IN: Reviews

Bernstein and Peter Pan: Ambivalent Bedfellows


Jack Ferver as Tinker Bell (Maria Baranova photo)

Among innumerable performances and tributes paid to Leonard Bernstein in this centennial year, only one tackles his youthful adaptation of Peter Pan, which, in 1950, in an incomplete form, enjoyed a great, but forgotten success on Broadway. With this original version featuring only five of Bernstein’s original songs (as well as the incidental music and dances), there has only been one other fully staged revival for recording purposes. It was thanks to astute archival labors at the Library of Congress that the original pit parts could be excavated and reedited for the fully staged production which I witnessed on Sunday, July 22nd, at the Fisher Center as part of BardSummerScape. And while the music might reflect some of Bernstein’s shortcomings as a composer, the work also reveals his importance as a prescient cultural observer.                     

Sometimes the weakest link in an important artist’s wide-ranging oeuvre can reveal some surprising insights. In this case, Peter Pan can offer a microcosm of Bernstein’s entire output. Whispered and thundered musical criticisms mirror and encapsulate critical charges that his musical ideas may appear as loose pastiche, and a superficial jumble of “high and low” idioms. Brecht/Weill, Gershwin and even vaudeville resound in the score with a kind of überfluency that does not always know what to make of its varied riches.

 This quality of pastiche is also observed on the level interior to each work via the notable lack of “through writing,” which indicates for some a placement somewhere other than among the first rank of composers.  This impression is somewhat reinforced in this production, by the admirably gutsy, but questionable decision to outfit it with five musicians, including Michael Ferrara, Music Director, who conducted from the piano, fully integrated with the action on the stage. This move to some extent sidelined the sonic presence which came across at times as distressingly thin.         

Yet this show should more than amply corroborate Bernstein’s status as an icon of cultural activism significantly ahead of his time especially on issues of gender and sexuality. Much of Peter Pan’s dramatic effectiveness comes from the composer’s personal ambivalence.

Peter Pan constitutes a remarkable case study in what one could call the “musical closet,”* and illustrates perhaps the defining personal struggle which animated Bernstein’s creativity. Far beyond anything pertaining to his Jewishness, it was rather homosexuality that continually gnawed at him, and which also provided the greatest dramatic conflict within his artistic output. In this sense, Peter Pan reads as something like a trial run for the issues to be explored in his one full-length opera, A Quiet Place.

Christopher Alden, who directed Peter Pan, changed many minds about Bernstein’s opera after his 2010 New York City Opera staging. A Quiet Place revels in the vicissitudes and tragedies of a single American family, one in which the son connives to have his secret gay lover marry his sister so that he may continue the relationship. Bernstein, it may be remembered, had a wife who from the beginning of his marriage was well aware of his homosexual proclivities. Peter Pan is less about intrigue within a family than it is about questioning and even undermining its very foundations. 

Carrying messages not out of place with the beat movement that would emerge just a few scant years after its release, Peter Pan suggests that the American nuclear family stifles our deepest urges and fundamentally represses our individuality. Or to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, a voice of the Black Power and Black Arts movement (with which Bernstein was a sometimes bedfellow),“home is where the hatred is.” At one point in this production, the nuclear family is depicted as a kind of hazardous construction site which traps Wendy’s mother inside with warning tape. Peter Pan himself is a refugee and a rebel, a refusenik from this construct, who rejects on principle the patterns of American maturation. His “lost boys” bring some powerful evidence to the question of whether or not mothers fundamentally love their children, if lost children can be so quickly replaced. The character of Wendy, precisely because of her ambivalence about growing up so beautifully illustrated in the song “Who Am I,” personifies all of these issues. In an innovation of Bernstein’s adaptation, the malevolent Captain Hook is clearly the alter ego of the father, whose social and familial pressures provide the source for his sadism and who at one point is depicted drinking blood. William Michals inhabited the role with operatic aplomb.        

The sexual politics so clearly at the heart of the J. M. Barrie’s Edwardian story, have been, much like with his contemporary Lewis Carroll, too often neatly glossed over in Disneyfied interpretations. It took Bernstein to seize upon these delicate and sensitive implications of unconscious forces. The Wendy-Peter relationship neatly confuses “mother love” and the youthful discovery of eroticism, at times set to the soundtrack of forward thinking tribalistic jungle dance music. Bernstein would probably be delighted that these central roles were held by two of a new generation of non-binary performer (Peter Smith and Erin Markey). After all, the character of Peter is as much about androgyny and refusing the traps of gender as it is about homosexuality. (In a brilliant inspiration, the director has made a clearly pan-sexual Tinkerbell for the ages, (performed by Jack Ferver), turned on its head, queer, diffident and self-involved.)        

The Peter Pan cast (Maria Baranova photo)

Most importantly, this staging rightfully restores Bernstein’s original ending. Rather than a conventional triumph over the forces of darkness, Peter Pan ends as Wendy questions whether she can continue the fantasy.

One can find the dramatic depth of this opera-in-becoming in the tragedy of the closet, which can be sad and terror-filled. For sexual minorities, the way out can at times only be sustained by imagining an alternative—a burden of fantasy which is hard to sustain.  If Peter Pan can be taken as an Ibsen-lite statement about the dark underbelly of modernity, than in Bernstein the work might just have found the ideal music dramatic interpreter.

* I acknowledge and thank Dr. Lawrence Mass for this term. The introduction to his memoir Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite (New York: Cassell, 1994) contains a pithy and incisive discussion of this issue.

Adam J. Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York. He has written recently for Jacobin and the Jerusalem Report. 

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