"The first thing I wanted to do was get rid of all the kids." No, that's not Miss Hannigan speaking. It's Eric D. Schaeffer, the young director who together with choreographer Karma Camp and the original creative team has worked to refigure Big, the Broadway musical flop spectacular of 1995, into a national touring version that is receiving critical acclaim and popular acceptance denied its glitzy, over-produced original.
"They were taking too much focus away from Josh," explained the director, referring to the 13-year-old protagonist first played by Tom Hanks in the hit film version, which the team of book writer John Weidman, lyricist Richard Maltby and composer David Shire adapted into a musical about a kid whose wish to be an adult is suddenly granted. "So I cut eight kids, and we worked very hard to avoid glitz and make the heart and soul of Josh's story to be the main driving force. So instead of just being another kid on the bus, so to speak, Josh is driving the bus."
In the pared down version featuring a cast of 24, which opened in Delaware on Sept. 26 and plays St. Paul, Columbus and Hartford during Nov., Schaeffer says that the show is better able to focus on the romantic relationship between Josh and Susan (played by Jim Newman and Jacquelyn Piro), the female advertising executive who falls for the unstudied charms of the boy/man who is quickly promoted up the corporate ladder of a toy company. Consulting previous drafts of the book and listening to dozens of songs that had been written and discarded on the show's bumpy road to Broadway, the new creative team strove to capitalize on the original idea's heartwarming charm, strengthening the character arc of the book with a serious revision of the score, 80 percent of which is said to be different from the Broadway version.
"It's a real old-fashioned American musical, which hopefully tells a really small, charming story of transformation as two people help each other to grow and discover things through love," says Schaeffer. "A lot of the hip-hop sounds which tried to be punk or funk on Broadway have been re-orchestrated."
One telling change has to do with the pivotal scene in which Josh confronts the sexual and romantic implications of his growing love for Susan. On Broadway, when Young Josh sang "I Want to Know," some in the audience felt a bit uncomfortable at the leering undercurrent of juvenile sexuality. On the road both Young and Old Josh sing the song: "It's more love than sex," says Schaeffer. "It leads you up to the point but doesn't go over the top. They slow dance together, embrace, kiss and walk upstage, and then it goes black."
Schaeffer says that the production has been fortunate in its choice of star Jim Newman, who had played Happy, the Mormon hayseed in the Broadway musical Steel Pier, before winning the role of Josh. "He just had everything," says Schaeffer. "He was charming, energetic, and there's this kid alive in him, not just in spirit but in physicality. We're very lucky in all of our cast."
Given the good reviews the show is getting, it's likely that the show will be re-recorded. And, who knows, perhaps following the year-long tour, New Yorkers may get to see the new and revised Big, which appears to be proving that less is more in a big way. --