Only six months into its first national tour, Finding Neverland will take the stage at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center from April 17-22. Named the winner of Broadway.com’s Audience Choice Award for Best Musical, it’s modeled after the 2004 biopic about the Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. One of the show’s main characters, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies—a widow and mom to Jack, George, Michael and Peter—befriends J.M. Barrie and a budding family friendship ensues. J.M. Barrie becomes a father figure type to the brothers, whose imaginations and high jinks inspire him to write a play about boys who never wish to grow up.
We chatted with Christine Dwyer who plays Sylvia and left her old world behind for the Neverland that is New York (where nothing’s impossible!) after completing college. She caught her big break when she was casted as Maureen in RENT and went on to play Elphaba in WICKED, but Dwyer has delighted in playing her simple and sentimental character in the curious backstory of how Peter became Pan.
While you do get a taste of Peter Pan in the show, it’s really less about Peter Pan and more about the family dynamics and friendships that come out of unlikely situations and change the course of your life.
River + Bay: Tell me about your first brush with theater and what it’s been like to pursue a career in the arts.
Christine Dwyer: My mom grew up going to shows. It was as a huge passion of hers. She never wanted to be in them but she loved going. She brought me to my first show at the North Shore Music Theater to see Cinderella when I was five. I was a super active, distracted kid, so she sat us in the back of the theater near the exit in case she had to take me out for being annoying. According to her, I was mesmerized throughout the whole show and she thought that I didn’t like it. Afterward, she asked me if I had a good time, and I said, “Yeah, I want to do that.” She thought, Oh that’s cute. Years and years later, I started auditioning for school plays, performing in high school, and when it came time to figure out what to do with college – the only thing that jumped out at me was theater. I got into The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and pursued musical theater there for four years. A few months after graduating, I was casted in the national tour of RENT. That’s what started my career in the arts, but a career in the arts is strange. You get told “no” before you get told “yes.” There are lots of ups and downs. The great part about where we are now with social media is that when you are in between jobs, you can really create your own thing and have an outlet to show it to the world now in a way we didn’t have before. And the best part about being in this career is meeting other creative people and creating things with them. You miss a lot things when you’re on the road—weddings, birthdays. That’s always difficult, but you make your own little family with the people you’re working with. They become the most important people in your life because you’re creating something together.
R+B: You’ve performed in WICKED and RENT, but the story of J.M. Barrie and his belief in his story, Peter Pan, is such an epic fairytale! In what ways has being a part of this fantastical, childlike-wonder of a production been different from other shows you’ve been in?
CD: I’m playing someone who actually existed and who I could do research on in a real way. That part is different since I’ve always played characters who were created from the mind of the writer. Sylvia had four boys, she befriended J.M. Barrie, she was the person who facilitated him thinking about Peter Pan and those characters. The cool part is that while you do get a taste of Peter Pan in the show, it’s really less about Peter Pan and more about the family dynamics and friendships that come out of unlikely situations and change the course of your life. In our show, you have both the big production numbers but also the simple, sweet story about a mother and her children and a man who’s trying to find his imagination again in order to create the story about Peter Pan that we all know and love.
In our show, you have both the big production numbers but also the simple, sweet story about a mother and her children and a man who’s trying to find his imagination again in order to create the story about Peter Pan that we all know and love.
R+B: How do you think show-goers will walk away feeling? And what do you think will surprise people about this production?
CD: People go into it thinking that we’re just going to put Peter Pan on stage, and we do that but it’s a show about family and love and friendship and loss. It’s suitable for everyone – kids, parents, grandparents – but the adults are moved and touched by the family aspect of it. People might think that they’ll see Peter Pan and it’ll be cute, but at the end they’re actually emotional. Peter Pan was actually quite an emotional story… to be young forever, to meet friends and then have to say goodbye. People are moved by that in our production.
R+B: One could draw many parallels between J.M Barrie’s struggles as an artist and what artists go through today. How, if at all, have you found yourself relating to his character?
CD: I think that the relationship between J.M. Barrie and Charles Frohman, the producer of Barrie’s shows, is reminiscent of an actor’s relationship with their director, agent or manager. That sometimes someone wants to push your career in a certain way, and either you don’t always feel super passionate about it in general or you don’t feel super passionate about the things you’re creating in the moment, and you want to bring more of yourself into the next role. Or you want to try something different no one has seen before. When you’re an artist, you have all these things inside of you that you need to get out, but to in order to make a career out of it you need other people with different skills to help you along, like producers or agents. Sometimes in that process you lose the reason why you started in the first place and all the things you want to say or get out. That is something I related to when I saw Finding Neverland on Broadway the first couple of times, and I think it’s relatable to all artists.
R+B: Both WICKED and Finding Neverland have a gravity-defying moment in their storylines. What has been the gravity-defying moment so far in your career?
CD: Wow… that would have to be getting the phone call that I was going to be on Broadway the first time (in RENT). I remember going to my voice teacher way back in college and saying that I needed to sing like [Maureen]! To get that call and make my Broadway debut in that role – it was incredible, especially since I had worked so hard on national tours and I had been away from my family and friends for so long. It gave me a full year to be in one place, to live in my own apartment and set up a life for myself without having to pack a suitcase every week. It was sort of like I had arrived at this goal and also sort of felt like I was able to be an adult, have a routine, do my own thing and be a real professional actress in the city. It’s tough to be able to achieve something like that, and I worked really hard for it.
R+B (bonus question): I read that you performed for President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel in April 2016. What was that like?
CD (bonus answer): Truly, I have no anxiety performing when I don’t have someone I know in the audience, but if I have one person in the audience that I know, I have major anxiety about it! For someone like that—President Obama—who has impacted my life and my friends’ lives and artists’ lives everywhere, making arts education important again… it was crazy. I got myself sick before the performance, but I pulled through it and was fine. I’m so grateful Kara Lindsay with me (who played Glinda in WICKED). I knew I had to sing “Defying Gravity” alone, but we started with “For Good” together, and I knew I just had to keep locked on her eyes! But I knew exactly where he was sitting because Chancellor Merkel was wearing this bright yellow suit and he was sitting next to her. I could see her out of the corner of my eye! It was truly an outer-body experience. I would never in my wildest dreams get a trip to Germany, a place I had never been to, and be able to perform for someone I so deeply respect and admire while representing my country. Saying it now, it still feels like it didn’t really happen! I’m so grateful for the opportunity and that WICKED asked me to do that.
Catch one of the eight Finding Neverland shows, which will be at the Fox Cities PAC from April 17-22!
Text: Alison Mayer
Lead Photo: Matthew Schmidt