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posted: 3/29/2013 6:00 AM

'Big Fish' creators hope to make a splash in Chicago

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  • Two-time Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz, middle, stars with Tony Award nominees Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert in the world premiere of "Big Fish" at Chicago's Oriental Theatre starting Tuesday, April 2.

      Two-time Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz, middle, stars with Tony Award nominees Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert in the world premiere of "Big Fish" at Chicago's Oriental Theatre starting Tuesday, April 2.

  • Cast members rehearse for the world premiere musical "Big Fish," which plays a tryout run at Chicago's Oriental Theatre starting Tuesday, April 2, before moving on to Broadway in the fall.

      Cast members rehearse for the world premiere musical "Big Fish," which plays a tryout run at Chicago's Oriental Theatre starting Tuesday, April 2, before moving on to Broadway in the fall.

  • Composer Andrew Lippa ("The Addams Family," "The Wild Party") penned the score to the Broadway-bound world premiere musical "Big Fish," which plays Chicago's Oriental Theatre from Sunday, April 2, through Sunday, May 5.

      Composer Andrew Lippa ("The Addams Family," "The Wild Party") penned the score to the Broadway-bound world premiere musical "Big Fish," which plays Chicago's Oriental Theatre from Sunday, April 2, through Sunday, May 5.

  • Five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman ("The Producers," "Contact") directs and choreographs the pre-Broadway world premiere musical version of "Big Fish" at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.

      Five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman ("The Producers," "Contact") directs and choreographs the pre-Broadway world premiere musical version of "Big Fish" at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.
    Courtesy of Paul Kolnik Studio

  • Video: 'Big Fish' interview

 
By Scott Morgan
smorgan@dailyherald.com

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa both have a "Big Fish" story to tell -- literally. Both are major creative forces behind the multimillion-dollar world-premiere musical "Big Fish," which plays a monthlong Chicago tryout at the Oriental Theatre starting Tuesday, April 2, before heading to Broadway in the fall.

And both have been in this position before.

Stroman won two of her five Tony Awards for directing and choreographing the smash hit "The Producers," which played Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre in 2001 before triumphing on Broadway and around the globe.

Lippa's first full Broadway score for "The Addams Family" also got a Chicago stint in 2009 before heading to New York.

So they were both familiar with screen-to-stage adaptations -- and Chicago audiences -- when they moved on to "Big Fish," the story of a young man questioning his dying Southern father's tall tales.

Lippa was a big fan of director Tim Burton's 2003 film adaptation of Daniel Wallace's book "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions." But Lippa didn't actively pursue transforming "Big Fish" into a stage musical until he was introduced to one of the film's producers, Bruce Cohen.

"The chance of meeting Bruce is what put the thought into my head," said Lippa in a telephone interview.

Apparently, Cohen, his fellow "Big Fish" producer Dan Jinks and screenplay author John August were also contemplating turning the property into a musical, and Lippa was one of their top picks to be the show's songwriter.

"They were going to call me," Lippa said. "I beat them to it."

Working on "Big Fish" as a musical has been a great experience for Lippa so far, and he chalks up that fact to collaborating with August. The writer actively pursued the film rights to the novel and turned out multiple screenplay adaptations to suit the different directors who were attached to the movie.

"John had already written the film and therefore had lived with these characters and understood them very well," Lippa said. "Very early on in the process, we talked a lot about how now do these characters live in a musical world?"

The fact that the stories told by the character Edward Bloom (played in the musical by two-time Tony Award-winning actor Norbert Leo Butz) were so fantastical lent the possibility for lots of songs and production numbers.

"The show has two scores in a way," Lippa said. "There's the life of the book scenes and then there's the life of the fantasy scenes. They live in related, but different musical universes."

Naturally, Stroman was a veteran director/choreographer who could bring the material to life onstage, but Lippa and his collaborators were initially nervous about approaching her. Stroman is so established and in-demand in the theater and dance worlds that she can just about choose to work only on projects that she originates.

But Stroman turned out to be a huge fan of "Big Fish" as a film and was keen to work with Cohen and Jinks thanks to their track record of producing "American Beauty," "Milk" and other major Hollywood movies.

"I was taken right away by their wonderful personalities, so I knew it would be a very good collaboration," Stroman said. "It's been a joy, but the reason that I connect with it so much is because it's about storytelling ... For people who love the theater, whether you create for the theater or just come to see it, you are in it because someone told you 'big fish' stories. There's always a storyteller in your life."

Stroman also cites the strong father-son storyline in "Big Fish" to be an audience draw. Plus, the structure "allows for a musical to open up to great fantasy sequences because the father would tell these tales that were larger than life," she said. "And in the end you have to decide whether they are true or not."

Both Stroman and Lippa are glad to be back in Chicago. The show is in previews for the first 2 weeks before the April 19 opening, and they're looking forward to a Windy City audience response to help them shape what they already have with "Big Fish."

"Everybody is riding high on everything about it: Andrew Lippa's wonderful score, the book and the designs," Stroman said. "Fingers crossed. We're all enjoying it and believe in the piece."

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