PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tony Nominee Andrew Lippa, Songwriter of Broadway's Big Fish
By Michael Gioia
October 5, 2013
Composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, a 2010 Tony Award nominee for his work on The Addams Family, returns to Broadway with Big Fish, the new musical set in a world of fantasy. Playbill.com catches up.
In Tony Award nominee Andrew Lippa's last Broadway project, the composer-lyricist brought the characters created by Charles Addams to the stage in the musical comedy The Addams Family. This time, he adapts the Bloom family for the stage in Big Fish, the work inspired by the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and the subsequent 2003 fantasy film by screenwriter John August. Lippa and August joined forces for the new Broadway musical, which casts two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz as Edward Bloom, a father with little time on his hands who makes up for a busy schedule by inviting his son, Will, to the world of fantasy that he creates nightly with his bedtime stories — or "big fish tales."
Lippa, who straddles the worlds of fantasy and reality in his latest Broadway piece, chatted with Playbill.com about creating the world that the Bloom family exists in, his own father-son tale and his other recent project, I Am Harvey Milk, which premiered the same day DOMA and Proposition 8 were deemed unconstitutional.
Were you familiar with the film version of "Big Fish" before you began to write music for its stage adaptation?
Andrew Lippa: Yeah… It's funny. It was a joint meeting of the minds. I saw the film in 2003, and then I met Bruce Cohen, one of the producers of the film and one of the producers of the musical. I met Bruce in 2004, and after meeting him, I thought, "I love that movie 'Big Fish,' and I bet it would be a great musical. Maybe I should just call Bruce." So I called him, and I asked him if they'd consider turning "Big Fish" into a musical, and they said that they had been in discussions and that [screenwriter] John August wanted to write the book of the musical and that I was at the top of their list of potential [composers] they'd been discussing. I couldn't quite believe it, but it was very nice to hear. A week later, I was talking to John on the phone, and then a month later, I was in Los Angeles, and John and I started writing a few scenes, and I wrote two songs to show [producers] Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. I wrote these songs in a few days, and John wrote the scenes, and we had a lot of ideas of how the outline of Act I would go, and we went back to L.A. and showed it to Dan and Bruce and they said, "Let's make it a musical."
What were those first songs you started writing?
AL: Both of them are no longer in the show. They were in the show in Chicago, however. They were the opening two numbers… Those two songs are now in the trunk.
What I find interesting about Big Fish is that you're straddling two storylines — you have this love story between Edward and Sandra Bloom, and you also see this beautiful father-son tale, in which Edward Bloom explores various fantasies. Was the musicality dictated by the different storylines?
AL: In a way, there are two scores in the show. One of them is the romantic family drama, and one of them is the fantasy drama — all of the fantasies that Edward Bloom goes on and all of the stories he tells. Early on, I wanted to capture a tiny bit of flavor of the South, but not make this a "country musical." I also wanted to be as romantic as I could possibly be, so one of the earlier songs I wrote — the end of Act I, "Daffodils" — [is] a very romantic idea [with Edward giving] her all these daffodils. [Director] Susan Stroman, of course, just delivered a spectacular-looking moment in our show — an iconic moment in our show, [where the stage is transformed into a field of flowers] — and I wanted to write something that was as poetic and beautiful as I thought the character was capable of creating. In a way, "Daffodils" is a great joining of the fantasy and the reality. He met his wife and says lovely things to her, but the daffodils scene is ultimately a fantasy. We cross that line, I think… Early on in the show, the fantasy and the reality are separated, and they get more and more blurred as the show goes on. "Daffodils" is where they cross into each other.
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.
Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
I'd love to hear about I Am Harvey Milk and how it premiered on the day that the Supreme Court declared DOMA and Prop 8 unconstitutional. What was that like?
AL: Well, that is highly, highly improbable, isn't it? …And, something that you could never write in a film because no one would believe it. But we actually did premiere on the day that DOMA and Prop 8 fell by the Supreme Court's hand. Not only was it an astonishing response… Here we were in the city that the story was taking place — the Harvey Milk story took place in San Francisco — but we were also in the state where Proposition 8 had been struck down, and there I was at the center of it all, not only writing the music and lyrics, but playing Harvey Milk. So that experience — that particular day — was unforgettable. The response from the audience, of course, was extraordinary, but we got that response every day, and we've got such an enormous outpouring of support for this piece. I can neither say when nor where, but we will be doing it next year in New York City in a major venue in the city with an enormous number of people. I think we'll be doing it with about 400 people on the stage. It's going to be a one-night event. And, I expect to be playing Harvey Milk again, so I'm really excited about that.
Tell me about playing Harvey Milk. How close did you relate to him?
AL: Like every gay friend of mine, I have my own particular gay story, my own particular coming-out story, my own fears and my own issues of self-worth and dealing with the things I was told by society and my family that I had to overcome. To be able to portray a man who was our first gay elected leader, who was Jewish — as I was born and raised Jewish — who was 48 years old when he was assassinated, and I am 48 years old, and he lived in New York for many years, as I have… I felt very fortunate to be able to inhabit this gay hero and to be able to give him a musical life and perhaps add a little bit to the story. There are certain heroes in our culture who we will never stop talking about — in our culture at large. We will never stop talking about Thomas Jefferson. We will never stop talking about Martin Luther King. And, I don't think we'll ever stop talking about Harvey Milk — I hope we don't. It's partly my responsibility, as an artist and as a gay man, to add to the literature that says, "This is also a way to look at Harvey and Harvey's legacy and what Harvey had to say." What I ended up writing, and what I ended up able to convey, I think, in playing the part was that…it isn't only a gay story. Gay rights are human rights, and "human rights" is a story that affects everyone. That, I think, is one of the defining features of I Am Harvey Milk. It's a piece about humanity. It's not a piece about gay people. The recording should be available soon. We're in the process of mixing and editing now.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)