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‘Big Fish’ musical reels in A-list creative team for world premiere

(Back row from left) Kate BaldwNorbert Leo Butz Andrew Lipp(front row from left) John August Susan Stroman musical 'Big Fish'

(Back row from left) Kate Baldwin, Norbert Leo Butz and Andrew Lippa, (front row from left) John August and Susan Stroman, of the musical "Big Fish" at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, March 29, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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◆ In previews; opens April 19 and runs through May 5

◆ Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

◆ Tickets, $33-$100

◆ (800) 775-2000;

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Updated: April 4, 2013 9:12PM

Those legendary salesmen of the American theater — Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman,” Ricky Roma and Shelly Levene of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Harold Hill of “The Music Man” — are about to get some keen competition.

His name is Edward Bloom. He’s a traveling salesman with roots in rural Alabama. But far more important, he’s a compulsive storyteller with a penchant for spinning the adventures of his life into epic tall tales that charm many, but frustrate and bedevil his son, who wants to get beyond the fictional embellishments.

Bloom first came to life in Daniel Wallace’s 1998 book, “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions.” Five years later, in the popular film directed by Tim Burton, he was up on the big screen (played by Ewan McGregor in his youth and Albert Finney in his later years), with Billy Crudup as his son, Will, and Jessica Lange as his wife, Sandra.

Now, Bloom is at the center of “Big Fish, The Musical,” the much-anticipated new show now in its pre-Broadway debut at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, with a Broadway opening set for Oct. 6.

With a book by John August (who also wrote the screenplay), and a score by Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party,” “The Addams Family”), the musical is being directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman (the five-time Tony Award-winner behind “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Crazy for You”). It features Tony Award-winning actor Norbert Leo Butz (“Dirty Rotten Soundrels,” “Catch Me If You Can”), who plays Edward Bloom throughout, with Kate Baldwin (the Northwestern grad and Broadway star) as Sandra, and Bobby Steggart as their son, a young man determined to come to terms with a lifetime of stories as his father nears death.

“Working on the film I never dared to think of the stage,” confessed August. “The film had a beautiful score, but there was much in the story that wanted to be sung. That larger-than-life quality works well in the theater as opposed to film. And there are things you cannot say but you definitely can sing.”

“Andrew Lippa was the composer of choice from the start,” August recalled. “Early on we met in Los Angeles, went over two songs, including the opener, and two scenes, and we were already on the same page.”

Early on the decision was made to have a single actor play Edward Bloom at all ages.

“Movies are very literal, so we needed actors who could realistically suggest various ages,” August explained. “But on the stage, the goal is to have the audience on your side, and I think we would lose something if the voyage were taken by more than one actor.

“Edward Bloom is an incredibly charismatic character — a man who sees his whole job in life as being friends with the world. Yet his relationship with his son is difficult. Will wants to know the difference between his father’s ‘truth’ and the actual facts, though there is honesty beneath all Edward’s fantasies. When I met with Daniel Wallace in North Carolina he talked about the influence of Greek myths. And there is something of the Biblical Jonah and the Whale in this. But the core story is how Will sees his father and himself — how he needs to get beneath the bluster, and figure out if the stories were egotistical, or delusional, or something else.”

A great admirer of Stroman’s work, August observed: “She has a fantastic sense of how to make transformations happen on the stage, figuring out how the show should flow from one adventure to the next. This musical is not just a play with songs; both the characters and the actual stage morph continually. ‘Stro’ also has the ability to bring out the warmth and darkness of the story.”

“Stro’s like a great sports coach,” said Lippa. “She came on board in early 2011 and really helped push us to figure out what was important, and to make it all as grand and fantastical as possible. As for the sound of the show, it’s got a little twang, with a nod to the blues, bluegrass, a bit of country. There’s also a lot of romance in it.”

It was Dan Jinks, a producer of the “Big Fish” film, who first tapped Stroman.

“I remember crying when I saw the film,” Stroman said. “It made me think about my own dad, a piano-playing salesman who told his fair share of ‘big fish stories’ until I was well into adulthood. Like Edward Bloom, he told the truth but exaggerated. He had a new story for us every Thanksgiving about how he had to wrestle the biggest turkey around.

“Once I started thinking about this story’s potential for the stage, I immediately saw hordes of people singing and dancing. I’m a very visual person. And the show has many identifiable images: The daffodils, when Edward falls in love at first sight with Sandra; the crucial catfish story; the early days with the circus; a big wartime USO show that instantly suggested a tap number; a campfire scene that said ‘ballet.’ And there’s the meeting with a giant where dancing is the only good old musical comedy way to deal with things.

“So there are many different dance styles in the show. There also are theme colors suggesting the four elements. Another thing very important to me was to have a cast that looked like good-hearted, Southern, home-town types. My designers helped with the rest. I was so impressed with [set designer] Julian Crouch’s work on Philip Glass’ ‘Satyagraha’ at the Metropolitan Opera. And of course I’ve worked often with costume designer William Ivey, who’s from the South.”

Asked if she dreams of directing a movie musical, Stroman is straightforward: “I have been asked about doing that, but unless I create the material, I’m not interested.”

And what advice from her “Producers” pal, Mel Brooks, does she carry with her?

“He’s big on taking chances. I always remember his words: ‘Just try it. Be brave’.”

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