ON THE RECORD: Original Cast Albums of Big Fish and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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09 Mar 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column discusses the Broadway cast album of Andrew Lippa's Big Fish, along with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill in the original production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Big Fish [Broadway]

The inside cover of the liner note booklet for Andrew Lippa's Big Fish contains a colorful two-page photo featuring a tall fellow with a red tie, standing just downstage of a large statue on a high pedestal of what seems to be a Civil War general. He is surrounded by ten or so townsfolk waving their arms and facing upstage, highlighting the man with the red tie. Downstage right is a balding fellow in a blue suit (Norbert Leo Butz); downstage left, seated on a low porch, is a young adult (Bobby Steggert). The next two pages have another photo spread, centering on a circus ringmaster in a red frock coat. He stands in the middle of a semicircle of bleachers, surrounded by 19 or so circus performers, some in colorful costumes (blues, reds, purples) and others with flamboyant mustaches. Downstage left is a not-yet-balding fellow in a beige jacket (Butz, again), watching whatever is supposedly going on.

And there, in full color, are two pictures that are better than a thousand words-worth of description of the conceptually fatal flaw of Big Fish, which stormed into the Neil Simon the first week of October and floundered before New Year's. You can go back to the opening night reviews for details, but in sum: the show — about a fellow who tells impossibly exaggerated tall tales — turned into a parade of uninvolving, full-scale production numbers. Some of them were entertaining, especially since Susan Stroman was pulling the strings against some intriguing stage pictures from designer Julian Crouch. (I did, really and truly, love what he did with the orchestra pit — and, oh, those daffodils!) But the three leading characters, during said production numbers, could only sit around and watch. The audience, meanwhile, could only sit around and wait for the leading characters to stop watching and pick up the strands of the story.



The original cast album of Big Fish, from Broadway Records, points to another problem. The score was not especially impressive in the theatre, but on CD — stripped of the production elements and the live presence of the performers — it seems even weaker. "Time Stops" (the big first act duet for Butz and Baldwin) and Butz's second act "Fight the Dragons" are effective, but the other numbers which impressed me in the theatre — "Daffodils," as well as much of what was sung by Baldwin or Steggert — don't grab me on the CD. The production numbers, for their part, remain uninteresting and/or generic. Lippa, one of the handful of "new" theatre composers who appeared circa 2000, has thus far given us two decidedly disappointing full-scale Broadway musicals, Big Fish and 2010's The Addams Family.

One has to imagine that the structural problems of Big Fish were readily apparent during the tryout in Chicago, which makes one wonder why the creators didn't get around to addressing them. The Addams Family was something of a mess in Chicago, too. In that case, they attempted major fixes during New York previews, which proved to be too little, too late. Yet another case of "Whadda ya mean we need to fix the show?" was the hard-working Butz's prior musical, Catch Me If You Can. Remember the days when people used feedback from pre-Broadway tryouts to fix musicals?

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