News Column

The Journey of 'Big Fish' From Screen to the Stage

September 29, 2013


"Big Fish," the first major new musical of the Broadway season - it's in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre for an opening Oct. 6 -- comes from an unlikely place.

It's an adaptation of an offbeat 2003 Tim Burton film, a fantasy- adventure about the relationship between a father and son, the power of storytelling and how we live on after death.

John August, the movie's young screenwriter, found his source in the late 1990s when he read the pre-publication manuscript of Daniel Wallace's book "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions."

"I had lost my father five years before that, so I knew what that was like," August said. "This story gave me the opportunity to write about it."

The tale is about Edward Bloom, who is played in the musical by Norbert Leo Butz.

Bloom's grown son Will (Bobby Steggert) has become estranged from his father. (Ed's beloved wife, Sandra, is played by Kate Baldwin.) Will has dismissed the older man as a compulsive liar who tells ridiculous stories about his life.

Ed's yarns include encounters with a witch, a giant, a werewolf and a mermaid. On the day Will was born, Ed says, he caught an enormous fish, using his wedding ring as bait.

When Ed becomes ill with cancer, Will returns home, and then sets out to investigate his father's stories, to separate truth from fiction. It's a journey on which Will gains wisdom as well as knowledge.

When the movie was completed, August said, he immediately began thinking about the story as a possibility for the stage.

"At the first screening, I thought, 'There's more to do here, exploring the characters' inner lives. They kind of want to sing; it could be a Broadway musical.' "

Nearly 10 years later, August, who wrote the show's book, and songwriter Andrew Lippa are finally seeing that happen.

August and Lippa collaborated on the show intermittently while each also did other things. August continued working with Burton, writing the stories or screenplays for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Dark Shadows" and "Frankenweenie," while Lippa wrote the score for "The Addams Family," among other shows.

Lippa joined the project in 2004, after meeting one of the producers at a party.

"I had thought it was a good idea for a musical, and I was introduced to John, and we started writing. We very quickly came up with two scenes and two songs." He said he and August had an instant compatibility. "My father was ill; he passed away three years later. So we had that in common."

Though still under the pressure of making last-minute changes, the two men talked easily and affably about the production in the midtown New York office of the show's press agent. August, 43, was a bit more laid-back; Lippa, 48, was quick with a quip.

A big moment in the musical's progression came in 2011, after they'd been presenting parts of the show at small gatherings. "We needed a director to visualize what it would look like on a big stage," said Lippa, who added, "I get chills telling this story."

The tale is that Susan Stroman, who staged "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein" and is one of the most sought-after directors of musicals in New York, came to a reading of the show, liked what she saw and, fulfilling its creators' fantasy, agreed to direct it.

"I had to restrain myself when I heard," said Lippa. "I wanted to scream and jump up and down."

The next defining episode was the show's out-of-town tryout in Chicago last spring.

It was an eye-opener. "The view from 50 feet away is very different than the view from 5 feet," said August. "The first act just wasn't working."

While the evening's fantasy sequences were deemed to be effective, the introduction of the family saga needed to be clarified.

"You can't just jump right into the story," said Lippa.

That meant a rewriting that better situated the audience with what was to unfold, and the creation of a new opening number, "Be the Hero."

Beyond its exotic elements, said Lippa, he and August hope "Big Fish" will resonate with audiences the way it originally did for them.

"It's a story about a family," he said.

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