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Steven Spielberg’s Eternal Quest for Song and Dance

On Friday, the most commercially successful director in history returns with ‘West Side Story,’ which will mark his first musical. But three decades ago, he almost got one with ‘Hook,’ his reimagining of the ‘Peter Pan’ story.

TriStar Pictures/20th Century Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I still have a mad chocolate craving to direct a conventional musical,” Steven Spielberg told Premiere in 1997, although it was a craving he talked about since pretty much the beginning of his career 50-plus years ago. He’s finally cashed that promissory note with West Side Story, his equally reverent and utterly Spielbergian homage to the classic 1957 Leonard Bernstein musical. The new film, which arrives in theaters this Friday, follows a long trail of dalliances with musical set pieces, teased productions, and almost-musicals. And 30 years ago this month, Hook—the movie about Peter Pan from the director who was frequently accused of being Peter Pan himself—was nearly Spielberg’s first musical.

“There’s always a fairy in Steven’s ear wanting him to turn things into musicals,” says Bonnie Curtis, who started as Spielberg’s assistant during Hook and went on to produce Saving Private Ryan and the dystopian sci-fi film A.I. Artificial Intelligence with him. “Since the day I met Steven, he has talked about, on and off forever, ‘I really want to do a musical. Oh my God, I want to do a musical.’”

His love affair with the genre began in childhood, when Spielberg’s parents limited his movie-watching diet to “general audience” pictures like Disney, Audrey Hepburn movies, and musicals. As Joseph McBride detailed in his 1997 biography on the director, Spielberg’s mother, Leah, played the piano constantly while he was in utero and with him on her lap when he was an infant, and in his note for the new West Side Story soundtrack, Spielberg writes: “It was my mother’s love of music, combined with my insatiable appetite to understand everything about movie making, that led me to start collecting motion picture soundtrack albums when I was young. I loved the West Side Story cast album from the first time I listened to it. As a kid I could sing every one of its songs by heart—and I did sing them, until I wore out the patience of my entire family.”


He played the clarinet in school bands and accompanied his own high school musicals. He’s even said that if he weren’t a filmmaker, he’d probably be a composer—“a starving composer somewhere in Hollywood.” His longtime music man, John Williams, has more confidently said that Spielberg would have made a good composer. “He has that rhythmic sense in his whole being,” Williams said in 1993 for The Making of Jurassic Park book, “and I think that is one of the great things about his directing—this rhythmic, kinetic sense he has.”

Watching a Spielberg movie is like watching music—the way the camera swoops and dives, rising and resolving like a beautiful melody, capturing emotion in motion. Even if he’s not cutting his highly animated visuals to John Williams’s prerecorded score (as he did with the grand finale of E.T.), it often feels like he is. Williams’s songlike instrumental music is so perfectly in sync with the director’s choreographed action and liquid edits that the best metaphors for Spielberg’s films have often been musicals, opera, or ballet—whether its the rapturous, literal musical dialogue between humans and extraterrestrials at the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the deadly dance between Indiana Jones and a Nazi he-man in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As early as 1978, on the heels of Close Encounters, Spielberg told American Cinematographer that he wanted to make a musical—and indeed while he was making Raiders, Spielberg worked to develop what would’ve been his first. Called Reel to Reel, it was a meta-memoir story about a young filmmaker trying to make his first film: a science-fiction musical. Gary David Goldberg, a writer from The Bob Newhart Show, worked on the script in Spielberg’s hotel, and producer Howard Kazanjian said Spielberg was constantly talking about it as they drove to and from location in Europe. Spielberg even flew back to Hollywood during production to pitch it to Sid Sheinberg, the Universal Studios president who launched his career (and had his own avatar in the script).

But Sheinberg wasn’t interested, and “when Sid said no on this musical,” Kazanjian told McBride, “Steven kinda said, ‘OK, I’ll quickly do this other little picture, E.T., to get my obligation out of the way.’ I think that’s why he really did it, just to fulfill that last-picture deal with Sid.” (In 1983, Reel to Reel was announced as a Michael Cimino film, produced by Spielberg for Columbia, but that never happened. Goldberg told the Los Angeles Times in 1990 that the script was never up to snuff, and that “it became darker under Michael.”)

