Big Fish, the Musical, a Broadway play that premiered in Chicago's Oriental Theatre April 2, has big shoes to fill. The original novel by Daniel Wallace the show is based on has been popular ever since it hit bookshelves in 1998, and the 2003 Tim Burton film adaptation garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nods.
Comparisons to its successful predecessors are unavoidable, but Big Fish, the Musical has bigger fish to fry.
For one, it faces the challenge of bringing dreams into the reality of a live show, of consolidating 180 pages of literary allure and $70,000,000 of movie magic onto a single proscenium stage. Evidently, this calls for cuts in the story’s visual grandeur. The musical cannot rely merely on images to tell the story of charismatic Edward Bloom and his flair for the dramatic. Gone are the endless yellow daffodil fields, the popcorn pieces suspended in air and the hallucinatory underwater landscapes. Desaturated, too, is the color scheme that gives the story its whimsy.
This isn’t to say the magic at the heart of the novel and film versions of Big Fish are gone in the musical version. Rather, literary and movie magic are replaced with a new, theatrical magic, one in which all the transitions, projections and set changes happen right before our eyes. These creative elements are fantastical and dream-like in their own right, allowing a bedroom to transform into the belly of a fish in the middle of a musical number, trees to morph into a group of dancers and a daffodils to bloom up from the stage floor. What was once larger-than-life visually is now larger-than-life through song.
The intimacy of the stage also lends itself to a deeper father-son storyline between the characters of Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) and his son Will (Anthony Pierini and Zachary Unger) in this musical compared to in the film. Before the opening number “The God’s Honest Truth,” Edward enters Will’s room asking, “No soccer game this week?” Will hangs his head and responds meekly, “It's not soccer season anymore, dad." And so the premise of their relationship is established.
The tension between father and son arises as a result of Edward’s penchant for tall tales. One story in particular, about a big fish that Edward caught on the day Sandra (Northwestern grad Kate Baldwin) gave birth to Will, eventually strains their relationship so much that they stop talking for three years. Their rift is further explored in songs like “This River Between Us,” “Showdown” and “How it Ends.” Yet despite their miscommunication, Edward’s love for his son resonates through “Fight the Dragons” and recalls a father-son relationship à la Death of a Salesman. Incidentally, Edward is also a traveling salesman.
The versatility of the cast, especially of Butz and Baldwin, carries the musical. While the film uses multiple actors to play Edward and Sandra at different ages of their lives, Butz and Baldwin must transform from youths to senior citizens right on stage, sometimes without even time for an offstage costume change. Minutes after Edward hogs the limelight at Will’s wedding, he puts on a baseball cap and instantaneously becomes the preteen version of himself. Sandra, too, goes from being a demure college student in the lovey-dovey musical number “Time Stops” to a wartime showgirl in “Red, White and True” with nothing but a 15-minute intermission in between.
With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa of The Addams Family fame, book by Big Fish screenwriter John August and directing and choreography by Tony-winning Susan Stroman, Big Fish, the Musical boasts a creative team as magical as its story. Like Edward’s tall tales, Big Fish, the Musical is destined for a big, bright future on Broadway.