Once more, with feeling: Tom Hewitt gives 'em the Hook

Finding Neverland Tom Hewitt. Photo by Carol Rosegg

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland runs through Jan. 1 in Denver’s Buell Theatre. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the principal cast and creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in a seven-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 7: Tom Hewitt, who plays producer Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook.

Imagine a world, says the actor playing Hook, where the Wright Brothers were taking flight at the same time as Peter Pan.

By John Moore
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Tony Award-nominated actor Tom Hewitt plays Captain Hook in Finding Neverland with a hook. Well, a twist. OK, a hook – and a twist.

Hewitt actually plays two characters in the national touring production visiting Denver through Jan. 1. His primary role is that of the struggling theatrical producer Charles Frohman, who is desperate for his playwright friend J. M. Barrie to come up with a hit story that will rescue his theatre. And when a widow and her four adventurous sons plant the seeds in Barrie’s brain for what will become Peter Pan, what else should grow forth but perhaps the greatest villain of all-time?

Captain Hook is not so much a character In Finding Neverland, but rather Barrie’s inner voice unleashed.

“The Captain Hook you see in Finding Neverland is really a facet of J. M. Barrie’s personality,” Hewitt said. “Hook manifests himself in Barrie’s mind to encourage him to his explore the darker sides of his personality.”

To that point, was a modestly successful playwright of conventional and often recycled stories that were choking the creative life out of him. Until Hook springs forth and essentially “pirates him up.” At a seminal moment in the story, Hewitt says, “Hook gives Barrie the courage and conviction to walk his own path.”

It is, in the opinion of Director Diane Paulus, the most meaningful moment in the entire play. Hook says to Barrie: “You can go back to being what everyone expects you to be … or you can find the courage to write your own story.” To Paulus, that line could mean “write your own story,” literally. Or it could mean, “write the story of your life. “And when Paulus first read that line in James Graham’s Finding Neverland script, Paulus knew she had to take on the project. It spoke to Barrie. It spoke to Paulus. It speaks to Hewitt.

“Every artist faces the same question that J. M. Barrie faced: Do you take the money, or do you do the art?” said Hewitt. “Do you do what people expect you to do, or do you venture into unexplored territory?”

Writing Peter Pan for the London stage of a century ago was a risk for Barrie. Children were not meant to be seen or heard on a London stage at that time. No one had dared to tell a story that spoke to children – and spoke to the inner child in everyone. That made Barrie’s play an ever bigger risk for Frohman to bankroll.

“Think about what was happening at the time,” said Hewitt. The modern era of flight began with the Wright Brothers in 1903. And the modern era of stage flight began with the debut of Peter Pan the next year.

 “That means play opened at about the same time that man was literally flying for the first time,” Hewitt said. “And so the idea of people flying on the stage represented a big, new technical advance in theatre stagecraft. The press was covering the play very intensely as it was progressing. Insurance had to be taken out on the performers. There was a lot at stake.”  

Hewitt has made a career of playing bad guys and monsters, including on Broadway Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar; Billy Flynn in Chicago; Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show and has also played Scar in The Lion King. But he brings a unique perspective to playing Barrie’s inner Hook, given that he also played the Captain Hook in both the 1998 and 2011 national touring productions of Peter Pan starring America’s perennial Lost Boy, Cathy Rigby.

 “That was really magical,” Hewitt said. I freakin’ loved it. She is a little boy in that role. Just astonishing. And she’s a good person. And so just feels right and fun to get to do Captain Hook again, and to explore different aspects of him now.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

The major difference is that the Hook we meet in Finding Neverland is not off on some magical island. He’s in Barrie’s mind’s eye. The fun here is watching the inspiration for Hook spring forth like Tinkerbell and make itself evident to Barrie.

“At one point I hold up Charles Frohman’s cane, and the shadow of it creates a hook that you can see on the back wall,” Hewitt said. “Every night you can hear the audience go, ‘Oooooh! He’s getting the idea for Captain Hook!’ It’s great fun.”

