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Did you know 'Hook' was once a musical? Now you can hear the movie's long-lost songs

The movie <em>Hook</em> is now a family favorite, in spite of weak reviews when it came out in 1991. Originally intended as a musical, the film's demo songs are now available in a new recording.
AJ Pics/Alamy
The movie Hook is now a family favorite, in spite of weak reviews when it came out in 1991. Originally intended as a musical, the film's demo songs are now available in a new recording.

Updated December 20, 2023 at 10:01 AM ET

From the moment it was released in 1991, the Peter Pan adaption Hook slashed movie audiences into two camps.

Critics carved it up. It was reviled by many adults. But the film was an instant classic for a generation of kids. And the appeal has endured.

Starring Robin Williams as a grownup Peter Pan who has forgotten his past, the film, for its fans, is hilarious and heartwarming, a technicolored flight of fancy about imagination and reconnecting with an inner child.

But even hardcore fans might not realize it started out as a full-blown movie musical. Director Steven Spielberg (who has often been likened to Peter Pan) had always wanted to make a musical, and thought Hook presented the perfect opportunity. He didn't want to remake any of the previous Pan musicals — not the 1953 Disney animated movie, nor the 1954 Broadway version originally starring Mary Martin. He wanted something brand new.

For that, he turned to his faithful composer, John Williams. Over two decades and nearly a dozen films, Williams already helped Spielberg make some of the most unforgettable soundtracks in Hollywood, from the Indiana Jones movies to E.T. But Williams needed a lyricist, and who better than the guy who wrote the songs for 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Leslie Bricusse, a British lyricist and composer in his own right, was an old friend and collaborator with Williams. Starting in the 1960s, they wrote several title songs for now-forgotten films. Prior to Hook, Bricusse had set words to Williams' classic love theme from Superman and two original Christmas carols in Home Alone.

Shortly before he died in 2021, Bricusse told NPR he was thrilled about writing lyrics for a brand new Peter Pan musical movie.

"We thought we'd got the Oscar with a song called 'Childhood,'" Bricusse said. "I remember Steven, when he heard it, saying: 'That's a home run.' It was a beautiful song — beautiful song. Beautiful melody. Vintage Williams."

"Childhood" was written for Granny Wendy, played by Maggie Smith in the film. Since Smith isn't a singer, Bricusse phoned a favor from an old friend — Julie Andrews — who went into the studio and recorded it in the manner of an older woman. Williams and Bricusse also wrote a seductive villain's song, "Stick with Me," for Dustin Hoffman's wily Captain Hook.

The most lavish number was a big choreographed sequence when Peter first arrives in Neverland — and the pirates burst into a song called "Low Below." With choreography by Vince Paterson, who worked with Madonna and Michael Jackson, Spielberg spent an entire week shooting that elaborate routine. But when he and John Williams reviewed the campy footage, they looked at each other and realized ... their musical was a very bad idea.

Spielberg cut the scene and ditched the idea of Hook as a musical. Only a few remnants remained — including a lullaby, "When You're Alone," which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

To most critics, the lack of musical numbers made no difference; the film was bad. Newsweek's David Ansen summed up the consensus among critics when he called it "a huge party cake of a movie with too much frosting."

But Hook has always enjoyed a legion of diehard fans. That's partly why Mike Matessino, a record producer who resurrects and remasters old John Williams scores, decided to revisit the soundtrack. He dug up the old demos, most of them recorded in 1991 for the actors to learn — including a song Williams and Bricusse wrote for the Lost Boys and another for Tinkerbell.

Thus, 32 years after the musical Hook died, Matessino was finally able to convince all the parties at play to release a new, 3-CD album on La-La Land Records with all of the abandoned song demos (alas, minus the Julie Andrews recording of "Childhood") — as well as John Williams' complete instrumental score, where the songs have always been hiding in plain sight. The score took the song melodies for most of its major character themes.

"Even without the songs being sung," Matessino explains, "the score has a 'lyrical' quality. You don't really get themes in a film score that have what we call bridges in a song, sort of a center section. And that's a clue right there that a lot of these themes began life with the intention of having lyrics set to them."

So even though most of the songs in Hook walked the plank, their tunes took flight as one of Williams' best, and most songlike, scores. And now the final collaboration between John Williams and Leslie Bricusse can finally fly. And even crow.

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