The older gentleman had just seen a first-run performance of “Finding Neverland” at the American Repertory Theater in 2014, and when the house lights went up, he spotted its director, Diane Paulus, standing off to the side with a pad on which she’d been taking notes.
“He tapped me and said, ‘Are you with the show?’ ” recounts Paulus, artistic director of the ART and one of the more recognizable behind-the-scenes figures in theater today.
“I said ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘I have a thought,’ and I said, ‘Lay it on me.’ And he said, ‘Just get to the park with that mother and her kids. That’s where your show starts.’ ”
The famously focused Paulus was in the middle of the premiere run, tweaking the show in real time, not looking to make a big change. And yet . . .
“I’m like, yeah, maybe he’s right,” Paulus says. “But I just couldn’t get there.”
Set in London at the turn of the 20th century, “Finding Neverland” shows playwright J.M. Barrie trapped in an unhappy marriage and blocked creatively. But when he meets the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons, he finds the inspiration to write the timeless classic “Peter Pan” — and he is ready to step up when another tragedy strikes the family.
Real-life problems mingle with pirates and Tinkerbell in the book by James Graham, music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, and choreography by Emmy Award-winner Mia Michaels (“So You Think You Can Dance,” Cirque du Soleil’s “Delirium”). They made many changes large and small before the show got to Broadway, and even tightened up the opening. But it wasn’t until fall 2016, when the entire creative team reunited to prep the show for the national tour that comes to the Boston Opera House Aug. 8-20, that they swapped the opening for something closer to what that patron had envisioned.
“I am happy to say to the gentleman who went to the show here at ART, I finally did it on the tour. We have a new launch that gets us into story quicker,” Paulus says. “We get into that park right away and meet that mother and her boys sooner.”
That isn’t the only noticeable change. A song by Barlow and Kennedy called “My Imagination” caught everyone’s, to the point that John Legend sang it on the “Finding Neverland” concept album. “But there just wasn’t room for it (in the show), because a musical has a domino effect,” Paulus says. “If you begin one way, then you can’t have an additional song by Barrie here because he’s already sung one. It’s that amazing kind of house of cards. But when we reimagined the opening, all of sudden we had the space for this song.”
The play premiered at the American Repertory Theater almost exactly three years ago, with Jeremy Jordan and Laura Michelle Kelly as Barrie and Davies. “Glee” star Matthew Morrison replaced Jordan when the show moved to Broadway in 2015.
The touring production stars Billy Harrigan Tighe (“Pippin,” “The Book of Mormon”) as Barrie and Christine Dwyer (“Wicked,” “Rent”) as Davies. Paulus had directed Tighe in “Pippin”; she was more apprehensive about casting the role of Davies. “I had worked for years with Laura Michelle,” Paulus says. “She did the first reading, she did all of the ART, she did all of Broadway till the show closed. She was the only Sylvia we had ever known, so it was a scary moment when we had to recast that.” But she predicts Dwyer is going to be a household name soon.
“Because we were reworking some stuff from Broadway, Diane was really involved with putting this tour on its feet,” Dwyer says. “I had a lot of meetings with her about Sylvia and who she was as a real person and how she was written in the show. [Paulus] was really cool and let me see what worked for me and what didn’t, which is pretty rare for a director and certainly rare for a show that’s already been mounted.”
Dwyer grew up in Lynnfield and saw her first musicals at North Shore Music Theatre. She’ll have family and friends at every show and “something crazy, like 150 of them” at one. She will stay with her parents during the two-week Boston run and teach some classes locally. “I used to work at Meletharb Ice Cream in Wakefield. It’s the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and I’m excited to go back there and have some of that.”
The 1970s TV game show stalwart John Davidson, perhaps less well-known as a Broadway performer, has taken over as theatrical producer Charles Frohman and pirate Captain Hook, the dual role played by Michael McGrath in Cambridge and Kelsey Grammer on Broadway. Davidson grew up in West Bridgewater, saw his first shows in Boston with his mother, and now lives in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region after years in Lenox.
With his long career in show biz, he has plenty of models for Frohman. Davidson’s smooth and smiling persona on, say, “The $100,000 Pyramid” seems to make him an unlikely candidate to play Hook, but the veteran of Broadway productions of “State Fair” and “Oklahoma!” says just you watch.
“Hook is just a dream role,” he says. “You get to tear up the scenery, you get to do all those almost crazy things everybody would say were over the top. He’s just so much fun.”
“Finding Neverland” arrived in Cambridge carrying a certain amount of theater-world baggage. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was an executive producer of the 2004 “Finding Neverland” movie, with Johnny Depp as Barrie, on which the musical was based, along with the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” by Allan Knee. Weinstein had also mounted an earlier stage production in England that was discarded. No surprise his involvement in the stage show was widely noted. Reviews were mixed, including a pan from the New York Times. Paulus says she knows why audiences have taken the show to heart anyway.
“It’s an emotional journey. It hooks people, not to make a pun. It gets people emotionally,” she says. “It’s one of those shows where at the stage door people were always compelled to tell their stories about their connections to Peter Pan, or ‘it made me think of my mother’ — it’s not just a song and dance diversion.”
Produced by Weinstein Live Entertainment and NETworks Presentations. Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Boston Opera House, Aug. 8-20. Tickets start at $44, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com
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