Dude (Looks Like a Lady), Or: Why Peter Pan is Played by a Woman

Mary Martin as Peter Pan I have a special place in my heart for Peter Pan, the musical, even though it’s dated, and more than a little racist and sexist. I’m not sure if it’s because both Peter and Tiger Lily are written for alto voices (as someone who is decidedly not-a-soprano, that’s a big thing), or if it’s because it holds such joy and mischief, but for whatever reason, I like the show.

Knowing this, you can safely assume that I tuned in to NBC’s Peter Pan, Live!!! on Thursday night hoping to feel nostalgic about all the times I’d seen the Mary Martin or Mia Farrow versions on TV as a child. It was a holiday tradition: snow would be falling, I’d be in my new nightgown or flannel pajamas, we’d make cocoa and popcorn, and watch the story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up.

You can also safely assume that while I didn’t watch it with the intent to mock, I couldn’t resist turning to Twitter to see what people were saying, especially as the pacing of this production was excruciatingly slow. I mean, seriously, whole planets were formed during the Peter/Hook fight scene.

As is always the case on Twitter, some of the comments were funny, and some were mean, and some perplexed me. Among the things that I found perplexing: there were people who honestly didn’t understand why Peter was being played by a woman. I mean, yes, there were all the lesbian jokes one would expect from, well, Twitter, but there were also people who just Really Didn’t Understand.

I don’t think you can explain the concept of Principal Boy in 140 characters or less.

But I can explain it here, so if you’re one of the people who perplexed me, or know someone who is, this may be helpful.

Peter Pan, the character, is a creation of British author J.M. Barrie. Britain, specifically England, has a tradition of a type of theater called “pantomime,” or, more casually, just, “panto.” This use of ‘pantomime’ has nothing to do with Marcel Marceau, walking-against-the-wind, stuck-in-an-invisible-box silent acting. Instead, it’s a combination of styles drawing from Italy’s Commedia dell’arte, and British music hall traditions. It’s family friendly now, but it often, especially at first, included elements that were quite bawdy.

Now, Pantomime got it’s real start in the early 1800s, when there was already a theatrical tradition for women to play “breeches” or “trouser” roles – women were cast as the romantic male leads – partly because it gave actresses a break from being stuffed into skirts and crammed into corsets, but mostly because even in Victorian England, sex sells, and a woman showing off not just her ankles, but her calves was a big draw.

So, as the late 1800’s approach, you have at least one woman in every troupe who is known as the “principal boy.” She plays the young, male, romantic lead, but she does it without trying to look masculine. Instead, her costume is probably some kind of a short tunic that shows off her curves. Think v-shaped necklines and exposed (but wrapped in leggings or tights) thighs. Until the thirties, roles played by “principal boys” included traditional panto roles like Aladdin and Dick Whittington, and eventually Peter Pan was one of those “breeches roles” as well.

There is some discussion, by the way, about whether or not Peter Pan counts as a true panto – most people would say it’s just a children’s story – but that’s a discussion for another time and place.

The point is, there’s a long tradition of Peter being played by a woman. In fact, he’s only ever been played by a man on Broadway ONCE in the history of the musical, and that was when an understudy went on in place of the lead, during a review.

There was a lot that worked about Thursday’s Peter Pan Live!
There was a lot that didn’t.

Casting a woman as Peter was not one of the things that didn’t work…but I’ll concede that while Allison Williams can sing, she didn’t have enough joy or mischief to really be Peter. (She’d have been awesome as Maria von Trapp, though.)

This year, I’m actually PODCASTING my holidailies entries. Go HERE to listen.

Holidailies 2014

3 thoughts on “Dude (Looks Like a Lady), Or: Why Peter Pan is Played by a Woman

  1. I DVR’d it but haven’t watched it yet! I did see lots of people on FB commenting that Peter Pan should have been played by a man. All I could do was shake my head…

  2. It just occurred to me that I saw a play production of Peter Pan with Peter played by a boy and it was …. well, it was kind of creepy. He was considerably older than Wendy, Michael John and the lost boys, and it just seemed to give the whole production is rather skeevy, uncomfortable vibe.

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