Provenance is a concept usually associated with art, not theater. Who, after all, owns a plot — or the history on which it is based? Still, the problem rears up in several ways in Finding Neverland, the new musical starring Matthew Morrison as J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. This is not the first Broadway show to posit a backstory for a beloved work of fantasy. (Hello, Wicked.) It is not even the first to posit a backstory for Peter Pan; just a few years ago we had Peter and the Starcatcher. But that play was itself a fantasy, set within the Pan universe before the arrival of the fictional Darlings. Finding Neverland purports to be historical: the true tale of how Barrie, inspired by his dealings with the family of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, created the boy who wouldn’t grow up. It also purports to be a singing-dancing family entertainment. It winds up being neither.
I’m not sure which problem — historical or musical — is worse; the two are intertwined. Part of what makes the show so frustrating as entertainment is its utter falseness, only some of it grandfathered in. (Finding Neverland is based on the 2004 film of the same name, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, which in turn was based on The Man Who Was Peter Pan, a 1998 play by Allan Knee.) In any case, the musical’s chronology bears little resemblance to what really happened after Barrie met the Davieses in London’s Kensington Park. To start with, the meeting occurred in 1897 — not, as the show has it, in 1903. By that latter date, there were five boys, not four. Their father was not, in any case, dead. Nor did their mother die a year later, an event the libretto ties to the 1904 premiere of Peter Pan in order to gin up a climax. Beyond dates there is the matter of romance. Even the dewy movie did not make the claim that the relationship between Sylvia and Barrie was anything more than platonic. But, hey, this is a musical; if you’ve got sexy Matt Morrison trapped in a waistcoat and a Scots accent all evening, you’ve got to let him kiss someone.
What’s accurate — perhaps the only thing — is that Barrie acknowledged the Davies brood as his muses for Peter Pan, even naming his title character for the third-born. On this slender foundation Finding Neverland, directed by Diane Paulus and with a book by the British playwright James Graham, builds an enormous superstructure of trite psychology. We first meet Barrie on opening night of a previous play, which we’re told is a failure. (Little Mary was at least a moderate success.) His practical American producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), closes it down in anticipation of a new work Barrie promises him imminently. But he can’t write it: “I need to find a spark inside / To lead me somewhere new,” he sings, mixing metaphors. That’s where Jack, George, Michael, and Peter come in. As Barrie draws them out of their (nonexistent) mourning by encouraging acts of youthful imagination, they draw him out of his (nonexistent) creative doldrums by the same method. Releasing his innocent inner Pan, and also his lusty inner Captain Hook — for he is somehow both — he rips open the top two buttons of his shirt, neatly rolls up his sleeves, and brings down the Act One curtain with a Wildhornesque anthem called “Stronger.” (“I can run now so much faster / Now defeat won’t be my master.”) Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to the first musical about overcoming writer’s block.
The second act tests this resolve in the writing and staging of Peter Pan. It also extends the idea to love: Barrie’s newfound vigor allows him to face the death of his marriage and say yes to true passion. I’m not even going to bother straightening that one out; evidently Paulus and Graham (with the producer Harvey Weinstein hovering behind them) feel they can reach a deeper truth without the facts than with them. I’m willing to concede that point when someone succeeds at it. (A prominent example — The King and I — opens tomorrow.) But Finding Neverland demonstrates about as much insight into creativity borne of loss as a Facebook memorial candle.
Even if everything in it were profound and true, it would still be a mess, suffering as it does from confusion (or willfulness) about what makes a musical a musical. In good ones, songs are not decorations applied interchangeably to the exterior of a story, like gift-wrap. They are the gift. Here, they seem to be recycled from a different package entirely. In a way, they are: After a tryout in England in 2012, Weinstein replaced the show’s original songwriting team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie with Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Frankel and Korie are theater writers, with at least two top-notch scores (Grey Gardens and Far From Heaven) to their credit. They write for character. Barlow and Kennedy, best known for their contributions to the British band Take That, write for the radio. Their Finding Neverland score consists of bland power ballads and charming Carnaby Street pop, both of which are severely mismatched to the dour tone and Edwardian setting. Beyond that, they are too generic to dramatize anything, and the lyrics, by theater standards, are excruciating. The very first one made my ear shrivel up: “There’s a moment you’ve been waiting all your life for / When you find the very reason you’re alive for.” It’s not just that it doesn’t rhyme; it doesn’t anything.
I was not actually surprised by how badly written the show is; I suspected from listening to chirpy Take That hits like “These Days” that the songs would be inapt, and I half-expected the tired “fairy” jokes and self-referential winks. (Someone at a pub asks Grammer’s character: “Do they say ‘cheers’ where you’re from?”) But I was surprised by how erratically directed it is. Paulus, whose previous Broadway stagings (Porgy and Bess, Pippin, Hair) were all revivals, seems to have foundered in navigating new material. More attention has been lavished on the show’s tricks than its logic; there’s an especially lovely Tinkerbell effect, and a breathtaking tornado of glitter at the climax that does more to induce an emotional response than the script’s relentless tear-yanking. Nor could you call Paulus’s work with the designers subtle; everything from the act curtain (a William Morris pattern in violent colors) to the stompy choreography seems over-electrified. As does the ensemble. They have a bad case of Musical Theater Disease, in which no behavior resembles actual behavior, and rowdy “fun” is something experienced only onstage.
Well, perhaps Paulus was feeling some pressure from somewhere to deliver a hit. Box-office reports suggest that she has succeeded. If so, that will be in no small part thanks to Morrison, who sounds great and, after six years on Glee, knows just how to sell subpar material. Grammer does his nice overplay-underplay thing. And Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia coughs up blood daintily while looking almost diaphanous. But delivering a hit, difficult as that may be, is in other ways a very low bar. I’m not sure it can justify — indeed, it only compounds — the damage this material does to history. These were real people. (Well, not Pan, but the others.) To give them an everything-will-be-happy epilogue, and to have the child Peter say, of his namesake, “it’s the best present any boy was ever given, anywhere in the world,” takes a lot of gall. The truth is that though Jack lived a relatively normal life (as did Nico, the brother omitted from the story), George died at 21 in World War I, Michael drowned in a probable double-suicide with his lover at Oxford, and Peter, poor Peter, threw himself under a train at age 63, having long since come to resent his role in the creation of “that terrible masterpiece.” At least he was spared the prequel.
Finding Neverland is at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
*A version of this article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.