Big Fish is now a new musical based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the film by Tim Burton. This version was directed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman and written by John August, who also wrote the big-screen version.
Big Fish tells the visual story centering around Edward Bloom and his relationship with his son. As the tall tales grow big so does this heartwarming story.
Andrew Lippaknown from The Addams Family and The Wild Partyput together the music and lyrics. This Tony nominee takes us behind the scenes on the process of making a musical and what it takes to catch a Big Fish.
Windy City Times: Hello, Andrew. You are originally from England?
Andrew Lippa: Yes, from Leeds. I grew up in suburban Detroit. That is the sort of the Midwestern town that wishes it were Chicago. [Laughs] Detroit has its charms and did when I was kid.
WCT: Did you study music in school?
Andrew Lippa: I did; I was a singer and still am. I perform a lot of my own work. I didn't start playing piano until I was 14. Once I started learning piano it happened really fast. I went into musicals and sang in choir. I went to the University of Michigan and was a voice major.
WCT: It must be easier to explain your vision to performers since you can sing.
Andrew Lippa: Yes in a couple of ways because I think like a singer as a composer so it makes sense. I think that is where my style as a composer comes from and informs my music.
WCT: What has that process been like with this show?
Andrew Lippa: It has been extraordinary. Back in 2004, I met Bruce Cohen at a party. My husband and I invited him over for brunch a few days later. I called him the day after the brunch and asked about doing Big Fish as a musical and he said we have been thinking about it and you are at the top of our list as a writer. I still have a hard time believing it, but they all assert that was true. John, Dan and Bruce said they had put a list together and I was the person I was going to call. He said that I just beat them to the call.
He put me in contact with John August so I called him and the next thing I know I was on a plane to L.A. He picked me up at the airport and we stayed in a house for four days that had a piano and pool. Those are my two contractual requests. I wrote the first two songs and he wrote the first two scenes. We talked about the structure and how Edward Bloom would be played by one actor in a musical as opposed to three actors in the film. I went back to LA and showed it to Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. We read through it and sang through it, we picked parts and did the whole thing. Dan looked at us and said, "Let's do this."
Ever since then it has been the most extraordinary, loving, joyful process. I think the material itself is so human and so full of life. The process has been organic and driven by the writers, which I think has been the best way to do it. It was not driven by commercial concerns but just by musical storytelling.
WCT: When did Susan Stroman join the team?
Andrew Lippa: We met Stroman in 2011 when we were ready to bring a director on board. We were told she would never do a show that she didn't initiate. We called her up and asked if she would take a meeting with us to show her the material. We showed her the script and sang through it. She said she would direct our first reading then the day after she told us she would like to be the director.
WCT: Sounds like it was meant to be.
Andrew Lippa: It was and some people think it was a not a long process but it was also. People are critical of that and all I can say is," You try to do a big musical!" I don't mean that in a belligerent way but it took Jeffrey Eugenides 10 years to write Middlesex and it won the Pulitzer Prize. A musical is a novel. It takes two and half-hours to watch it. You have to sew all of these pieces together and work in multiple medias. We are writing stories and telling songs. To get everything exactly right it takes time.
I'm grateful we have had the time and that is because we had amazing producers that never pushed us. They let us do it when it was ready. I really do feel that we have nurtured this musical in the way that it deserves. We are ready to do it on stage now.
WCT: Then after Chicago you will be able to bring it to New York.
Andrew Lippa: Yes, again the wonderful producing where we have three months in between from Chicago to our rehearsals that begin again in New York in August. We have plenty of time to make changes and whatever we need to do. These things are living breathing organisms so the last piece of the puzzle is the audience.
We have shown it to various people and done presentations. Many of the people are theater people. Their notes are great but not like an audience. We want to see what moves them and makes them laugh or what bored them and we need to cut. We find that out by listening to the energy for the room and listening in the bathroom. I always go to the bathroom at intermission even when I don't have to because I want to hear what they are talking about.
WCT: Spies in the bathroom!
Andrew Lippa: That is why it's good to not have a famous face.
WCT: You can sneak in and get the real story. I know The Addams Family changed a lot from the pre-Chicago run before New York…
Andrew Lippa: …And after. The show that is onstage now that is going to Australia and Buenos Aires has four cut songs and three new songs and a cut script that was rewritten for the launch of 2011. We were blessed with a two-year run on Broadway and we just wanted to make it better. We had a really great producing team again that took the time and money to make it perfect. We are now entertaining people all over the world.
WCT: How do you feel about your success in The Wild Party?
Andrew Lippa: When I was in New York I was at a local store and it was snowing. I commented to a woman that worked there that it was so beautiful. She said, "First time is always beautiful." It was like Buddha was talking to me. It was a thrilling time in my life. The support it has gained over the years has been phenomenal. There is a director that is interested in a revival so we might be doing it again. That is exciting because I want to revisit it as an almost 50-year-old. I wrote it as an almost-30-year-old. My perspective is different now. There are things I would like to change.
That is the great thing about that I do now I own it and can change it if I want to. I take the lead from the great ones that come before me. So many musicals are changed. Sheldon Harnick from Fiddler on the Roof changed one little lyric recently. Such an iconic musical and is still tinkering with it!
WCT: Do you have a particular song in Big Fish that you love right now?
Andrew Lippa: In the end of act one, there is a song that Edward Bloom sings to his bride-to-be called "Daffodils." I took the words from the Wordsworth poem called Daffodils. There are lyrics that are changed to fit the song and it is my take on it that Edward would know that poem and would want to recite it to this woman that he hard knows to impress her when he brings her daffodils. It is hidden inside this song and maybe my favorite lyric for sure in the show. It is filled with impossible poetry. It is the kind of song that I would love for someone to sing to me. I am very fond of it for that reason.
WCT: Speaking of romance, congrats on your marriage.
Andrew Lippa: Thank you. We were married five years ago in July and we have been together 15 years. It was our tenth anniversary that we decided to get married. It interesting that you brought that up because Bruce Cohen is a gay activist as part of an organization that was formed to make a case against Prop 8 that the Supreme Court [heard]. John August is also involved as a supporter and investor. It's wonderful that we were married during that period before Prop 8 passed so we grandfathered in California and acknowledged in New York. We will see how all of that goes.
WCT: Are there any gay aspects to the show?
Andrew Lippa: There are not, other than the fact that John and I are gay and involved in the show. But I do think that it is my emotional deeply felt score. Much of where I get that feeling is at the core of my identity as a gay man. I am a man that sees the world in that way. Even though I am writing a story about a father and son. Many of us gay boys have a complicated relationship with our fathers. They may want us to be something that we are not so I think gay men can really relate to that. Many of us have issues with our fathers or the straight men in our life. I have found in my adult that I really treasure my straight relationships who accept me as I am.
I think gay men will see this relationship between a father and son, and relate to it. That is the goal. We want people to come out of the theater texting and calling their family to tell them that they love them. I get choked up just saying that. I think we have the potential with this musical to engender that response. If people are moved to that then it justifies its existence.
Big Fish has already begun its pre-Broadway run at the Oriental Theatre, and will close May 5. Look for tickets today before it swims away at www.broadwayinchicago.com .