appeared in Big Fish’s
Alison Lohman and Ewan
McGregor starred in the 2003
movie adaptation of Big Fish.
Some stories never die. And it’s not only the deeply rooted tales of myth that keep recurring in different guises. Henry James’s Washington Square became a play and then a movie. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest followed the same path. Even Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse made its mark on the stage before Steven Spielberg gave it worldwide fame. And now, in a variation on that curious creative trifecta, comes Big Fish.
Opening this month, Big Fish is the Broadway-bound musical directed and choreographed by multiple Tony winner Susan Stroman (The Producers, Crazy for You), with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family) and a book penned by writer John August, who also wrote the screenplay for the 2003 Tim Burton film, based on the short novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace. Mixing a smidgen of magical realism with a dose of Southern Gothic, Big Fish is a wild romp beneath which lies the moving story of a son’s desire to understand his father, Edward Bloom, a man who always rendered his life—even from his deathbed—in one tall tale after another. As the stage production was going into rehearsal this winter, Wallace admitted, “I think everybody adapts a book in their head when they’re reading it, but I thought the idea of turning it into a movie was crazy. It didn’t seem to me to be material that would translate that well. And the musical idea was equally if not more shocking. That this little book of 180-something pages, a book I wrote in the laundry room over the course of a year or so, could have this second and third life is just remarkable.”
Says August, “What keeps me coming back to Big Fish is that it’s one of the few male weepies. There are men who say they never cry at movies, but they sobbed at Big Fish. Being able to come back and recapture that experience another time has been amazing.”
August, whose screenwriting credits include Tim Burton’s film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, envisioned Big Fish as a stage musical at the film’s first test screening. He shared his idea with the movie’s producers, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, and the ball got rolling. Slowly. “TV is written in quick bursts, like sprinting,” explains August. “Movies are marathons; five years is not unheard of. [Compared to that, writing a musical] is like a great migration. Andrew Lippa came on first. And song by song, scene by scene, we were able to build it.”
Although August had already adapted the novel, he didn’t crib from his screenplay to generate the stage script. “At no point did I copy and paste anything. It’s all rebuilt and reimagined for the stage because the stage works so differently. One of the first decisions we had to make was, are we going to show Edward Bloom throughout his life with multiple actors or one actor? On stage, you have the ability to suspend disbelief, and one actor can play a young man here and an older man there. Once we decided on one actor, that determined a lot of the decisions that followed.”
“You need to approach it as a whole new animal,” remarks director Stroman. “You do leave the film behind, and immediately you have a story in front of you that you have to visualize for the theater. You can’t go to 80 locations like you do in a movie. You can go to 10, if you’re lucky. So, you start to combine scenes and then cut scenes, and then you figure out how you can transition from one scene to the next. Of course, in movies, you can just cut to that next scene, but in the theater you have to take the audience on a ride to that next scene through dance or through song. But because Big Fish is about fantasy, because it is about storytelling, it really lends itself to a musical beautifully.”
While Wallace attended readings and a workshop as the show was coming together, he’s happily kept his distance. “It’s not a good idea to have the writer of the book involved. It’s better to have the new creators absorbed in their own vision, without the distraction of someone else who was involved in a whole different project, really.”
Sums up Stroman, “People go to the theater because they love good storytelling, and that’s what this is about: a father-and-son relationship and how difficult that can be. But [in the end] it’s about storytelling. And that is very special.” Big Fish plays from April 2 to May 5 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., 800-775-2000