Chicago catches a 'Big Fish'

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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.

They had their eye on hooking Susan Stroman, one of Broadway's most sought-after directors and the woman responsible for staging "The Producers," which had the mother of all Chicago tryouts in 2001, when Mel Brooks was seen dancing on the tables. One of the best-loved Stroman signatures is her ability to pull huge musical numbers out of a box in a corner of a room and then stuff them back in. ("The Producers" was full of such self-contained tours de force, such as "I Want to Be a Producer" or "Little Old Lady Land.") But Jinks and Cohen had heard the word around Broadway that "Stro" does not like to take meetings and be brought post-facto into projects, especially not screen-to-stage transfers. She prefers to originate stuff herself, or, at least, be involved from the very earliest stages in the gestation of an idea. And "Big Fish" had been under way for something like six years before anyone had felt ready to bring on a director. So there was a problem.

Lippa (whom the producers had hired after liking his show "The Wild Party") and August had long been at work, writing together. They rented a house in Palm Springs, Calif., with a piano and a pool ("the only things you need when you're making a musical," Lippa said). They decided they both had shades of Edward Bloom, and they discovered they'd both lost their fathers to illness. August is himself a musician, which helped their process. Lippa decided not to take the score too deeply into explicit country or rockabilly, lest that made the story too limited.

August forced himself to totally reimagine his screenplay and not cling to the cinematic. They came up with actorlike exercises wherein they tried to live what they wanted the listener to emote — and then they wrote the song and the scene. "We want you to feel like what it feels like to be this guy," August said. He and Lippa bonded with unusual force.

The decision was made early on to cast one actor as Edward Bloom, a role that had been split between McGregor and Finney in the film. That way, they thought, audiences in the theater would not have to divide their emotional loyalty.

In a movie you can't do that, not unless you want the audience to marvel at prosthetics or digital imaging instead of the story. But onstage, where there are no close-ups, you surely can.

"In the musical, there will be a person standing before you," Lippa said. "For this to work, people have to emotionally attach to Edward Bloom."

"They may not believe me as a 15-year-old and they may not believe me as a 70-year-old," said Butz, the actor who would be cast in that role, over lunch in New York. "But I know they will believe in the theatrical idea."

To the amusement of his co-star Kate Baldwin, Butz then started to compare "Big Fish" with Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," another story of mythic theatricality. "Don't even mention that," he said. "I just cost us 500 in group sales." Then Baldwin, a well-regarded actress with roots at Northwestern University and a long history in Chicago, started to talk about her young child, and about how she has come to see the value of how family stories get passed along.

She also said that one of Lippa's chords felt so intense that she had a kind of "chemical reaction."

That's what Lippa had in mind. "I don't feel that I have written any other score that's as deeply felt or emotional for me," he said.

People who get offered a lot of Broadway projects, and the creative team of "Big Fish" includes members of that elite group, tend to only accept projects that offer them something they really want and have not previously been offered. Smart producers know how to sell in those terms.

In the case of Butz, he gets to step out from his usual Broadway persona of entertaining, if perfidious, scoundrel (as in "Catch Me If You Can" or "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" or, most recently, "Dead Accounts") and play a leading, sympathetic character with a full emotional arc. Plus, he gets to really sing.

"Most of the parts I get offered don't let me sing," he said, surprising his interviewer. "They let me do patter numbers. But it does not make sense for those characters to hit a high A-flat and hold it. But I am, in fact, a lyrical baritone. And I have found it a thrill to sing big, lush, romantic songs."

Baldwin, who also has to age with her character, spoke of the deep expressions of love in Lippa's score and August's book and the complexity of her character. "Plus," she said, "I get to dance in a Susan Stroman show."

But how did "Big Fish" hook Stro? Well, it kinda promised her immortality. Just little old that.

"It became very important for me to do this show," says Stroman, later on that wet, blustery March day in New York.

Stroman sees herself as a storyteller — she used that word at the first "Big Fish" press conference in Chicago, then again in TV and press interviews, then again in that rehearsal room. Theater is a transient form and most of its practitioners, even the most successful ones, actually are on a constant quest for some measure of permanence. "Big Fish" elevates the storyteller, even the eccentric storyteller, to great heights. It suggests that only they can control the story of their own life and death.

Stroman said she had a memory of the movie as being "unique." She saw the entry point for her kind of music and dance. She saw that Edward Bloom's stories were naturally theatrical and could be staged as musical numbers without stretching credulity. Even in the movie, you can buy that Bloom would sing these stories if he could. Why not? Stroman saw that the show was filled with emotional keynotes and that could really touch an audience when encountered live. She saw that children might like this, and adults could remember their own childhoods. She saw that the producers wanted this to be a big, expansive show with a full emotional arc. And she saw the redemption of a yarn-spinner whom no one first believed. She saw all kinds of possibilities.

"This show," Stroman said, clearly speaking partly of her hopes for herself, "is about how storytellers never die."

cjones5@tribune.com

"Big Fish" begins previews April 2, opens April 19 and runs to May 5 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; $33-$100 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

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