Anyone toiling in a cubicle would covet the luxurious office of Broadway director and choreographer Susan Stroman: a wide-open loft with blank white walls, sleek white furniture, gleaming dance mirrors and a shiny black piano. It looks like the set of an Astaire and Rogers movie.
"Because it's modern and clean and white, the space allows me to start every show from a clean new place," Stroman explained. "So I'm not carrying old posters or tchotchkes on with me from other shows. Every show starts anew."
Those shows include the four that earned her Tony Awards for choreography: the Gershwin musical comedy Crazy for You, the revival of Show Boat, the dance musical Contact and The Producers, which also earned her a Tony for Best Direction. But the one she's starting anew, Big Fish, has a big place in her heart.
"My father was a salesman with a big smile, a man who could talk anyone into anything," she said. Charles Stroman sold, among other things, pianos. "I was that little girl who danced around the living room to her father's music while he played the piano. For me, creating to music started when I was five or six."
Her father also "whistled tunes constantly, until you thought it would make you crazy — and then you realized you were whistling right along with him." With a bright smile of her own, Stroman added, "He also told Big Fish stories." Those stories refer to the tall tales told by Edward Bloom, the voluble hero of Daniel Wallace's acclaimed novel, "Big Fish," and its 2003 film adaptation. The film starred Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor as the older and younger Bloom. Onstage, two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz will do double duty, aging before the audience's eyes — and back again. That kind of acting tour de force can only happen in the theatre and not in film, Stroman explains, "because you're living in a wide shot."
Stroman creates Bloom's fantastical adventures through a combination of old-world stagecraft and cutting-edge technology. For instance, an onstage river is constructed of wood planks, and then transformed through digital magic. That juxtaposition "is what the show is about — what's real and what's fantasy."
Like the story's wandering hero, Stroman had a youthful adventure of her own. It's not a Big Fish story, but it's close. "It was my last year of college — I went to the University of Delaware — and a girlfriend and I decided to drive across country. We went to one of those companies where you courier someone's car and got this big black Cadillac. We were supposed to go straight across the country, but of course we went way up and down, up and down. We got to San Francisco and realized we didn't have any money. We couldn't even get back home. So I went down to Fisherman's Wharf and I saw a trombone player with a hat making some money and a man who called himself the Human Jukebox with a refrigerator box over his head — you'd stick a quarter in and he'd sing a song from inside the box. And I thought, 'Oh, we could do this.' So I went up to a one-man band who had a banjo, and cymbals between his knees, and a drum on his back, and a harmonica, and I said, 'How would you like to have two blondes in front of you tap dancing?' And he said, 'Sure.'"
Stroman created routines, and she and her friend spent the rest of the summer panhandling on Fisherman's Wharf. "We would make 80 dollars an hour," she says. "Then someone from the Johnny Carson show saw us and flew us down for the segment [in which] Johnny would ask who has talent in the audience and there would be people who'd do bird calls and things. So he called on us, and Doc Severinsen struck up 'Little Brown Jug' while we tap-danced on the stairs in the aisle. And we won a steak dinner."
After college, Stroman moved to New York intent on becoming a director and choreographer, but continued to hoof it onstage. One of her first jobs was performing in the touring company of the original Bob Fosse production of Chicago. Her big break as a choreographer came over a decade later, when she co-created the Off-Broadway Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes 'Round, beginning a relationship with the legendary songwriting team that would continue up to the artistic triumph of The Scottsboro Boys.
Her first foray directing on Broadway came with her imaginative re-telling of The Music Man, which concerned the kind of man Stroman knew best — the salesman who could sell anything to anyone. "[My father] would always say: 'You can rule the world with a bottle of Listerine and a thesaurus,'" Stroman recalled. So when Big Fish came her way, "I knew exactly what kind of man this show would swirl around."
Charles Stroman remained healthy to the day he died in 2003 at the age of 86, having lived long enough to see that production of The Music Man and his daughter's triumph with another tribute to loveable hucksters, The Producers. "When he introduced to me, at a very young age, his passion for music, he never expected it to take the journey it did.
"He would have recognized himself in Big Fish," Stroman added, "and he would have loved it."