kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish the Broadway musical
kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish the Broadway musical

Making Big Fish Sing: A New Broadway Musical Is Born

Gerard Raymond recently spoke with John August and Andrew Lippa about their new musical.

Daniel Wallace’s acclaimed novel Big Fish captured readers’ imaginations with its unique balance of colorful fantasy and real-life emotion. Screenwriter John August and director Tim Burton brought Wallace’s epic tale – about a traveling salesman named Edward Bloom who’s got a larger-than-life story for everything – to the big screen in 2003. Shortly thereafter, the film’s producers and Mr. August decided that adapting Big Fish for the stage could bring it new dimension and resonance. They assembled a team of Broadway’s brightest creative talents, including 5-time Tony-winning director Susan Stroman and Tony-nominated composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa, and the result: a great, big, brand-new American musical anchored by an emotionally intimate tale at its core. Big Fish premiered at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre in Spring of 2013. The production, along with stars Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert, will begin performances at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre on September 5th.
How did Big Fish, the musical, come about?

John August: I read Daniel’s book in manuscript in 1998 and I was able to get the rights and make it into a movie along with [producers] Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. But even as we were finishing up the movie, I told them that I really think there is a musical here. Big Fish is a story about storytelling, and that lends itself naturally to song. It’s a cliché but true that when you get to a point where words fail you, then you start singing. A crucial step in making the musical for us was finding Andrew.

Andrew Lippa: I know it sounds very implausible, but I called Bruce Cohen after meeting him at a party in New York City; I told him how much I had loved the film Big Fish and asked if he and Dan had considered turning it into a musical. He said that not only were they working on it, I was on their list and they were going to call me! It was providential, and in a way, this magical thing – just like something which might have happened to the character Edward Bloom in the story.

John and I met for the first time in 2003. He picked me up at the Los Angeles airport and we drove to Palm Springs, where we had rented a house which had a piano and a pool. (I have now made that my contractual prerequisite for working on a show!)  John and I talked about the structure of the show and the characters; what needed to sing and how we would do it. And in a few days we wrote the first two scenes with two songs. We took them back to LA and played the songs for Bruce and Dan. They looked at each other and they looked at us and they said, “let’s do it.”

John, when writing the book for the musical, did you work from your screenplay or did you start again from the novel?

August: At no point did I want to feel like I was adapting my script or the movie. I wanted to tell a new story about Edward Bloom and this family in a way that really wanted to be on stage.  For every moment I started asking, “what is the best stage version of that idea?” As an example, in the movie there is a scene I wrote where Jessica Lange [Sandra Bloom] climbs into the bathtub with her husband played by Albert Finney. It is a really beautiful moment in the movie but it would not work at all on the stage. She expresses something here, so I said to Andrew that’s a song – and we were able to use musical vocabulary to do it.

Lippa: If I can sing John’s praises for a moment: He has never written a musical before and it is probably very tricky to go from being the screenwriter and working in a medium that you know very well and to let go all of the things you have done before. John was actually aggressive about reminding us that we were not doing a film and that we were doing a stage piece. It’s really been a wonderful collaboration.

In the musical, Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin play Edward and Sandra Bloom all the way through a 40 year time period. Why this change from the movie, where different actors play the younger and older versions of the characters?

August: Movies are so literal, where you are staring at somebody’s face in close-up. On stage the audience is willing to embrace the fact that Norbert is a teenager and later on playing an older man. They are excited to see that transformation happen in front of their eyes.

Lippa: That was actually the first big decision that John and I made when we were in that car on our way to Palm Springs.  As literal as movies are, there is nobody standing in front of you. In the theater it is about as literal as you can get where real people are right up in front of you. And because of that, there is an emotional disconnect. You don’t go on the journey with that person, if it was a different actor in the earlier scene.

Andrew, how did you come up with a musical style for the show?

Lippa: A thing that I admired about the movie is that the score never purposely went into “country music” or the kind of sounds you might hear in Alabama. It just nodded in that direction every once in a while. We believed that was the right way to go for the musical as well – to just give a flavor of country music. And what has emerged is, I think, a score within a score. There is what I call the emotional score, which is the family story and there is the fantasy score. When Bloom goes to the circus, obviously there is a circus music component and, in Act Two, there is a sequence in the Wild West so that has a honky-tonk piano quality to it.

Would you say that this score is something of a departure from your previous work?

Lippa: I certainly hope that people see it as that. It is musically richer and, emotionally, it is among the deepest I have managed to go. I feel very strongly about the emotions in the life of this piece and these characters, so it has brought out a kind of music that I don’t think I have written before.

August:  I think what Andrew has been able to shape is a timeless American musical.  It feels contemporary without being pop in any way and classical without feeling old.  It is also internally consistent – every piece that is in there feels like it’s a part of Big Fish.  There were many songs that didn’t make it…

Lippa: Yes, even the title song that I wrote wasn’t Big Fishy enough. People ask about how long it has taken us and the answer is the piece took as long as it was supposed to take.

What drew you to Susan Stroman for director and choreographer?

August: This is a very intimate story that sometimes gets very big in its giant production numbers. Susan Stroman is a director who could do the intimate numbers and she is also a master at creating these big moments on stage, these transformations with dance and movement. She was just a dream to find. Andrew and I went to a meeting with her and played her the songs and we were so nervous…

Lippa: She will tell you that most of the time she works with artists she knows or on projects that she develops from scratch. She is not used to doing something where somebody brings her a score or a finished draft.  But she was so compelled by the material. I think she is doing work unlike anything of hers I have ever seen. I mean everybody knows that she can take a handkerchief and turn it into a dance number, but she is doing something in our show that is far different because she, I think, as I have and John did, is responding to the real emotion and romance in the idea of a man who really wants to inspire his child, but who can do it in the only way he knows how.  It has been moving to see her push herself as well as us.

Now that Big Fish is about to debut on Broadway, what are your thoughts about musical you’ve created?

August: Edward Bloom is both a larger than life character and a real man with human failings.  He grew up the son of a poor farmer in Alabama who aspired to this mythic life and it is very much an American dream and American story. The fun of our show is you get to see his great journey, but you also get to see this small and more difficult journey he has with his own son.

Lippa: It is the humanity in this story that is so potent. I think we have managed to make it larger than life but not so over the top that you can’t relate to it.  That’s been the balancing act. One of the great things we learned in Chicago [the pre-Broadway try-out] was how to find this line between fantasy and reality and the expectations of the audience. We had written many drafts of the musical, but seeing it come to life in this glorious way, for me, was overwhelming at times. I found it so moving – the idea of working with these amazing talented people and these actors who are so extraordinary.