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A CurtainUp Feature
Going Fishing for a Big Musical Hit
Creators of theatrical entertainment have all sorts of well-stocked ponds in which to catch not just the biggest fish but the best fish to turn into a musical feast. But it takes a gifted chef and the best possible ingredients to dish up a fish dinner without too many bones (of contention)
By Elyse Sommer
The less than ecstatic critical reception of the new musical Big Fish make it unlikely that it will, like last season's Pippin and Kinky Boots, achieve super-hit status that could keep it running for years (shades of Wicked, Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys and, of course, Phantom of the Opera). Since I wasn't a fan of either the book or the film adaptation that inspired the musical I assigned the review to my colleague Simon Saltzman (who posted one of the few thumbs all the way up reviews).
Since Simon did the reviewing honors for Curtainup, my Big Fish experience is that of a "regular" playgoer. However, being an incorrigible scribbler, the show's title set me to thinking (and scribbling) about its broader metaphoric meaning, especially in view of Big Fish's disappointing critical reception. After all, isn't a hit musical the "big fish" every producer hopes to land, and every theater goer hopes to relish?
And so, to continue with the metaphor, let's take a look at why, as fisherman tend to toss insubstantial catches back into the pond, so many musicals turn out not to be enough of a "catch" to satisfy either their backers or you as a member the ticket buying public. Let's also explore why and how, as fishermen keep seeking out fresh ponds in which to cast their hooks with bait to attract big fish, musical theater practitioners keep fishing in familiar and new "ponds" for properties with crowd pleasing singing, dancing and story telling potential.
Just what are the "ponds" that most often yield meaty stories with good song and dance possibilities? And why do even the most likely Big Fishes turn out not to live up to their promise?
Before venturing into new "ponds" or sources for that big catch, the fisherman can always exercise the option that's worked time and again for Shakespeare's plays: Fishin in the pond stocked with proven hits and reel in one that might be given a whole new focus. Case in point, Diane Paulus's wonderfully fresh and acrobatic Pippin which first danced and sang on Broadway in 1972 and ran for 1944 performances.
Some established hit musicals need only the money to pay for the large cast, preferably with star performers, and scenery needed to evoke an enjoyable return to the good old days of hummable show tunes and big production numbers. The 2011 revival of Anything Goes is a good example, though this type of revival tends to be limited to a year or so at most, rather than the longevity of Phantom. . . or The Lion King.
There's also the popular straight play as a musical springboard. A pair of shows that enjoyed extraordinary success by such a genre to genre transformation are My Fair Lady, adapted from Bernard Shaw's Pybmalion. and West Side Story based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. When hit plays morph into super hit musicals, as these did, it also extends the life of the source play. Last summer's revival of Pygmalion was a high spot of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Of course, Romeo & Juliet has held up on its own in revival after revival.
One of the best stocked ponds in which to look for musicals with big potential is in Hollywood. Kinky Boots one of last year's hottest new musicals began life as a 2005 British film. Even mediocre films have quite a few times proved to have stronger legs as musicals. The Disney film Newsies was not just mediore but a definite flop. On the other hand, Newsies the musical made a triumphant debut at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey and transferred to Broadway where it shows promise of remaining there for quite a while.
A most surprising big fish with film origins to land on Broadway recently is Once. It actually was a musical film but you wouldn't have found it in Hollywood but in the special pond where lots of little Indie productions swim around hoping for awards and attention. Naturally, Once didn't become a super box office success by just scooping up the film and serving it up on stage. I'll get to finding the right chef to dish up a memorable and original meal for Broadway patrons in a bit.
Other special media-related ponds have also been explored by adventurous theatrical fishermen. The one that landed with the biggest bang is of course The Book of Mormon which was cooked up from an episode fished out from the special pond occupied by America's long-running animated Simpsons sitcom.
High on the list of favorite fishing expeditions is the "Book Pond." Though heavily used for dramatic films and plays as well as musicals it's constantly being restocked with new publications. That brings us back to Big Fish, which started life as a book, then metamorphosed into a popular film and has now arrived with hopes of becoming Broadway's new 4-ticket selling (mom, dad and kids) hit.
But somehow Big Fish hasn't proved to be palatable to all tastes. So, on to why a show like this may just have too many bones(of contention) to be the most frequently ordered item on the menu offered to you, the paying consumer of theatrical fare.
Reducing the big risk factor of mounting a musical was the 2003 Tim Burton film based on Daniel Wallace's novel about a dying father and son's reconciliation (the father's incorrigible tall tale spinning having alienated the son). The film proved that the book had all the necessary elements for vivid dramatic expression. It's easy to understand why the team behind the musical felt confident that presenting the dramatized tall tale scenes as big production numbers would win over those who found both the book and/or the film too hokey and fantastical.
It's to make this happen that the importance of choosing the right chefs to turn any "Big Fish" catch into a crowd pleasing musical. In the case of Big Fish, the Musical, the chefs included John August, who wrote the screenplay; composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa; director/choreographer Susan Stroman; and a cast headed by the super talented Norbert Leo Butz.
As the reviews filed on opening night indicate, not everyone felt what these cooks dished up rated a Michelin 3-star rating. Though well-credentialed (The Addams Family and The Wild Party), Andrew Lippa proved not to be above criticism, which was also true for John August's book. But while everyone agreed that Norbert Leo Butz is terrific both as the younger and older Edward Bloom, even his do-it-all performance points to a problem that crops up with any show: If a show is to have a really long run, it must retain its appeal even when there are changes in the original cast. While Andrea Martin was one of Pippin's star attractions, her leaving for a TV gig indicates that she's not irreplaceable. Terrific as Billy Porter is Kinky Boots has enough all-around strengths to keep afloat through the inevitable cast changes that are part of really long runs.
But, in Big Fish, despite a fine ensemble and eye-popping production values, Butz is so much the whole show that even if it becomes one of those "critics be damned" hits Butz's departure might be as inevitable as Edward Bloom's death.
I could go on but I think your get the idea. New musicals are big bucks, big risk enterprises. But producers and writers, like the most dedicated fishermen, will keep angling for that big fish which will hit the ground running — and keep running to full houses for years. And theater goers like you will keep hoping that that much touted new show will be worth the ever rising price of a ticket.