein, that is. The remarkably versatile composer infused the score with a rich blend of influences -- sharp listeners will notice allegro snippets from Bach's “Brandenburg" Concerto No. 3 -- and complex rhythms and harmonies, which foreshadowed some of his later works, including “Candide," “West Side Story" and “Chichester Psalms."

“My guess would be that Bernstein had a lot of fun with this show," says Garth Edwin Sutherland, music editor of the Leonard Bernstein Office, which holds the rights to his works. “His music tends to be very complicated, although we don't think of it that way. Peter Pan is the ur figure of innocence -- the boy who won't grow up -- and the music has a similar quality of childishness in the best possible sense that you don't see that much in his other works, not unsophisticated but innocent and straightforward."

Still, after a 10-month run and a brief national tour, the show closed and vanished off the cultural map. It may seem strange that in the Information Age, where it seems that little is left unexamined, an obscure work by such an important composer should even exist, ripe for rediscovery more than half a century after its debut.

Did he or didn't he?

Complicating matters further was the Columbia recording, made in June 1950, which included five of the eight songs Bernstein wrote for the show but substituted an underscore (music under spoken words) by Alec Wilder, a composer of jazz, opera and popular music. That has led to the rise of what is known on LeonardBernstein.com's chat board as “The Peter Pan Question": Did he or didn't he write the complete score that was performed on Broadway?

According to the composer's New York-based estate, he did indeed. “There's a frustrating misconception that because [Wilder's] music appeared on the recording that it appeared on Broadway, and that wasn't the case," Sutherland says. The recording was designed as a children's storytelling LP rather than a conventional original cast album, and Sutherland speculates that Bernstein's complex underscore was replaced because Wilder's simpler, more child-friendly music was more in tune with the added narration.

In 1953, the Walt Disney Co.'s hit animated film of “Peter Pan" entered theaters around the country as well as the popular consciousness. “And suddenly people thought, that's what 'Peter Pan' was -- a Disney cartoon," Ihde says.

Perhaps more damaging for the show's prospects, another production of “Peter Pan," starring Mary Martin, opened on Broadway in 1954; it was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with songs by Mark Charlap and Carolyn Leigh and additional numbers by Jule Styne and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That “Peter Pan" was a full-fledged musical with 18 songs, far more than Bernstein's version, which had originated as a vehicle for Arthur, a retired film actress not known for her singing.

The producers had commissioned Bernstein to write only incidental music, but, according to his biographer, Humphrey Burton, the composer-lyricist surprised them with eight songs as well (although a few were dropped from the Broadway production in part because the stars weren't strong enough vocalists to perform them).


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