This week, RiverCenter presents the final show of its 2018-19 Season. The national
Broadway tour of Finding Neverland comes to RiverCenter's Heard Theatre on June 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m.
The winner of Broadway.com’s Audience Choice Award for Best Musical, Finding Neverland is a stunning and magical adventure that reminds us to never lose our inner child. Directed by visionary Tony winner Diane Paulus and based on the critically-acclaimed Academy Award-winning film of the same name, Finding Neverland tells the incredible story behind one of the world’s most beloved characters: Peter Pan.
We were lucky enough to speak with Jeff Sullivan who plays the lead of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, in the show. Sullivan was kind enough to give us personal insight into his experience and motivation for playing the role. Read on to discover the incredible narrative taking place in the heart and mind of Finding Neverland 's star each and every night on stage.
The Company of Finding Neverland. Photograph by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of RiverCenter.
Q: You have a very fun character. What can you tell me about playing J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan?
A: Playing J.M. Barrie is the most fun, exhilarating role of a life time. It's just that type of role. The character is amazing, and to be able to engage in this type of storytelling every night is a dream.
Barrie starts off the show in a place where he's got writer's block, but he's still chipper and in his own little world like everything is fine. He's still putting out successful plays, but the reality is that he's putting out the same thing over and over again and everybody's is catching on. His audience is sick of his work. This is where Peter Pan comes in. It takes a long, long time of no work being put out at all and the pressure kind of coming down on him for him to be able to manifest the inspiration for the work.
He meets this family in Kensington Gardens that inspires the story of Peter Pan, but this isn't until after six months or more of him having no new work at all. At one point, his producer is laying down the law on him and he has to come up with the story. That story is Peter Pan.
Q: How has the role impacted you personally? Doing the same show every night is not an easy feat. How do you find fresh motivation for your role each time?
A: Playing the role as a whole has just been the most fulfilling dream of my entire life. The thing about J.M. Barrie's role in the show is that you're on stage for two hours and twenty minutes of a two and a half hour show. There are only about ten minutes that I'm not on stage in the entire production.
This means that as the actor playing that role, you live in the world of the show every night. For me, the show flies by. The role stays fresh because I am actually living and breathing it on stage. I'm always trying to figure out how to perform the role my best that night. Jokes fall differently each performance, another actor might change something up a bit. It all keeps it fresh. The character is the magic of the show that keeps it alive for me.
Jeff Sullivan and Conor McGiffin in Finding Neverland. Photograph by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of RiverCenter.
Q: What in your own life has prepared you to play this role?
A: My little brother who has Downs syndrome. He is the one who I dedicate this show to every night. He truly never will grow up, so for me, the boys up there on that stage are an incarnation of my brother Marcus every night. We are three years apart, and to have grown up with him my entire life has been an incredible privilege. He just shows unconditional love that baffles me. To be able to preserve that every night is an amazing gift.
Q: That is beautiful. What an incredible story.
A: Thank you. On top of that, there is another huge dedication for this show for me. My mother just passed away six weeks ago. It's been the biggest roller coaster of my life.
That was only six weeks ago, and I was gone for two weeks. With only having a month left of the tour, I decided to return and do it for Mom. She was here for opening and she came out another time to see the show as well. She loved it.
I don't know if you know the story very well, but Sylvia passes away during the show. It was this huge moment that I care so much about and sending her to Heaven - because that's what Neverland is. It's Heaven to us. To be able to honor her that way, in that moment, every single night has spoken volumes to me.
So yeah, that is what this character means to me.
Q: My goodness. I am so sorry for your loss, but what an incredible way to honor her.
A: Thank you. That's exactly what I say. Grief is a difficult thing to go through, but to have this vehicle every single day has been such a gift. I am proud to honor her this way. It's an amazing opportunity and a privilege. I find her in Neverland every night - it's magical. This whole show is about magic, and I get to experience it firsthand every performance. ◼︎
If You Go:
What: Finding Neverland
When: June 19 & 20, 7:30 p.m.
Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Heard Theatre