Tall tales, taller giants: Behind the scenes of First Stage's "Big Fish"
2003's "Big Fish" is a sweet and delightful – and not just because it's one of the few times this side of the millennium you could honestly say, "I enjoyed a Tim Burton movie." The story – reality and fantasy colliding together as a truth-obsessed son comes to terms with his dying but wild-minded father and his grand tales of whimsy – is sweet and heartfelt. And, as one would hope from a Burton film, the movie looks gorgeous, filled with unique off-kilter images both bizarre and warm. It may be schmaltz, but it's schmaltz that works.
Now First Stage will attempt to bring Burton's signature oddball visuals and "Big Fish" author Daniel Wallace's imagination-rich book to live, musical life on stage. Adapted from the 2013 Broadway production, First Stage's slightly smaller – trimmed down by about an hour – but grandly scaled "Big Fish" arrives at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, May 8 and runs through the month.
In charge is director Jeff Whiting, who has served as the associate director for the show since its on-stage origins. For this production, however, he's the big man of "Big Fish," and he chatted with us about bringing tall tales – and taller giants – to life.
OnMilwaukee.com: Had you read the book or seen the movie before your work on the show?
Jeff Whiting: Absolutely! I first saw the movie when I was a kid, and when I was asked to work on the Broadway musical, I think it was the very day I was asked I was in an airport, and I found the book. I quickly read it on that plane ride; it's a great read and a fast read, and it's been fascinating to see how we've been able to take elements from the book and transfer them to the stage and what made it from the book to the film and then from the film to the book.
Actually, the writer of the film – John August – was the author on Broadway, so he was the one to take it from the book to the film version, and then to the stage. I think he did a great job of keeping the heart of it, of this story between a father and son.
OMC: How was that transferring those big, particularly fantastical images from the Tim Burton film onto a stage?
JW: I think the biggest challenge with the show is that the story is about fantasy versus fact. In telling the story, the father would tell a story about how he met a mermaid, and to bring the mermaid to life on stage is much more difficult than on film, where you have no water. (laughs) So taking those images – a mermaid in the water, a nine foot tall giant – and creating them on a stage is a challenge, just logistically. My designers and costume designer have done a beautiful job of making these magical elements of the story really come to life. And as the fantasy happens, I think that they've done a great job of creating something magical costume-wise and scenically, so that when we come back to reality, we really do feel and see a shift.
OMC: What's been the most difficult fantasy creation to bring to life on stage?
JW: I think the biggest challenge for us is the mermaid, because this theater where we're here in Milwaukee, there is no water (laughs). The mermaid has to appear from water, so figuring out a way to create the illusion of water. And plus, the actress obviously doesn't have her own tail, so we had to create a tail. Her upper body is her upper body, but then there's a puppeteer below who controls all the tail movements. So coordinating that – the movements of the two of them together – is fun, and then making sure that you don't see the puppeteer so it looks to the audience's eye that it's just a girl with a tail.
OMC: That's just one of – if I read correctly – about 150 costume changes for the show. How is that juggling all of those scene changes and fantastical props and costumes?
JW: It really is a lot of coordination; it's a lot of pre-planning. With my designers, we sat down long before we went into rehearsal, and I said, "OK, I've gotta get four witches and three football players and so on." And so we had to go through the score and say, "OK, in order for this person who's right now a football player to change into a fish tail, he needs at least a minute to make that change."
So as I went through and staged the show, I had to make sure he exited with enough time to make the change, go down below and appear as the tail of the mermaid. There was a lot of coordination. If you saw our grid, it's just like … it covers the whole wall of all the changes and timing for everyone. It's been quite a collaboration.
OMC: What is like working with First Stage?
JW: It's been just wonderful! First Stage has a great support system here. From day one, when Jeff Frank said he wanted to do "Big Fish," I found him and the rest of the team – the scenic department, the costume department – to be people who say yes. I would say, "I need water and I need a mermaid to come out," and they'd say, "Yes! We'll figure out how to do that!" "Well now I need a nine foot tall giant." They said, "Yes! We'll figure out how to do that!" "I need to put our lead actor into a cannon and shoot him through the air." They said, "Yes! We'll figure out how to do that!" (laughs)
So it's been an amazing group of people there at First Stage that create the scenic design and costume design. It's been really wonderful. We've had to adapt the show from its original length – two and a half hours – to about 72 minutes, so that's been a pretty big shift. But they've been a great collaboration with the writers, who allowed us to make cuts and changes in order to fit it in the time frame we have.
OMC: How did you go about figuring out what you could trim – what you could leave in and leave out?
JW: Well I always go back to the story and say the story I'm telling is a father and son story, so what do I absolutely have to have to tell that? As I dug into that, I found that if I pulled this one little portion of a song out, we can still get the message out. It was quite an ordeal figuring that all out because it's a huge, huge show, but I think we found a pretty good balance of being within our time range but still telling the story and the magic of the fantasies that he tells.
OMC: Was there one particular scene or scenes that got trimmed that you were really attached to?
JW: Every cut feels like blood to me. (laughs) We developed the Broadway show for two years, so we felt like that was pretty much the way it should be. So to then make further cuts was hard.
One thing that we did do away with in the story was there's a whole fantasy that we just weren't able to tell. Edward makes up this story that he was in the war, and in the Broadway version, there's a big war scene. That was one thread I could pull out without actually affecting the story, so that was one big piece we were able to cut out without compromising anything.
The rest of it has really been trimming down songs; where originally maybe a three-minute song was is now a one and a half minute song. But that one war piece was one we were able to pull out.
OMC: As the assistant director for the Broadway show, what did you gain from that experience to bring to this rendition in Milwaukee?
JW: Working as the assistant director was so valuable; since I worked on it for a couple of years, I know pretty much every aspect of it. It was really useful to me when making the cuts, because I knew which pieces couldn't go away and which pieces could for the trimming.
The other thing was having gone through our pre-Broadway try-out in Chicago, and through that process – previews and previews on Broadway – we tried a lot of things that didn't work and changed. So I have the benefit of that knowledge of "Well, we tried that once, and it didn't work." There were a lot of things that, maybe if I didn't have that experience, I might have tried that I didn't have to because I knew they didn't work.
OMC: Was there a particular scene where something wasn't working that you remember?
JW: There's a big scene with a giant in a cave. There was a sequence where we tried a series of jokes, and the jokes did not do well. (laughs) We tried every night in Chicago with a different joke until we finally figured out that that section just wasn't going to work, and we pulled the whole thing out.
OMC: Since this is a show about reality versus fantasy, which of the two do you find yourself leaning toward?
JW: Oh, I'm a dreamer, so I live in the fantasy. But actually, the message of the show comes in the last scene, where we've listened all night to a father who lives in fantasy and a son who lives in reality. The doctor who's attending to the father says something to the son, which is really wonderful. He says you have a choice: You can choose to believe in the fantasies that he created or you chould choose to believe in reality. But the important thing is that you have the choice. It doesn't really matter where you live as long as you lived your life well.
And that's a great lesson for those of us who live in reality to not to forget to enjoy life along the way, and also for those who live in fantasy to remember that it's most important to connect with those you love and create those relationships while you can.
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