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‘Peter Pan’: For More Than 100 Years, He’s Been the Boy Who Wouldn’t Go Away

Warner Bros.’ “Pan,” directed by Joe Wright and starring Hugh Jackman, which opens Friday, is a variation of the tale created by James M. Barrie. When the Scottish writer debuted his play “Peter Pan” in London in 1904, he subtitled it “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” Peter is also the Boy Who Wouldn’t Go Away, as there have been five previous bigscreen versions, several stage musicals, multiple TV appearances, a series of books, even a brand of peanut butter, a record label and a bus service using that name.

Barrie’s play was an immediate hit when it opened in London on Dec. 27, 1904, starring Nina Boucicault. But when it transferred to New York on Nov. 6, 1905, the critics panned it and at first, the show was regarded as “a cold flop,” as Variety wrote.

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Word of mouth helped build it into a big hit, cementing the stardom of Maude Adams. From 1905 through 1913, she played other roles on stage but kept returning to Peter Pan, which helped make her rich. According to Variety, she was earning $1 million a year — which was pretty hefty, considering the low cost of living and the absence of income tax.

The idea of a woman playing a male role dates back at least to the 18th century, when operas by Handel and others included “trouser roles,” or a woman singing a male character. That tradition continued in British pantomimes, or pantos, which for more than a century have been popular on the U.K. stage, especially during the holidays. They are usually based on a popular fairy tale and include such elements as a lead boy played by a woman, animals portrayed by costumed actors, and audience participation — all elements that Barrie borrowed for “Peter Pan.”

Adams was a Utah native named Maud Kiskadden (a Scottish name). She was hailed by Variety as the most famous actress of her time, and was said to be “almost synonymous” with the character of Peter in the public’s eye. However, for the 1924 silent-film version, Barrie helped in the casting and the title role went to Betty Bronson. At that point, Adams was 52, so playing an ageless boy in closeups was a bit of a stretch.

Since that silent version, Peter Pan has shown up many times. Probably the best-known is the Disney animated version, which a 1953 ad trumpeted as “Disney’s greatest achievement.” Barrie purists complain that Disney cleaned up a lot of Barrie’s dark musings in the original, in which children are heartless, Peter doesn’t like to be touched, and he enthuses that death must be “an awfully big adventure.”

Disney’s Peter Pan was a mischievous rascal. Warner Brothers’ “Pan” is a London boy. But to many people in the 20th century, the character was actually a woman from Salt Lake City.

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