Chicago catches a 'Big Fish'

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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