Peter Pan represented one of my first times on stage. My school (La Jolla Country Day School) was doing a large pageant-like production called “The Kids are Bright on Broadway,” which featured small snippets of virtually any stage song from children (or teenagers — we went up through high school). I had a mop of black hair and glasses, so I was cast as John from Peter Pan. We sang one song — “I won’t grow up,” which I remember by heart to this day. It was an all-school production that featured cameos by Broadway’s original Annie (Andrea McArdle) and, oddly, Padres stars Steve Garvey, Dave Dravecky, and others.
“I won’t grow up,” by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh (and available on the Peter Pan Soundtrack), is about Peter Pan and the Lost Boys clinging to childhood and singing of the many things they would have to give up (climbing trees, being carefree in July) and the many unpleasant aspects of adulthood (wearing a tie, growing a mustache, and pinching pennies).
One line stands out to me:
I don’t want to go to school.
Just to learn to be a parrot,
And recite a silly rule.
In a sense, this lyric is the exact concept of “School” that so many fellow creativity researchers have been battling. If school is rote learning and memorization and if testing is regurgitating facts back to the teacher, then of course creativity will be stifled. If this image of school is the one that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys have in their head, and if growing up means going to school, then of course they don’t want to grow up. I don’t blame them.
Years passed. I lost the mop of black hair. I grew up. Last night, I sat down with my own child, Jacob, and my niece, Brianna, to watch the filmed play of Peter Pan (which you can rent from Amazon for under $3). It stars the amazing Cathy Rigby, who is still performing in the title role in her 60’s. She’s unbelievable. One of the pirates (the biggest, meanest pirate not named Hook) is played by a friend named Sam Zeller, who is one of the sweetest, kindest human beings I have ever met (and has a stunning voice). The kids loved it (although Jacob was confused by how much singing took place).
One of the last songs, a reprise of “I won’t grow up,” took me by surprise. The Darling children are home. Many of the Lost Boys (and, it appears, Smee) have decided to crash the party and be adopted, too. Mr. Darling (as always, doubled by the actor playing Captain Hook), sings to them:
Will you treat me with respect?
and they sing back:
…We will grow up!
We will mind our p’s and q’s
We will never be a bother…
Yes, we’ll grow up….
(Mr. Darling:) Like me!
I admit I was a bit shaken. This was the happy ending? These imaginative kids surrounded by an amazing fantasy world end up swearing to mind their manners, keep their heads down, and grow up like their upper class father figure? Yikes.
Yes, yes, I know it’s a musical, and there has been enough over-analysis of Peter Pan.
But the transformation of our children from creative spirits (who are, yes, untamed and wild) into well-mannered, dull cookie cutters seems like a curious take-home message (joined only the final scene, of Peter Pan telling the adult Wendy that she is too old, but her teenage daughter can come away with him).
I wish that the Darling children and the Lost Boys could find some way to keep the gloriously intoxicating freedom of flying through the skies with Peter Pan while learning the rudimentary skills to survive in the modern world. If we believe in fairies, Tinkerbell lives. If we believe in an education system that keeps creativity alive, can Wendy, Tootles, and the rest hold onto some of their spark?