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Diane Paulus Finds a New Way to Neverland

Date: Jul 15, 2015
How the director changed her vision of Finding Neverland


When Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus signed on to the mega-musicalization of the movie Finding Neverland, currently playing at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, she knew one of the biggest challenges would be figuring out how to conjure the title destination. A magical place invented by Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, Neverland has been presented in myriad ways over the past century, both in theatre and on film. But Paulus felt it would be particularly tough to compete with the Technicolor wonderland seen in the Oscar-nominated flick.

"I always go back to the source whenever I'm working on a stage adaptation of a film," says Paulus, who originally helmed Finding Neverland last summer at Harvard University's American Repertory Theater, where she serves as artistic director. "When I rewatched it, I absolutely saw how Finding Neverland could become a musical, largely because of Barrie and the theme of imagination. However, that amazing scene when [spoiler alert!] Sylvia [Barrie's love interest] dies is such a sublime cinematic moment. She's in her bedroom and a curtain rises, and there's this unbelievable saturation of color, with fairies and creatures and crocodiles, and she walks off into Neverland. I remember wondering when we started, 'How are we going to do this?'"

Initially, Paulus envisioned the naturalistic set bursting open to reveal a vibrant fantasyland, but then she had an epiphany. "I realized that's exactly what we shouldn't be doing!" she says. "The film does that moment better than we ever could in the theatre. That was the beginning of the process for me, of saying 'We're not going to do what the movie did.'"


Indeed, the musical doesn't just slap the film on stage and add songs. Anyone who's seen both incarnations of the story of the man behind Peter Pan will notice many differences, both in the plot and especially the visuals. Paulus set out to craft "uniquely theatrical moments," sequences that only work live. "You can see pictures and video clips [of what happens in the production]," she says. "But you can't truly experience them unless you're present in the theatre."

Sylvia's breathtaking death scene is one such moment. Actress Laura Michelle Kelly is engulfed in a tornado of glitter that swirls skyward, gorgeously and violently, and she exits as the shiny specks slow their whirling and, eventually, return to earth. It's an unforgettable effect that turned out to be predestined. "I had done a show for Cirque du Soleil called Amaluna, and we used some technology by an air sculpture artist named Daniel Wurtzel," Paulus recalls. "We never met face-to-face though. While I was working on Finding Neverland, he sent me an email that said, 'I know we don't know each other, but I've developed more ideas. Maybe we can talk, because I have all these crazy things I do with air,' and he sent me all these video links. The very same day, Mia [Michaels, the choreographer of Finding Neverland] sent me one of his videos from YouTube and said, 'Look at this! Isn't this beautiful? What about this for Neverland?' And I said to her, 'You're going to faint because the artist just emailed me!' When something like that happens, you have to take it as a sign."

She continues, "Daniel's work really resonated for me in terms of Finding Neverland. So much of the Barrie lore has to do with flying -- in imagination, in spirit, the idea of lifting off and being free. How do you make flying in theatre look authentic? Daniel's work is air and wind and an object taking flight. It's so real and honest. The one character who actually flies in the show is Sylvia when she dies and, in the poetry of the moment, goes to Neverland. I knew it wouldn't work with wires and a harness. It had to be something utterly transcendent."

Paulus even embraces the unpredictability of this sequence, since it's never the same twice. "I actually love that about it," she says. "It's different every single performance. That's chemistry, air and molecules. It plays itself out in real time every night, and everybody onstage and off has to be tuned in before moving on. It's like it has a life of its own. I think that's part of what makes it visceral and magical."


Raven Snook
is the associate editor of TDF Stages

Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison), and the Davies children.