Chicago catches a 'Big Fish'

Telling stories for 'Big Fish,' the screen-to-stage musical having its pre-Broadway tryouts in Chicago

NEW YORK — A man in a Manhattan rehearsal room asks a young boy a question: "No soccer game this week?" A look crosses the kid's face. You can read love, loneliness, contempt. "It's not soccer season anymore, Dad."

Chastened, the man talks of bringing home stories. And then he starts to sing, with a note of desperation: "Even though I'm making deals and bringing people joy, I'm usually only thinking of my boy."

There is an audible surge of emotion from others in the room. Some have kids; they know what it's like to go out of town with a show and not have enough time with them. They know the pain of accusations and the difficulty of staying on top of the kids' details. A stage manager cuts the interruption. "Quiet, please," he says. "Stro is working."

In a few minutes, this being the time-crunching world of Broadway musicals, the boy has morphed into an accusatory adult, comparing his ailing, flailing father to a mostly submerged iceberg. "I am only seeing the little bit that sticks above the water," he shouts, frustrated.

With 42nd Street as his backdrop, Bobby Steggert is looking at Norbert Leo Butz with tears in his eyes.

"Who are you?" he shouts.

In the 2003 movie "Big Fish," directed by Tim Burton, based on the 1998 novel "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions" by Daniel Wallace and starring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange, the character of Edward Bloom is first and foremost a storyteller. A teller of tall, fishy tales that come to life on the screen.

His son, Crudup's Will Bloom, mostly sees his father as an irritating, unreliable, absent, possibly philandering eccentric whose yarns about mermaids and wacky circus dudes cannot be trusted. But in the final scenes of the visually spectacular movie, when Edward is dying, stories unbowed and beloved wife at his side, the tales told by a man start to blur with the tales lived by a man — and a son's certitude as to where one ends and the other begins flies out the window. Unquestionably, the main narrative tension of the movie flows from the suspense of whether Edward has been making stuff up or telling the truth all along. But there are questions in play that go far deeper than mere veracity.

Where is the line between our actual lives and our accounts thereof? Is the difference even meaningful? How do you face death? Can you die on your own terms?

All good questions, surely, for a Broadway musical — book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa — trying out in Chicago one chilly spring and headed back to New York, opening on Broadway just as the leaves start to turn this fall.

"Big Fish" has been in gestation for years. The first exploratory meetings were held more than eight years ago. Lippa made his first crack at the score about seven years ago (the opening number, which is still in the show, is the first one he wrote). Lippa took time away to score "The Addams Family" and other things, but still, that's a heck of a long birth.

"Some of the songs are older than he is," Lippa joked the week before this rehearsal. He was sitting in the Broadway watering hole known as Bond 45 and gesturing over at August, a theater geek who had written the screenplay for the movie and who had pretty much immediately decided it would work as a musical — that would really, really need to have a book written by him.

"I love the movie that Tim made," August said that day. "But it was not quite the movie I had in my head. I always felt there was more to do. I wanted to dig deeper into this story. I think I was the first person who said 'musical.'"

The first people August said musical to were Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the respected producers of the movie and men interested in theater, if not wildly experienced in making musicals. A remarkable roster of movies, including "Milk" and "American Beauty," were produced by Jinks and Cohen together; Cohen also recently produced "Silver Linings Playbook."

Speaking in a bar in Chicago a few weeks ago, Cohen and Jinks said they did not need much persuasion from August to agree "Big Fish" would be good fodder for a musical. "Whenever movies have worked as musicals," Jinks said, "there has been a reason."

These producers reckoned that "Big Fish" came complete with that key reason. Edward Bloom's fantastical, emotionally charged stories, which compose much of the film, are set in intensely theatrical worlds (August describes them as "a Norman Rockwell painting told in story form"). They are structured very much like musical numbers; it's not a big leap to imagine them as songs, as theatrical set pieces replete with dancing girls and circus performers coming out of the furniture.

And then there is the highly emotional father-and-son story, wherein the son finally comes to understand his difficult dad and how much he was loved. Such emotion — such quotidian, transferable emotion — is the lifeblood of the theater. "People would come out of the movie and say 'I'm that guy,'" Cohen said.

Some thought they were the father, or mother. Some were the son. Soon, Jinks and Cohen had "Fiddler on the Roof" playing in their heads — another show with plenty of entertaining theatricality but powerful themes about love and family and a potent emotional punch. Done right, this kind of focused emotional tug around parenting or friendship can propel you into the territory of "Wicked" or "Les Miserables."

"Big Fish" is a family show, in all the right senses of the world. And unlike "Billy Elliot," there is no profanity included, nor the barrier of a remote locale in Northern England. "Big Fish," set in Alabama, plies the emotional landscape of mainstream America. Right from the beginning, Jinks and Cohen, who crunch data more than most producers, had planned to start the show away from New York. "In the entire history of Broadway, there have only been three shows that turned out to be hits that opened cold in New York," Jinks said. "The smart thing is to open out of town and learn."

But Jinks and Cohen already knew they needed the right director who could make this transition happen.

CHICAGO

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