When Spielberg expressed interest in directing a stage musical in a 1982 interview, Premiere inquired about musical films. “Funny you should mention that,” he replied. “I’m planning one right now. Quincy Jones and I are developing it. I’ve got to be secretive about it, though. I never really discuss my ideas until they’ve been fully realized, usually in scope and stereophonic sound. I’m a big fan of Quincy’s. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to combine what he does best with what I do well and make a ‘dangerous’ movie.”

What that Quincy Jones musical would have been is anyone’s guess. The two quickly went on to make the non-musical The Color Purple (which Jones produced and scored) in 1985, which was adapted into a musical several decades later. Around that same time, Spielberg openly talked about making a Peter Pan musical starring Jones’s protégé, Michael Jackson. There is an indirect, curlicued line between that abandoned project and Hook ... but it seems that whenever Spielberg imagined Neverland, he heard singing.

Hook, released on December 11, 1991, is a fascinating entry in Spielberg’s filmography. Loathed by many as a bloated disaster, and just as passionately adored by more than one generation, it’s arguably the quintessential Steven Spielberg story, predicated on the premise: What if Peter Pan grew up? It’s full of the director’s Rosebuds: lost boys, magic, flight, transporting to fantasy worlds, and a fixation on childhood. It contains a line that could sum up the mythos of Spielberg’s work: “I guess we do have something in common: We’re orphans.” Hook came at the tail end of a more innocent, childlike period in his life: After years of being Hollywood’s biggest kid, he was now a new father himself, and he had already dabbled in more serious historical realities with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Once finished with Hook, he was ready to embrace the toughest and most serious subject of all, the Holocaust.

Made at that career crossroads, between the last Indiana Jones adventure of the original trilogy and Schindler’s List, Hook is both escapist fantasy and a quasi-sober meditation on paternal responsibility and what makes life actually worth living. Peter Banning, played by an uptight Robin Williams, is a cautionary rebuke to every ’90s dad’s potential for workaholism—including Spielberg himself—at the expense of their children. He’s the embodiment of what happens when you let your inner Peter Pan die. When you forget about your adventures in Neverland, you look for meaning in business mergers and the corporate ladder. You forget how to fly.

But Hook is also just a fantastical, throwback Hollywood entertainment. “Steven has said, with that movie, he ended up making something that was akin to children’s theater,” Curtis says. After he considered shooting the pirate ship scenes in the Caribbean, Spielberg filmed the whole thing on the Sony lot in Culver City—on the same soundstages where every classic MGM musical and Esther Williams “aquamusical” was made. (Hook screenwriter James V. Hart went straight from this to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, another old Hollywood homage that was shot on the same stages just as the Hook sets came down.) There’s a knowing, larger-than-life artificiality to the whole enterprise: The colors of the sunset in Neverland are as unreal as the technicolored never-feast eaten by Peter and the Lost Boys. The theatricality is part of the film’s charm—from Dustin Hoffman’s foppish, English Captain Hook to the final battle, which, in addition to some Errol Flynn swashbuckling, features an egg launcher and a human bowling ball.

It wasn’t really a stretch that Spielberg, constructing sets on stages haunted by the ghosts of old Judy Garland and Fred Astaire routines, thought Hook should be a musical. He asked Williams to write a whole book of original songs, and Williams recruited Leslie Bricusse to write the lyrics. Bricusse, who died earlier this year, had penned lyrics for Williams tunes since their youthful days at Fox in the 1960s, up through “Can You Read My Mind” from Superman (1978) and the original Christmas carols in Home Alone (1990). Williams earned one of his first Oscar nominations for adapting a score from Bricusse’s own songs for the 1969 musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips—and in fact, the composer’s early, pre–Star Wars fame was as an arranger on lavish movie musicals like Fiddler on the Roof. (Williams tried writing a stage musical himself only once, with the ill-fated Thomas and the King in 1975.)

For Hook, Williams and Bricusse wrote at least five songs, “both caught up in the swirl of Steven’s vision,” as Bricusse wrote in his memoir, “and in a blur of activity we went to work, pouring out a stream of pirate songs and Hook songs and Wendy songs and Lost Boy songs and Tinkerbell and Peter songs.” Bruce Cohen, the first assistant director on Hook, was there when the duo called Spielberg into Williams’s bungalow at Universal to audition their songbook. “They didn’t bring in vocalists,” Cohen remembers. “It was very informal, just them sitting at the piano and giving an idea of what the songs were.”

