From quiet inception to the bright lights of Broadway, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which opens Tuesday when a national tour visits the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, has had a charmed journey. But the idea for what has become a music-infused, Tony-winning prequel to “Peter Pan” was not hatched in some corporate suite or in a focus group.
It was sparked about a dozen years ago by a question from Paige Pearson, daughter of bestselling author Ridley Pearson. She was in grade school at the time and her father was reading “Peter Pan” as a bedtime story when she covered up the book and asked: “How did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?”
“It was a good question that raised other questions,” said Ridley Pearson, known for writing thrillers. “Why doesn’t Peter ever grow old? Why does he separate from his shadow? I told her I would answer it in a book.”
Pearson later mentioned the idea to his pal Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and bestselling author. The two had become fast friends after meeting 15 years earlier in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band made up of such famous authors as Stephen King and Amy Tan. (“I describe our sound as hard listening,” said Pearson, who plays bass and sings.)
“I said to Dave, ‘Hey, dude, you write booger jokes for a living and I kill people for a living [in suspenseful novels], why not collaborate?’ ”
The result has been five books in the Starcatcher series, and 10 collaborations altogether. The play takes off from the first book.
“Ridley and I didn’t have any idea what we were getting into,” said Barry. “Not 500 pages. Not a Broadway play. It’s been magical the way it has all come together.”
Both Barry and Pearson are thrilled that the show has brought the spotlight, and a whole new set of fans, streaming their way. But they are quick to point out that the play, which won an impressive five Tonys, is only loosely based on their work. Sure, their book inspired the shape and plot of “Starcatcher,” but the words belong to playwright Rick Elice, best known for co-writing the book for “Jersey Boys.”
Elice got called to participate in the project in a casual way. His partner, actor and director Roger Rees, and another director, Alex Timbers, had been working at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival when they started talking about the idea of adapting the young-adult novel. They asked Elice to write some lines for a workshop. He did. Barry and Pearson came to visit one of the workshops and wanted to know who wrote that stuff.
“I hid behind the door until they said they liked it,” said Elice. “At which point I jumped out and said, ‘I did!’ ”
He got passionate about the project, reading the J.M. Barrie novel that introduced Peter Pan and his 1904 play, which is very different from the famous musical starring a woman in green tights flying around on a wire.
“Barrie always meant for it to be a woman because he wanted it to be a pure childhood story,” said Elice. “He didn’t want any sensual suggestion between the boy and [female protagonist] Wendy.”
A boy’s world
Elice combined elements from Barrie, from “Starcatcher” and from his own imagination to create a play that has attracted boys to the theater the way “Wicked” has attracted girls. (“Starcatcher” is recommended for audiences age 10 and up.)
Four of the 100 or so characters in the play are teens; all others are adults and the title role is played by a male actor.
“We wanted to explore the first bloom of sensuality that kids feel even before they understand it,” said Elice.
In some ways, “Starcatcher” is a play that’s not of the Broadway fashion. It does not have massive spectacle or glitzy sets. Instead, it offers story theater — told with a company of a dozen actors who step in and out of characters.
“In a world where every piece of information comes at you in boldface type, the guy who comes along and whispers cuts through,” said Elice. “That’s what ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ does.”
He said that the show highlights the creative conspiracy between actors and audience that is central to the theater-going experience.
“In film, the cameras show us things that exist in the world,” he said. “But in the theater, I can say to you, this rope is the ocean and by golly, you’ll think somebody is drowning if they’re on the other side of the rope. That’s what ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ is about, a celebration of imagination.”