When he was a child, the director Christopher Alden was obsessed with the musical “Peter Pan.” “My twin brother, David, and I begged our parents to let us audition to play the roles of the twins,” Mr. Alden recalled recently. “They wouldn’t let us do it.”
Now, decades later, he gets to direct “Peter Pan.”
Well, the other one.
The show Mr. Alden is staging as part of the Bard SummerScape festival at Bard College, starting June 28 and running through July 22, is not the Mary Martin blockbuster of his youth but an earlier adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play with a wonderful, undeservedly obscure score by Leonard Bernstein, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. That production — which starred the unlikely combo of Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook — closed in 1951 after a respectable 321 performances, but then essentially disappeared.
The pared-down Bard revival, which appears to be the first New York presentation in 68 years, is set in a dreamlike abandoned amusement park and features an eclectic cast headed by the musical-theater baritone William Michals as Hook, the writer-performer Erin Markey as Wendy, and the comedian Peter Smith as Peter. Jack Ferver, whose recent piece “Everything Is Imaginable” revolved around its dancers’ childhood idols, is handling the choreography — and playing Tinker Bell.
The project came about when Gideon Lester, the artistic director for theater and dance at Bard, searched for a rarity to celebrate Bernstein’s centennial year and stumbled onto “Peter Pan.”
“I was so surprised because I’d never heard of the show,” Mr. Lester said. He was not the only one: Mr. Lester said that when he approached the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London, which holds the rights to Barrie’s play in perpetuity, the administrators did not seem aware of Bernstein’s version.
It’s hard to blame them, especially since the score’s tortuous path limited its exposure. Wendy’s 11-o’clock number, “Dream with Me” — a lovely song in the vein of “Some Other Time” from “On the Town” — was cut before the Broadway premiere. While “Who Am I?” (eventually covered by Nina Simone), is as close as the show gets to a standard, it’s still under the radar of many Bernstein fans.
According to most sources, Bernstein was originally commissioned to compose only instrumentals, but became so enamored with the play he volunteered songs, for which he also penned the lyrics. Unfortunately, there was a hitch: Jean Arthur wasn’t much of a singer. This is likely the reason only Wendy and Hook have solos.
It did not help that Bernstein was busy conducting abroad throughout rehearsals and previews, so a friend, the composer Marc Blitzstein, acted as his representative. Shortly after the opening in April 1950, Bernstein wrote his sister, Shirley: “I am shocked by the idea of my name in lights on this show!”
To make matters worse for Bernstein’s legacy, new instrumentals by Alec Wilder took over on the recording. “That album has a lot of dialogue, and I think they may have needed music that was just more friendly to function under those spoken words, so they commissioned this other score only for the recording,” said Garth Edwin Sunderland, the Leonard Bernstein Office’s Vice President for Creative Projects.
No matter the reason, large segments of the score went unheard until they were restored for the first complete recording in 2005, undertaken by the conductor Alexander Frey, with Linda Eder as Wendy. Some edited materials created for a 1980s production popped up on that album, but a few years later the discovery of the originals in the Leonard Bernstein Archive at the Library of Congress allowed for the creation (finally) of a performing edition. For Bard, Mr. Sunderland has created a new orchestration for five musicians.
“Although on the surface the music feels very simple, it is impressive how complicated a lot of it is,” Mr. Sunderland said. “Structurally and technically there are a lot of things he is doing that are quite clever, which I think were just for himself.”
“In a way,” he added, “you could make a case that the score was a little bit of a study for ‘Candide.’ That show is entirely pastiche, and you can see the germ for that in ‘Peter Pan,’ particularly in ‘Captain Hook’s Soliloquy.’” (That song was actually written for the post-Broadway tour, which at one point paired the popular baritone Lawrence Tibbett’s Hook with Veronica Lake’s Peter).
The score evokes influences as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan and Kurt Weill, and is often suffused with an evocative, melodic wistfulness. Bernstein “had such a strong feeling for his family, for needing to have a family and children, even though his life went in so many different directions,” said Mr. Alden, who directed an acclaimed production of Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place” for New York City Opera in 2010. “I think the story really moved him on a very personal level. The childlike innocence, the naïveté he brought to this music are somewhat unique in his oeuvre.”
Much of that mood is connected to Wendy, the show’s key character; Mr. Alden has even written out her siblings and made her an only child. The focus on the father-daughter relationship is reinforced by having Mr. Michals play both Hook and Mr. Darling. Meanwhile, the casting of Erin Markey (who prefers Mx. as an honorific) reinforces the idea of a questing Wendy.
“I like the idea of Wendy, the traditional ingénue role, being played by somebody who has more teeth than the kind of person who’s usually asked to play that role,” said Mx. Markey, who took on Squeaky Fromme in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” last summer. And Mr. Ferver brings his own neo-camp sensibility to the choreography; Mx. Markey and Mr. Michals both mentioned “Mommie Dearest” popping up as a reference during rehearsals.
Having actors and a creative team with different backgrounds, perspectives and training is very much keeping with Bernstein’s own approach.
“I think Bernstein’s music for ‘Peter Pan’ is a great example of what he believed in, that there was no difference between high art and low art,” Mr. Alden said. “This piece very much brings all those together in a rather organic, unpretentious way — natural but with a real feeling for pulling all these different branches of culture together.”