Broadwayworld.com recently polled readers to find out which Broadway musical they’re anticipating most this fall. The winner was, hands down, “Big Fish,” which won a whopping 58 percent of the vote (the next highest percentage was only 20 percent).
“Big Fish” is about a father/son relationship – Edward Bloom, a man who tells fantastical tales, and his son, Will, who tries to find out what is true and what isn’t.
The show already enjoyed a successful run in Chicago and has several heavy-hitters involved, including five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman, who is the show’s director and choreographer (most famous for “The Producers”). The stars are two-time Tony Award-winning leading man Norbert Leo Butz and Tony Award nominee Kate Baldwin.
The book writer for the musical is John August, the same man who wrote the screenplay for the 2003 film version of “Big Fish” that was directed by Tim Burton and starred Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, and Jessica Lange.
I had the chance last week to speak on the phone separately with two of the men involved with “Big Fish.”
Daniel Wallace is the author of the original novel and several other books. He currently teaches writing to undergraduates as J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Andrew Lippa is the composer and lyricist for the musical. He is best known for writing the music and lyrics for Broadway’s “The Addam’s Family” and some new music for the 1999 revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (including the song, “My New Philosophy,” made famous by Kristin Chenoweth).
For both men, the “swim” toward this Broadway opening has been a long one. Andrew’s involvement with the show has spanned nearly nine years. For Daniel, since the original book was published in 1998, his journey has exceeded a decade and a half.
“I wrote this book in my laundry room with my son asleep in his carrier beside me,” Daniel said. “And it was my fifth go at a novel to get something out there in the world. My only ambition for it was to be a book, and everything else that has happened to it has been, in a very real sense, surreal. You bat around that word a lot, but it’s true.”
“My agent told me that someone optioned the rights to it for a movie, and I thought, ‘God, this is going to be the worst movie ever made!’” he said. “But I was so happy about it because it was real money for me to live on. It was a game-changer.”
He was pleased to discover that he was wrong about the film, which he calls “great.” Knowing how difficult it is to get a musical produced, however, Daniel never believed it would happen. When he signed the contract, he said to himself, “Well, that was pointless.”
I asked if he thought of “Big Fish” like a child – his offspring that has gone off to have a life of its own. “That’s exactly how I think of it,” he said, “except I think of it as an adopted child – that I put my child up for adoption and John August and [producer] Bruce [Cohen] and [producer] Dan Jinks came along and adopted it and made it their own in a lot of ways. Its survival is dependent on my genetics, but I can’t go over to their house and say, ‘You’re dressing my kid in a way that I object to.’”
When I pointed out that some writers would do just that, he said, “Not every writer has been as lucky as I have been to be associated with such talented people and people who are sensitive to the material and are very respectful of the writer, of me.”
While he is equally as pleased with the musical, he was quick to say “No” when I asked if seeing the production in Chicago for the first time was a magical experience. “It’s hard to watch,” he said. “It’s hard to take in the reality of your story transmogrifying into this different thing. So, it’s hard to enjoy the first time. I’m looking at it so critically. It’s not that I judge it harshly; it’s just that it’s an intense experience.”
Enjoying his work in its “adopted” state is a process for him. “My wife was looking at me during the first act when it started because she was thrilled by everything. She looked at me and said, ‘Are you okay?’ She really thought something was wrong with me,” he said.
“She wasn’t with me when I saw the movie for the first time, and it was the same thing. I had to watch the movie several times before I was able to watch it like you’re supposed to watch a movie and see and appreciate it, to separate myself from it.”
Daniel stressed that he feels similarly about his novels; he doesn’t like to read his work after it has been published. “I don’t make myself suffer through my own work, and seeing the movie for the first time and seeing the musical for the first time, it was – though separated by a few degrees – like suffering through my own stories. That being said, I take zero credit for the musical only in that the story began with me. I don’t take any credit for anything that John and Andrew have done.”
Daniel will see the musical on Broadway several times and is looking forward to getting to the place where he can sit back and just enjoy it like any other audience member.
I asked him if all of these experiences have changed the way he writes. “If I wrote toward the idea of making a good movie, I would not write a good book,” he said.
He was in his late 30s when “Big Fish” took on a life of its own – mature enough to prevent it from changing him too much. “Had this all happened when I was 22, it’s conceivable to me that I would say, ‘I need to do Big Fish Part 2,’” he joked.
Then, we pondered what that might be – perhaps Will Bloom would turn into a fish to look for his dad. They would then have an underwater journey that would become “Big Fish meets Finding Nemo.” We agreed it would be best if he didn’t pitch that idea to Hollywood.
For Andrew Lippa, the eureka moment that “Big Fish” would make a great musical came when he happened to meet producer Bruce Cohen, not when he first saw the film. As it turned out, Cohen and John August were already planning to turn the story into a musical, and Andrew was at the top of their list of possible composers.
