As a child, you think it would be fantastic to be Peter Pan,” the effusive, droll Rick Elice, playwright and lyricist of the “Peter Pan” prequel, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” said in an interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“You’d have no bedtime, no homework, you get to fly around and do whatever you want. But now at 56, I realize that had I never grown up I would never have fallen in love, had sex or written works that I care about. There is so much that Peter will never know, like a flower that never has a chance to bloom.”
Elice — who earned a Tony nomination as co-writer of the hit musical “Jersey Boys” — infused those bittersweet thoughts into “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which won five 2012 Tony awards and arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre on Dec. 3 as part of its first national tour.
Based on the best-selling 2004 children’s book, “Peter and the Starcatchers” (Elice dropped the plural for the play), by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the fanciful production serves as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s lauded 1904 play, “Peter Pan.” Elice’s version spotlights a nameless, adult-hating orphan boy as he accompanies a feisty girl named Molly to the treacherous island of Rundoon. There they battle an oversized crocodile as well as savage natives — all the while pursued by the vicious pirate captain Black Stache (so named for his hirsute face). Their mission is to destroy the magical “starstuff” coveted by Britain’s arch-villains, and so ensure the safety of the world. Along the way, the ragamuffin boy learns to fly, to become a leader and earns the name — Peter Pan.
Joey deBettencourt is the ragamuffin Boy and Megan Stern is feisty Molly in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on the similarly titled best-selling children’s book.
But even as Peter learns what it is to become a man, he is doomed to remain forever a boy; Elice regards him as “a kind of Moses-child denied entrance to the Promised Land. The Promised Land is not eternal youth, but adulthood. Peter remains the eternal outsider, who doesn’t have a place at the table.”
Elice said that as a Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism, he connected personally with the character’s “otherness”: “I’ve felt it in the coldness of a handshake,” he said. He also recounted how, in the early 1980s at Harvard University, a man barred him from entering a prestigious club, proclaiming, “No Jews allowed.”
“My Judaism is very central to who I am,” said Elice, who grew up attending the Utopia Jewish Center in Queens. Until age 15, he said, he aspired to become a cantor, and was transfixed by his synagogue’s music and the way the cantor used his tuning fork to prepare to sing haunting a cappella nigunim.
Elice became emotional as he described how, some 25 years ago, his husband, Roger Rees (the co-director, with Alex Timbers, of “Peter and the Starcatcher”), converted to Judaism, seeking in the Jewish community a sense of belonging he had lost with the death of all members of his immediate family.
“He didn’t tell me about his conversion until he came back from the mikveh,” Elice said, adding that they both are now members of New York’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom. “I was so moved that I wept.”
Despite Elice’s early cantorial aspirations, however, the theater beckoned; he fell in love with the stage when he saw “My Fair Lady” on Broadway when he was just 3. As an adult, he earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama and spent 18 years marketing Broadway productions.
In 2002, Elice’s career took a turn when some producers asked him if he would like to create a musical based on the songs of the 1960s band the Four Seasons. Intrigued, he asked his poker buddy Marshall Brickman (co-writer of such Woody Allen films as “Manhattan”) if he would collaborate in developing the idea.
“We were the unlikeliest pair to embark on this project,” Elice said. The band was made up of working-class natives of New Jersey, while he and Brickman “were these overeducated, overanalyzed and, dare I say, a bit snobby New York Jews,” Elice said. They shared the usual stereotypes about New Jersey, he added.
But when Elice and Brickman met with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudi, two of the original Four Seasons, Elice said, “Our preconceptions disappeared.” He and Brickman were riveted by the pop-classic band’s largely unheard-of backstory: “Some of them had committed crimes and had done time in prison. They were pursued by the mob, and they weren’t the glamorous rock stars who were written about in magazines,” he said.
The idea of a musical revolving around such marginalized characters appealed to Elice’s Jewish soul, he said.
How he became involved with “Peter and the Starcatcher” was almost by accident. Roger Pearson had the idea for the book during a trip to Disneyworld with his then-8-year-old daughter, who had asked him, “How did Peter Pan meet Capt. Hook?” Elice said.
Eventually Disney Theatrical Productions optioned the book and asked directors Rees and Timbers to adapt the novel into a play; on a lark the directors asked Elice to write a few scenes for a workshop in New York, in 2007. The authors of the novel happened to be in the audience, and when, at the end of the sequence, they asked who had written the material, Elice said he was so intimidated that he didn’t raise his hand until they said they liked the scene. On the spot, Elice was asked to write the entire play.
As research, he read Barrie’s plays as well as the author’s letters, speeches and other works. From Barrie’s writings, he said, he brought to his play a share of “alliteration, puns, anachronisms, songs, high comedy and lowbrow humor.” There’s even a mermaid revue — in drag — at the beginning of Act 2.
Elice also sought to “connect the dots,” so to speak, between Barrie’s play and the novel, “Peter and the Starcatchers,” answering such questions as how did Black Stache (the future Capt. Hook) really lose his hand? What is the origin of Tinker Bell? And how did Peter learn to fly?
And rather than follow the novel’s character arc for Peter, where the boy is a ringleader from the beginning, Elice transformed the urchin into “a feral, silent, nameless [creature] who, through Molly, would evolve into a heroic figure. By the end of the story, he’s journeyed a great distance, emotionally and psychologically.”
Molly, as well, was transformed from a puppy following Peter into “a young woman who is smart, proto-feminist, empowered and who, through her own strength, teaches Peter how to become a man,” Elice said.
“As much as anything else, it’s a story about girl power,” Elice said.
For tickets and information about “Peter and the Starcatcher,” visit centertheatregroup.org.