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‘Finding Neverland’ opens at ART, aims for Broadway

Sawyer Nunes (left) and Thayne Jasperson rehearse “Finding Neverland.”

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Sawyer Nunes (left) and Thayne Jasperson rehearse “Finding Neverland.”

CAMBRIDGE — At the culmination of last month’s Tony Awards broadcast, actress Tina Fey heralded “a special preview” from an upcoming musical called “Finding Neverland.” Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, accompanied by four adorable prancing boys, sang “Neverland” for a national audience of millions during three minutes of precious airtime.

Broadcast viewers looking for a ticket wouldn’t be able to find one on Broadway, though. Instead, they would have to go to Cambridge, where “Finding Neverland” will make its world premiere Wednesday at the American Repertory Theater.

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It is highly unusual for the Tony Awards to feature a song from a show that has never been seen in New York — or anywhere else. And Hudson’s reported presence on an upcoming “Finding Neverland” concept album adds to the fanfare for what could become the biggest Broadway-bound production yet to emerge from the ART, a breeding ground for them in recent years.

“Finding Neverland” teams ART artistic director Diane Paulus, who has already directed three Tony-winning musicals, with film titan Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer clearly looking to have a major effect both on Broadway and in London.

“We hope Broadway and the West End are in our future plans,” Weinstein recently told the Globe via e-mail.

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Renowned in the movie world for his magic touch at the box office, his knack for script development, and his micro-managing ways, Weinstein has a number of Tony Awards to go with his Oscar for producing “Shakespeare in Love.” But this is the first time he is the lead producer for a big-budget musical. Weinstein has been the driving force behind “Finding Neverland” ever since he produced the 2004 Johnny Depp movie of the same name, a tale of how author J.M. Barrie was inspired to write “Peter Pan.”

An earlier stage incarnation of “Finding Neverland” played to mixed reviews in Leicester, England, in 2012. Since then, the entire creative team has been replaced, there’s a new book and score, and all but one actor has been replaced, with star Jeremy Jordan (“Smash,” “Newsies: The Musical’’) now in the lead role. (Hudson is not in the musical.)

Weinstein tapped Paulus to direct “Neverland” last June, just before Paulus won a Tony for directing a revival of “Pippin.” Their collaboration was born unexpectedly: Weinstein, an avid theatergoer, flew to Boston to see “Pippin” at the ART, where it originated in December 2012.

“We met and instantly clicked,’’ he recalled. He wasn’t shy about making staging suggestions. “He gave me some great notes,’’ Paulus says.

Under Paulus, the ART has presented one show after another that transferred to Broadway and beyond, with productions of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Pippin,” “The Glass Menagerie,’’ and “All the Way” moving to New York and winning Tony Awards after debuting in Cambridge. A workshop production of the musical “Once” at the ART led to its Tony-winning Broadway run. And now “Porgy’’ is on a national tour, with “Pippin” launching one in September.

Diane Paulus was tapped to direct after Harvey Weinstein saw the revival of “Pippen” she directed in 2012.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Diane Paulus was tapped to direct after Harvey Weinstein saw the revival of “Pippin” she directed in 2012.

The ART declined to release budget figures for “Finding Neverland.” But with a cast of 26, this is the largest show the theater has done since Paulus took over in 2008, and the budget is on “the higher end,” ART managing director William Russo said.

The songs, by English music idol Gary Barlow (Take That) and his longtime writing partner Eliot Kennedy, have a British pop sensibility, despite the musical’s 1904 setting. And the choreography by Mia Michaels (“So You Think You Can Dance”) is not typical Broadway fare, with one number described as a sort of bizarre circus nightmare with horses’ heads and carousel poles.

Paulus’s mantra is to “expand the boundaries of theater,” and this production is part of that goal. “It is set in 1904, but it is keyed in to Barrie’s imagination, and the imagination is timeless,” she says.

The cast reheased “Finding Neverland” at Farkas Hall in Cambridge.

