PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tony Nominee Andrew Lippa, Songwriter of Broadway's Big Fish

By Michael Gioia
05 Oct 2013

Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Norbert Leo Butz gave a tour-de-force performance. When you were writing the character of Edward Bloom, were you writing it with Norbert or someone like him in mind? The role is very demanding, vocally and physically.
AL: I am Edward Bloom. I do, in my own life, blow up the truth into hardly believable things. If there are parts of a story that I don't remember, I fill them in and pretend that they happened. I'm not very responsible when it comes to complete truth telling, I'm afraid. I very much relate to that character, so in a way, I was writing for myself. I was writing it for me to do. I never intended that I was going to play the role, but I did write the character thinking of what would please me to do — what I would like to play on stage and what I would like to do if I ever got the opportunity.

Norbert didn't come in until very late in the process. I didn't write stuff for Norbert, but found that — as great luck has it sometimes — he is the perfect person to play this part. He came along at the right time, and we came to him at the right time. He was available. We're just grateful he was able to step into it with us. Of course, we tailor everything to make sure it's the perfect key and [that] it fits just right in his voice, but he's just got that perfect combination of theatrical singing and contemporary singing with a little bit of a nod to the South. His physicality is so enormously satisfying, and he's such a marvelous dancer, so [in] the very beginning of the show — in the opening number, when he keeps doing the "Alabama Stomp" and leading the whole company — it's irresistible. He's like that guy who shows up and lights up the room, and you just want to go with him and do what he says because he's so charismatic. That's just Norbert — everything he does, he brings that charisma.

When you were writing, were you reminiscent of your own father-son tales? Did you think back to times with your father? How did that play into your writing?
AL: In some ways, I was like Will Bloom [and] felt that my father was a stranger I knew very well. I didn't know the depths of my father. I didn't know exactly how deep my father went and what went on in my father's life that I didn't know about. My father died of cancer, and when he was dying in 2007 while I was working on Big Fish, we went to visit him when he was in hospice and opened the blinds in the morning and told him who was there in the room. My husband was there, my mother was there, and I sat down next to him and kissed him on his forehead, and he opened his eyes, and I said, "Papa, are you comfortable?" And, in a really froggy voice, my father said, "I make a living." That really old joke; we all cracked up — "Are you comfortable? … I make a living." It was the last thing my father said all day, and by the end of that day, my father had lapsed into unconsciousness and was unconscious for six days and then died. My father went out on a big 'ole "Edward Bloom, really bad joke," and it was a wonderful gift because he was telling me that he wasn't afraid. I wish he were alive because I think he would love this show. I mean, I wish he were alive for a whole bunch of reasons, but particularly right now, I wish he could be there.

Tell me about working with John August. It was his film. How was it collaborating with him to bring Big Fish to the stage?
AL: John is an unbelievably brilliant writer… The ease in which he moved to writing a film to writing his first musical is astonishing to me. One of the great things about John is that he worked for many years on the film, so he knew these characters. He knew how they ticked, and he knew what they could do and what they couldn't do. He knew what they might say and might not say, so he was very helpful in guiding the process for me… John knew these characters so well already, and he got to know them better and write them, I think, even more deeply in the musical. And, second, the thing I want most out of my collaborators besides them to be inspired, I want them to feel like they think I'm the most talented person they could possibly be working with on [the project]. Once I feel safe — like they believe in my talent — I want them to push me as hard as I can. I want them to say, "I think you can do better," and John always pushed me to do better. [If] I'd written something, and I just wasn't sure if it was right, he'd say, "I get what this is, but you can do better." And, also — when I [would] bring something in like "I Don't Need a Roof," Kate Baldwin's piece in the second act — he [would] say, "You can't do better. That's spectacular, and I love that. I can't wait to share it with our producers." That's been one of the wonderful things about John…he challenges me in a positive way. The same thing is true of [Susan] Stroman — she challenges me to be better, and I adore them for it.