'Finding Neverland' Fights for Pop on Broadway

Greg Allen/Invision/AP
Kelsey Grammer, Matthew Morrison and Laura Michelle Kelly at 'Finding Neverland's' opening night

At the show's opening, director Diane Paulus, star Matthew Morrison, his 'Glee' cohort Darren Criss and producer Bryan Cranston weigh in on expanding the scope of musical theater.

Outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York City, the Times Square sidewalk was covered in fairy dust on Wednesday night for the opening of Finding Neverland Harvey Weinstein's creatively rebooted musical and first-ever venture into Broadway as a lead producer.

Based on the 2004 film, the production stars Matthew Morrison as Peter Pan playwright J. M. Barrie, who conjures up the beloved story after getting to know a mother (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her four sons. Barrie then works on the idea with his producer while grappling with his inner creativity's dark side — both played by Kelsey Grammer.

Bryan Cranston signed on as a producer after attending the workshop of the reboot in New York City a year ago. He described Weinstein to The Hollywood Reporter as "a whirling dervish — whenever he hits something and it fails, he goes after it again. He doesn't stop. He's an extremely competitive businessman, but a fair one." And he decided to take a stake in the project partly due to the show's pop-skewing sound.

"It doesn't really matter if it's more pop or a more traditional Broadway score — if it resonates, it works, however it gets in," he told The Hollywood Reporter at the production's opening night on Wednesday. "This truly has a transcendent sound that bridges young and old — and that's the hardest thing to do, when you're 5 or 85. Miraculously, Finding Neverland finds a way to bridge that."

Though the production is set in the early 20th century, Morrison noted, "We're taking that world and putting a pop score and it makes it fresh, exciting and accessible to today's audiences." Composer Gary Barlow added of his songwriting strategy with Eliot Kennedy, "Rather than position the music in any way, I always thought of it as what J.M. Barrie hears in his head. He didn't hear the music of 1903, he heard beyond that; he wanted to revolutionize everything."

Director Diane Paulus felt "like a proud mother" on opening night. She called the nontraditional musical decision, "the key to the show. It captured a sense of whimsy and imagination that's timeless, so we can have a musical that's set in 1904 and still about boundless creativity that lives inside us all."

So should more shows consider widening their musical scope by skewing pop and going for a mass audience?

"I'm always interested in expanding our audience," Paulus said. "It's what we need to do in this field, and when you bring in people who have not been part of the theater, it's only gonna make us better, stretch our audiences and stretch the art form."

Outside the Metropolitan Club afterparty, Darren Criss — who attended to support his Glee co-star Morrison — "such a dashing leading man with a lovely performance" — answered the question at length, since he's "a big score nerd."

"The cool thing about creating anything, it's OK to break form if you know the form," he said. "Picasso didn't just say I'm gonna draw people into cubes; he spent years drawing landscapes and studying what has worked before, and because of that knowledge and mastery, he decided to skew off the beaten path."

"Back in the day, you could argue that the Chorus Line score was a bit poppier, even though we consider that a Broadway classic," Criss added. "But there are a lot of rules with musical motifs, rhyme structure, false rhymes, half-rhymes, non-true rhymes, and the Sondheims and the Hammersteins of the world would say are just nails on a chalkboard to hear the rhymes in today's popular shows. It's important to keep an ear out for what the population is listening to, and to ignore that appetite would be really selling yourself short of making this art form accessible."

As for Finding Neverland, Paulus reads reviews, but relies more on the audience's reaction, especially that of her own in-house critics, her daughters. Katharine Weiner loves the dancing and favors "If the World Turned Upside Down," and Natalie Weiner called it magical and loves "We're All Made of Stars."

Morrison, on the other hand, never reads reviews. "Especially in this show, the audiences are telling us every night that we're doing the right thing, and that's all that matters to me."

That audience on opening night included Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Ansel Elgort, Willie Geist, Tamron Hall, Michael Bloomberg, Justin Bartha, and Laura Benanti and Derek Hough, the latter two of whom are currently starring in Weinstein's other rebooted production, New York Spring Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.

Twitter: @cashleelee