Lane Turner/Gobe Staff

The cast reheased “Finding Neverland” at Farkas Hall in Cambridge.

Everyone involved says they are trying to create a new theatrical style, which mirrors the story of “Neverland.” In the musical, Barrie has lost his muse after one of his plays flops. He meets a widow and her boys, Peter among them. He forges a playful relationship with the family, including a special bond with young Peter, who lost his childlike spirit after his father’s death. So “Finding Neverland” is at once about a boy who needs to reconnect with his sense of joy, a playwright searching for inspiration, and a troupe of frustrated actors who need a new play from Barrie.

“Peter Pan,” of course, has been a classic for more than a century. But the iconic crocodiles, mermaids, fairies, and flying children were radical in the staid British theater at the turn of the century. “It was so avant-garde and crazy,” Paulus says.

That is precisely what attracted British playwright James Graham, who wrote the musical’s book. “It’s all about class and social status in the UK, and I wanted to examine that,’’ he says. “Barrie takes a very stuck-up, rigid, class-based society, flips it on its head, and gives the power to the kids. In Edwardian society, there was no such thing as playfulness or naughtiness or cheekiness.”

In “Neverland,” the relationship between Barrie and Peter is pivotal. The boy grew up too fast when his father died, and Barrie, whose brother died when he was 6 years old, never stopped being a child.

“I’m trying to convince this boy to be a kid, and he’s trying to make me face reality,” Jordan explains.

This theme — how to remain forever young — is at the show’s core. It’s a tale not only about the creative process but also about how everyone can endure tragedy yet still maintain a youthful spark.

“It is about the power of creativity and imagination, whether you are a kid or whether you are an artist struggling with your life’s work,” Paulus says. “It is also a love letter to the theater.”

Aidan Gemme-Peter (left) rehearsed a scene with star Jeremy Jordan (“Smash,” “Newsies: The Musical”).

Aidan Gemme-Peter (left) rehearsed a scene with star Jeremy Jordan (“Smash,” “Newsies: The Musical”).

Tony winner Michael McGrath plays theatrical producer Charles Frohman in “Neverland.” Based on Barrie’s real-life producer, the character hounds the playwright to produce a new script. Graham made him a man who loves theater but wants to make money. “I am sure Harvey [Weinstein] will notice the Harveyisms, joyfully and affectionately,’’ Graham says. “I used Harvey’s passion for theater and storytelling mixed in with the tick-tock of a producer waiting for the next draft.’’

Weinstein was heavily involved in shaping the show’s narrative. “He is great in the script development stage,’’ Paulus says. “His notes have been invaluable because he is actually interested in the heart of the story and how you connect with an audience.”

Weinstein says he has “been hands-on in every aspect,” adding, “Having made a few movies in my life that have been honored for their stories and words, I think my input there is probably my greatest asset to the show.” He has shown up at rehearsal, but while Paulus says he is like “a kid in the candy shop,” she adds that he’s been “respectful of the process.”

As for the future, Graham is upfront about the show’s prospects. “My ambition [is] to make important theater reach a mainstream audience and to make mainstream theater important,’’ he says. “This is a family show with wide appeal, but we get to ask important questions about life and childhood. Hopefully, it’s about believing in the impossible.”

It’s also about connecting with the child within. “As adults, we get bombarded with real life and lose our child,’’ choreographer Michaels says. “Between the pressures and burdens of being an adult, no wonder we can’t fly.”

And despite all the “Harveyisms” in the musical, Weinstein doesn’t relate to the character of the producer: “Like so many people, I identify with Peter Pan, because no matter how old I am, I feel like I have never grown up.”

Jennifer Hudson performing music from “Finding Neverland” with members of the ART cast at the 68th Tony Awards. (Hudson is not in the ART production):

More coverage:

- ART’s ‘Neverland’ cast changing

- ‘Finding Neverland’ to launch ART season

- Diane Paulus, center stage

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version misspelled Eliot Kennedy’s first name.

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