Soon, he found himself flying to Los Angeles to meet with August. “We locked ourselves away for four days … I wrote two songs, and he wrote two scenes,” Andrew said. Their efforts were enough to get the green light, and the true hard work began.
The two clicked immediately. “I am Edward Bloom, and John is Will Bloom. We have a lot in common with the other characters, but I’m definitely Edward Bloom,” he said. “I understand a guy who talks a little too much and who makes things up to fill in the blanks. Everyone says I’d be a terrible witness on the stand.… I’m not going to be able to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’m going to tell you the whole truth and then all the stuff I made up that I think happened.”
Interestingly, John August decided not to revisit his screenplay, the film, or the novel before writing the book for the musical. He wanted to come to it from a fresh perspective.
“There are things in the movie that aren’t in our show and things in our show that aren’t in the movie,” Andrew said.
“It’s a credit to his [John’s] deep sense of the theater and his understanding of what makes a musical a musical. And also his willingness to collaborate with people who have done it a lot, like me and Susan Stroman. It’s different from the movie and from the book, and yet, it’s recognizable.”
The show’s run in Chicago was what people on the Great White Way call an “out of town tryout.” It’s an opportunity for the creative team to see how well the show works in front of an audience. As a result, the musical has been revised a bit since Chicago.
“There’s a new opening number,” Andrew said. “It gives the audience a slightly different way of getting into the piece. The whole first 25 minutes of the show has been substantially restructured even though we hit a lot of the same beats. We hit them in a different order and with different emphases.”
A musical usually goes through many incarnations before its fateful Broadway opening night. “The thing you learn over and over again is that you think you know what you’re doing. You make the best choice you can make when you’re in the void,” Andrew told me.
“Then, going to the theater, you put it in front of people, and you start listening to how they respond, and you listen to friends who come to talk to you, and the professional friends who come to give you advice, and the critics and Joe audience member. They start saying the same thing but in different ways. Our job is to ferret out exactly what they’re saying to us and figure out how to accomplish the thing that hasn’t been accomplished yet.”
What did they feel the need to change? “We hadn’t quite kicked off the father/son story in the right way so that the audience was ready to get on that bus early on,” Andrew explained. “It took the audience a while to get deeply into the play. They did get in, but it just took too long. We feel that we’ve been able to address that by changing the opening number.” Four numbers were also cut, and four new songs were written.
During the years that Andrew has worked on “Big Fish,” much has changed in his life. He entered his 40s, his father passed away, he got married, and he became an interfaith minister. But music has been the constant.
He recently had a conversation with someone about which is more important – music, food, or sex. For him, the answer is music. “There’s no downside. There’s no potential for anything other than fantastic reward. The other two, you can overdo them,” he chuckled.
Next up for him is an oratorio he wrote called “I Am Harvey Milk,” in which he played Milk opposite Laura Benanti in San Francisco in June, 2013. It will be produced next year in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. In Los Angeles, he and Benanti will be joined by 550 other performers.
Meanwhile, Daniel Wallace has a new book out called “The Kings and Queens of Roam,” which he calls “a dark fairy tale for adults.” While he didn’t write the novel with a film in mind, lo and behold, Bruce Cohen wants to make it into a movie. He asked Daniel to write the screenplay himself this time, and it’s already in front of possible directors.
“Big Fish” the musical begins previews at New York’ s Neil Simon Theatre on September 5, 2013 and has its opening night on October 6th.
Theater buffs will know the names behind the scenes well, such as Mary-Mitchell Campbell (musical director), Donald Holder (lighting design), Julian Crouch (scenic design), Jon Weston (sound design), and William Ivey Long, who is arguably Broadway’s most celebrated costume designer with 13 Tony nominations and six wins.
I’m already obsessed with this song from the show called “Time Stops.” Take a look and listen, and if you’re in New York or plan to be, get your seats now. I have a feeling this one is going to be a hot ticket.
Really fascinating to learn all the work and time and YEARS that go into taking a book, turning it into a film, and then turning it into a Broadway musical.
I think it’d be tough to listen to the audience feedback and make changes. I mean, that’s the ultimate goal – have a musical that audiences love. But I’d need to have some sort of out-of-body experience to disassociate myself from whatever had gone into the musical before that.
You have to have thick skin, that’s for sure.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Melanie! That song is hauntingly beautiful and I was fascinated to read some of the backstory on this show, as I’m a big Andrew Lippa (esp. Wild Party) and Leo Norbert Butz fan.
Glad you enjoyed it, Susan. Both Andrew and Daniel are such nice guys. I’ve met them both in person as well. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Norbert, but I hope to some day.
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And now I’ve seen the show. Loved it! The design aspects may be the stars, although everything about it is terrific. Norbert Leo Butz is especially wonderful.
[…] Melanie Votaw spoke with author Daniel Wallace and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa, who discussed the long swim of "Big Fish" from book to film to musical. […]
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