The thing both his Hooks have in common, Frohman said, is that part of us can’t help but like him.

“Hook is just a terrified child,” he said. “He’s haunted by this crocodile that has a clock inside of it; that swallowed his hand and is now following him around. How awful is that? I think everyone can identify with that.”

Finding Neverland Tom Hewitt Carol RoseggTom Hewitt as producer James Frohman, left, and Captain James Hook in ‘Finding Neverland,’ running through Jan. 1 in Denver. Photo by Carol Rosegg.) 

Here is more of Tom Hewitt’s conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore:

John Moore: Do you remember how Peter Pan first came into your life?

Tom Hewitt: Very vividly. It was the black-and-white version of Mary Martin‘s Peter Pan on television, with Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. I have a very clear memory of watching that show and loving it. I remember going into the kitchen – making sure I was by myself – and wishing so hard that I could fly. I wanted to fly so bad. I was really swept up in the magic of it, and I have loved that story ever since. Then I had the great pleasure and honor of playing Captain Hook with Cathy Rigby.

John Moore: And how was that experience?

Tom Hewitt: It was really magical. I remember watching Peter Pan on Broadway in 1998, and having the opportunity to visit the set afterward. I remember walking around that pirate ship going, ‘Oh my God, I would love to be in this show.’ And then I got the opportunity to tour with Cathy.

John Moore: Why do you think Peter Pan remains such a timeless source of new stories for the stage and screen?

Tom Hewitt: I think it’s the possibility of eternal youth, and both the joy and heartbreak that would bring. Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz are cultural phenomena that really speak to a modern mythology. The characters and the stories are so ingrained in so many people’s psyches that their fans just really want variations and prequels and the back stories of the characters.

John Moore: One thing we know about your director, Diane Paulus, is that when she assembles a creative team, she seeks out people from unconventional artistic backgrounds. How did that play out in Finding Neverland for you?

Tom Hewitt: I get the feeling that our choreographer Mia Michaels really likes working with people who aren’t particularly trained in dance. And I love that. Doing musicals is relatively new for me, but Mia celebrates and exploits people’s natural movement qualities. I really enjoyed the time I spent with her.

John Moore: What’s the most fun part about playing Charles Frohman?

Tom Hewitt: A lot of the story has to do with the specifics of presenting Peter Pan to that first live audience in 1904. So we’re doing a play about a play, and we are actors playing actors. I love that we get to play some unapologetically theatrical characters.

John Moore: Because this is not a staging of the Peter Pan story, what kind of theatrical experience is the audience in for?

Tom Hewitt: I can tell you, there are some of the most beautiful special effects I have ever seen. They are moving and fun and surprising and magical – and they are so beautifully simple at the same time.

John Moore: You were nominated for a Tony Award for your portrayal of Frank N Furter in the 2000 Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show. What did you think of the recent Fox remake?

Tom Hewitt: I was actually doing a show that night, so I didn’t get to see it, unfortunately.

John Moore: OK then, last question: What’s one thing you want to get off your chest?
Tom Hewitt: When you are standing on the subway platform, and the doors open – stand to the side and let people get off the train before you get on. That’s all I ask out of life. It really does make everybody’s day go so much smoother.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Finding Neverland: Ticket information
• Dec 20 through Jan. 1
• Buell Theatre
• Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Finding Neverland
creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 3: Composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 4: Book writer James Graham
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 5: Actor Christine Dwyer (Sylvia)
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 6: Actor Kevin Kern (J. M. Barrie)
Diane Paulus on the rise of ‘adventure theatre’
Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center’s 2016-17 Broadway season

Photos: Opening night of Finding Neverland in Denver:

Finding Neverland in DenverImages from ‘Finding Neverland’ in Denver. to see more, click the arrow on the image above. All photos are downloadable for use with proper credit. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

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