Hooked on John Davidson: A conversation with the captain of ‘Finding Neverland’

We’re all familiar with the character of Peter Pan, but what about the story of how he came to be? Broadway musical “Finding Neverland” tells the story of playwright J.M. Barrie’s struggle to find inspiration, and the family who sparks his imagination to create one of the most beloved characters in the world.

“Finding Neverland” will soar into the Wharton Center next week, with shows December 12-17. Click here for show times and to purchase tickets.

John Davidson, a seasoned performer in film, television, and stage, stars in “Finding Neverland” in a dual role of real-life American theatrical producer Charles Frohman and the dastardly Captain Hook.

I spoke with John prior to his visit to mid-Michigan about his acting experiences, his incarnation of Captain Hook, and what he hopes audiences will take away from “Finding Neverland.”

Stefanie Pohl: You’ve done so many things in your career. What is it about performing live, and in particular with a touring cast, that gets you excited, and what are the challenges?

John Davidson: In film, they usually take four to five months, and you sit there most of the time in that chair with your name on it. And it’s a good thing they give you the chair, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time sitting while the director has all of the fun. Film is a director’s medium. In television, it’s controlled by time. Everything is sold by the minute, so you have these tremendous restrictions of time. Live performing, the thrill of that, is that you’re free. In live performance, the actor takes over. In my mind, the actor is in charge in that moment. Time is not a factor, and you don’t have to be restricted. Live theater is so exciting. The prestige of being in the theater is really different. I think my wife thinks more of me when I’m in the theater as opposed to Las Vegas. I get more respect at home and everywhere. It’s a very respectful art form and I’m so proud to be back in the theater where I started.

Pohl: Will you have the opportunity to explore the area when you’re in town?

Davidson: Michigan is a gorgeous state. My daughter went to Interlochen up north, and so we drove the whole state taking her there by car. I have friends who live outside of Detroit. We just love Michigan. I’m 75, and eight shows a week is exhausting. I don’t know how much of East Lansing I’ll be able to see.

Pohl: You’ll have to check out the Broad Art Museum on campus!

Davidson: We will be there! We usually go to whatever museum is in any town. My wife is a painter, so we usually do an art museum in town. That’s probably the only thing we’ll get to see.

Pohl: You mentioned this role is exhausting, and you’re actually playing two different people in this show. Can you explain that dual role a bit, and what it is like transitioning between the two?

Davidson: The show is all about J.M. Barrie, he’s our main character. Played by an incredible talent, Billy Tighe. When I’m playing Charles Frohman, I’m a driving force in his life. For the first half of the show, I’m trying to talk him out of writing “Peter Pan.” I’m saying, “There’s never been a musical for children. We don’t want children in the theater. What are you doing? You’re blowing your career.” That’s what his producer is saying. As Captain Hook, I’m saying, “You’ve got to write this story. You’ve got to find the child within yourself. No matter what everyone expects you to write, you’ve got to find the courage to write your own story.” That’s good advice for anyone who’s creating anything. I feel like I drive the show forward, but in opposite directions with the two characters.

Pohl: People have loved the story of Peter Pan for generations. What do you think audiences might learn that they don’t already know about this story?

Davidson: There’s something about live theater that makes the characters the most real. These are real people playing the characters. I think you get to see living, breathing people playing Barrie and Hook and Sylvia and the four boys. I think that tells the story better than anything. It will make you laugh a lot — its very funny — and it’s also very touching. There’s some tragedy that happens. It brings out all of the emotions and all of the colors. It’s a magical show. Our boys — we have six boys who play four different parts — and we have a live dog and an understudy to the dog. Even though it is a classic story, you’ll have a sense of what imagination is. What is imagination, and how do you free your imagination? We’re all creators in different ways, and it’ll help you with whatever you’re trying to create.

Pohl: What inspirations did you draw from when you developed your version of Captain Hook, and how have you made him your own?

Davidson: Captain Hook is egotistical. He’s raw, he’s obnoxious, he’s not politically correct. All of those things that I’ve been told as a kid and as a man, “Don’t do that, you’ve got to be proper.” He’s not proper. He’s gross. So that’s fun to free that through everything your mother said you shouldn’t do. You’re thumbing your nose at proper society. I think that’s what Captain Hook is doing.

Pohl: What have been the reactions from the audience to “Finding Neverland,” and what do you hope they come away with from the show?

Davidson: The finale to the first act is an incredible number, with J.M. Barrie finding himself and Captain Hook cheering him on to write his own story. It gets a lot of cheers. By the end of the show, you’re very moved because the show is sharing that when people die, we go to Neverland. That is a land where you never grow old. Instead of heaven or hell, it says we all go to Neverland, which is an incredible thought. I think there are two basic themes that you come away with in “Finding Neverland.” The first is that a man who is not willing to fight for what he wants deserves what he gets. You can go back to what everyone expects you to be, or you can find the courage to fight. And the second is to write your own story. That’s what we all need to do to find out who we are, and to write our own story. Not the story that your parents want you to write, not your friends. Your closest friends can have an idea of what you are and what you should be, and that’s not enough. You have to find out what you want to be; that’s the hardest thing. Self discovery is the hardest thing. But that’s the challenge of life, is self discovery. So that’s what the show is saying, and it’s inspiring.

I’m so thankful to John Davidson for his time! Be sure to check him and the rest of the cast of “Finding Neverland” out at the Wharton Center, December 12-17. Get details on show times and tickets here.