The song for Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith) was called “Childhood,” and Bricusse felt it was the very heart of the movie—a guaranteed Oscar winner. Using parlance from the movie, Spielberg agreed it was a “home run.” Since Smith isn’t a vocalist, Bricusse rang up his friend Julie Andrews—who learned the song overnight, then drove to MGM to record the song for Smith to lip-synch in Wendy’s nursery later that day. Channeling the quivers of a much older woman, Andrews sang “Childhood” on the very spot where Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz five decades earlier.

Spielberg ultimately cut that scene. Likewise, Dustin Hoffman learned a comedy number called “Stick With Me,” sung to Peter’s children, for naught. Two songs do remain in the final film: “We Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” performed by the children in Maggie’s school play, and the aching lullaby Maggie (Amber Scott) sings one night in Neverland, “When You’re Alone”—a song so beautiful it makes a hardened pirate sigh and nearly pulls Jack (Charlie Korsmo) out from under Hook’s spell. (That song did get an Academy Award nomination, and Scott sang it in an ill-advised performance at the 1992 Oscars.)

By far the most ambitious number, though, was “Low Below,” sung by Bob Hoskins (as Smee) and a cast of pirates and hookers. A jaunty sea shanty that breaks out after Peter’s arrival in Neverland, it provided a tour of the pirate’s corner—through barber shops and bars—and introduced Captain Hook. Cohen had suggested hiring choreographer Vince Paterson after seeing his work in Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 Video Music Awards, and Paterson—who also worked extensively with Michael Jackson—choreographed a whole routine for the musical pirate sequence. The five-minute song was prerecorded with cast and orchestra and rehearsed, and Spielberg spent at least a week shooting it.

Reader, the song even included a pirate rap. (A taste: “This Peter Pan high boy / Ain’t no fly boy.”)

“I got a letter from Steven telling me months, months, months later, that after they showed this with a test audience, what happened was: People were very disappointed, because they thought that it was going to be sort of analogous to Dorothy landing in Oz, going from black and white to color,” recalls Paterson, who also choreographed some of Julia Roberts’s Tinkerbell movement and the skateboarding Lost Boys. According to Paterson, Spielberg said that after this sequence the test audience “became disappointed with the rest of the film. Because it was so exciting, the musical piece, that they thought the whole thing was now going to become a big dance and song musical—which it didn’t become.”

Whatever his reasoning—maybe it was a little corny, or maybe it just slowed things down too much—Spielberg snipped the song out of the film, from right after Peter falls in with the crowd behind Smee and cutting straight to the pirates chanting “Hook, hook, show us the hook!” (which was part of the song). In 2018, Spielberg finally allowed 11 deleted scenes to be included on the 4K release of Hook. None of them include the nixed songs.

The song melodies did remain in John Williams’s extra hummable score: “Low Below” is Hook’s theme, first hummed by a wordless male choir after Peter’s children are kidnapped. The tune for “Childhood” is heard throughout, especially when Peter begins to vividly remember his own childhood. Because the score originated as a musical, it’s one of Williams’s most deliciously lyrical, indelible works—in a staggering career full of them.

Despite reports that Hook was a very happy production (albeit with one notable exception) andthat all of the actors enjoyed themselves on this giant playpen of a movie set (which attracted a swarm of celebrities, from Prince to the queen of Jordan) and that Spielberg was having a grand time, the director seemed to disown the movie almost immediately upon release. Following months of negative chatter about the film being over budget and over schedule, critics tore the movie apart. “Hook is overwhelmed by a screenplay heavy with complicated exposition,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, “by what are, in effect, big busy non-singing, non-dancing production numbers and some contemporary cant about rearing children and the high price paid for success.” Canby also astutely noticed “that one keeps hearing what sound like song cues.”

