It was to have been the biggest show of the season. The $10.3 million budget, the splashiest -- and, perhaps, luckiest -- theatre on Broadway, blue-chip creators and designers, and a can't-miss, family oriented story. Big shoulda been HUGE.
But it wasn't. The show opened to very mixed reviews, got famously snubbed by the Tonys, and passed into Broadway history after 23 previews and 193 regular performances.
When Barbara Isenberg set out to write Making It BIG, a diary of the show's progress from idea to Broadway mega-show, she didn't know she'd be charting the downfall of the second-most expensive box office flop in Broadway history (after Metro). In fact, as written and recently published by Limelight Editions, the book itself might just as easily be following an enormous hit.
Isenberg begins in 1989, when actress Didi Conn (of cinema's You Light Up My Life), wife of composer David Shire, suggested that the Penny Marshall film, Big, might make a fine stage musical.
The diary doesn't start in earnest until 1994, when all the major players - choreographer Susan Stroman, director Mike Ockrent, librettist John Weidman and lyricist Richard Maltby (who's worked as a team with Shire on such shows as Closer Than Ever and Baby) were already in the mix. Isenberg then takes the project week-by-week and day-by-day from writing through rehearsals to the show's unhappy try-out in Detroit. Plaguing the musical right to the end was the charge that the whole project was a commercial sell-out. Ties to the FAO Schwartz toy store -- which figures heavily in the story -- were cited in press reports as the kind of rampant commercialism hurting Broadway.
It may surprise readers of Making It BIG that Big on Broadway actually opened to a rave review in the New York Times (Vincent Canby) and USA Today, considered the two most crucial "money" reviews. Variety, however, had its fangs out, especially about the show's commercialism, and the creators acknowledged they were fighting against the general notion that if the movie is so wonderful, what's left to be added by adapting it for the stage? (The creators offer many answers to that question, most circling around the idea of Josh being caught between the world of childhood and the responsibilities of being an adult and falling in love.)
The book essentially ends with the show in mid-July, 1996, while it was still running, though there's a quick epilogue about Big's closing on Broadway. A summer marketing push filled the seats, but at steep discounts that negated the 85 percent-full houses. The pretty bow on this grey package is that a planned tour in 1997, plus the sale of subsidiary rights, could push Big, ultimately, into the black.
"The book wasn't about the failure of a musical," Isenberg told Playbill On Line, "it's about how a show is made, how it all happens. I wanted to chronicle the process, not the product, not analyze what went wrong."
In doing so, the book tries to understand why it's so difficult to create a successful Broadway show? Why even try?"
Isenberg said that as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, she had the opportunity to write about the gestation of Evita and Sunset Boulevard, often following the shows for a week or so, which gave her the idea to follow Big all the way through.
"A lot of the problems came from audience expectations and scale. It sounded wonderful in the rehearsal room, but when you go to a big room, things change, plus you have to meet audience expectations because of the film."
In her diary-style account, Isenberg documents the occasional argument or panicked blow-up, but "Things never turned really ugly," she said. The book also points out that Big was conceived in the era when English mega-musicals were still king on Broadway, but by the time the Maltby/Shire/Weidman show came to NY, the downtown phenomena of Rent and Bring In `Da Noise, Bring In `Da Funk transformed the Broadway landscape (and all-but killed Big's Tony chances).
For more information on Making It BIG, call Limelight Editions at (212) 532-5525.