Sandy Duncan talks about her high-flying role in 'Peter Pan'

Boston theatergoers are discovering that Sandy Duncan, after almost three long years in the title role of "Peter Pan," is still breathing new life into the role of the boy who wouldn't grow up.

Her charmingly boyish, contemporary approach to the part, coupled with her utter ease in swooping across the stage suspended from what appears to be a very lightweight wire, have often evoked the remark "Sandy Duncan ism Peter Pan!"

The decision to play Peter came about in what she calls "a very casual way.

"A producer I had worked with in the past came to see my night club act in Florida and asked if there was anything I'd like to do on Broadway. I told him no, not really. Most of the women's roles are kind of sappy in the musicians --very sugary. There's really nothing I want to do.

"But let me take a look at some of the guy's roles --doing Peter Pan if I can figure out an interesting way to do it that's not traditional. So within a month we'd gotten the rights, and that's how it happened."

The decision was followed by plenty of research and thought on Miss Duncan's part. She had never been especially familiar with J.M. Barrie's original story, so there was that to explore in its numerous versions, as well as the previous dramatic interpretations of Peter Pan.

"I really studied what had happened. Oddly enough, nobody had ever played it like a boy. They'd always done it as a personality piece -- Mary [Martin] did it very femininely, very much a lady . So I thought I would make an effort to do it as a boy.

"In the '50s, the issue of not wanting to grew up was played very lightly and sweetly, almost play-acty. But when Peter says he doesn't want to grow up it's a solemn thing --he really means it. And that's a devastating thought for most us: 'Peter Pan' is basically a play about death -- the fact that growing up signifies getting older, maturing, and life passing. It's a cycle, and part of that cycle is death, and Peter wants no part of it.

"That's the dark side of 'Peter Pan' -- obviously it's not something yoy play , it's just present. I think that's why people sit and get lumps in their throats but don't quite know why sometimes. And that's why Peter is so popular -- he escaped!"

On stage, Sandy duncan's Peter Pan is up-to-date, almost street wise. What made her decide to play Peter in such a contemporary fashion?

"It's hard enough to get kids today to buy this premise," she claims. "They see so much, and they're not in tune with fantasy --there's so little of it in their lives. So to get their attention and hold it, I had to communicate on a level they would recognize and understand. Peter is timeless, so I didn't feel I was hurting the Barrie version."

She feels this "Peter Pan," although thoroughly appealing to children, is an adult production: "The levels of emotion are there if you want to pick up on them. And it's not condescending. Children are the brightest of audiences. If they think something is phony, they'll let you know. They'll never applaud or laugh just to be polite."

So Sandy Duncan's Peter is honest, strong: "He's the leader of all those boys. He's the smartest, he's the winner. He has to turn on a whole group of boys to follow him to this place, and everybody in the audience as well."

And turn them on he does, as he flies through the air with what looks like the greatest of ease, and in Sandy Duncan's case it's really true. She is utterly fearless, having had plenty of experience as a dancer, as she says, "being dropped on my head and thrown around, so this is nothing!"

It's an unforgettable moment when, at curtain call, Peter Pan flies out over the heads of the front rows of the audience. The question most often asked is, of course, how does it really work? Everybody knows it's a wire, but how does it manage to look so convincing?

Miss Duncan replies:

"I wear a harness under my costume. It has a plate in the back with a ring, and there's a wire that comes down with a circular disc on it. A man stands backstage, who hooks me up.It's worked into the choreography and the blocking. Every time somebody backs up to a wall, they're going to come away with a wire hooked on."

Has there ever been a mishap?

"I got hung once in the air in New York, and we had to stop the show. The wire got wrapped around a light pole, so of course I wasn't moving. There I was , singing 'I'm flying,' and I wasn't going anywhere! That happened twice."

Was she perturbed?

"No, I'd had a lot of experience. In my dance recitals when I was a kid, my record always got stuck and I had to stop the show, so I'm prepared for mishaps."

"Peter Pan" has gone through a lot of changes since it originally opened, almost three years ago. A number of these changes were made recently, just before the show hit Boston, mostly general tightening and polishing. Boston audiences have responded warmly, to Miss Duncan's happy surprise. . . .

"I had been warned to expect the opposite."

After Boston, "Peter Pan" will be in Chicago (May 20 - July 19), Miami Beach (July 22 -Francisco (Sept. 20 - Nov. 1), and Los Angeles (Nov. 4 - Jan. 31). For Miss Duncan, "It's the end," she says decisively. After that, she has a number of personal plans in mind.

Last July she married dancer/actor Don Correia, who has worked with her in "The Sandy Duncan Show," an autobiographical song and dance package she has presented in Vegas and Tahoe. During the Boston run of "Peter Pan" she has flown home to visit her husband every weekend.

"It helps me to stay centered," she says.

A great lover of the theater, Miss Duncan plans to do a straight dramatic play at some point.

"I like the stage because you start from the beginning and go through to the end, and you have an emotional rapport with an audience," she says. "I support my theater career by doing commercials and nightclubs."

So many people think "Peter Pan" when Sandy Duncan's name is mentioned. Does she think the image will stick?

"I think if I had played Peter as a personality piece instead of just acting it, it might be more difficult to lose the image."

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