Hart says he spent years begging Spielberg to turn Hook into a Broadway musical, but the director is simply “not a Hook fan. … He’s been very vocal about that.” Spielberg never reads reviews, according to Curtis, so his disappointment seems to have been strictly personal. “There are parts of Hook I love,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “I’m really proud of my work right up through Peter being hauled off in the parachute out the window, heading for Neverland. I’m a little less proud of the Neverland sequences, because I’m uncomfortable with that highly stylized world that today, of course, I would probably have done with live-action character work inside a completely digital set. But we didn’t have the technology to do it then, and my imagination only went as far as building physical sets and trying to paint trees blue and red.”

His appraisal of the film may have improved since then, Curtis suggests. “I’ve actually heard him speak quite lovingly about it,” she says. “And I’ve had conversations with him about how many people specifically note that movie to me. Like, I worked on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but they want to talk to me about Hook, you know. It really got into people’s hearts.” If nothing else, she notes, among the film’s host of fans are Spielberg’s own children.

All throughout his prolific filmmaking career, Steven Spielberg kept scratching the musical itch. His 1979 WWII comedy flop, 1941, was begging to be a musical—from its cartoon-like antics mimicked by Williams’s animated score to the big jitterbug contest, which Spielberg said was “a fragment of what I wanted to do [and] the most satisfying experience for me in making 1941.” “In the back of my mind,” he said, “I always saw 1941 as an old-fashioned Hollywood musical.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with a Busby Berkeley–inspired song and dance number, Kate Capshaw singing Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin with a line of chorus girls and a fantasy musical set hidden within a 1930s nightclub. Curtis says Spielberg has basically entertained turning every one of his movies that could be a musical into one. He conceived a sequence in A.I., when Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and David (Haley Joel Osment) first enter Rouge City, as a musical number—ILM wiz Dennis Muren even created an elaborate previsualization setup for Spielberg to shoot it—but scrapped the idea. The Terminal, in which Tom Hanks’s Eastern European traveler gets trapped in a New York airport, also nearly had musical set pieces.

Several animated musicals were made by Spielberg the producer. He helped revive the animated feature film with An American Tail in 1986, a movie that fused his childhood love of classic Disney show tunes with a personal (albeit allegorical) story about Jewish immigrants. His self-aware variety show, Animaniacs, was stuffed with original songs and musical parodies—including one called West Side Pigeons. When songwriter Randy Rogel wrote “Yakko’s World,” Spielberg liked it and said, “Well, have him do another one,” Rogel recalled. “As I was doing more and more songs, Spielberg gave me a piano. They wheeled a piano in with a little note from him saying, OK, now I know what I want to do with this. You’re going to be Tin Pan Alley here.’”

For several years in the ’90s, Spielberg’s now-defunct production company Amblimation was plotting an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. In 1996, the trades reported he was circling a musical with John Travolta and Barbra Streisand. (Neither panned out.) While promoting Saving Private Ryan in 1998, Spielberg reiterated what he’d been saying for two decades: “I want to do an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. I’ve been nipping at it, but I haven’t confronted it yet. I’m not talking about a kitschy send-up, but seriously plunging into a shameless musical like West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain.”

Two more decades later, he’s finally done it. Instead of commissioning a new musical for one of his flights of fancy, Spielberg went back to the sacred text of his boyhood and simply, lovingly remade a beloved Bernstein and Sondheim stage musical that was also a beloved Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise movie. (Fun fact: John Williams played piano on that 1961 soundtrack.) Rather than contribute a new tune to the canon—with all the associated risks—he has, in a way, played it safe by adapting a masterpiece.

Of course, tampering with a cultural treasure is a different kind of massive risk. But from the opening Jets whistle echoing through the empty streets of New York, you know you’re in good hands. By faithfully worshiping the music and lyrics, and only revising—and in many ways improving—the script and casting, Spielberg got to unleash a lifetime of pent-up energy to make, as the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang wrote, his most exhilarating movie in years. With Tony Kushner’s script raising the heat on the racial animus and making the punches (both social and physical) land harder, and Spielberg casting actual Latin American actors and retaining swaths of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue, this West Side Story benefits from his latter-day role as an unblinking teller of American historical truths with his youthful gift for making effervescent, musical spectacle.

And he did so with music he’s been carrying around in his heart for 60 years, making it all the more personal. This is also, it’s worth noting, a musical about lost boys.

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.

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