Big Fish: a big musical comes to Sydney’s small home for musicals

Big Fish, the Broadway musical based on the novel of the same name and Tim Burton’s 2003 film, is coming to Sydney’s Hayes Theatre this April. This new production of the show features a cast of both established musical theatre stars and newcomers, led by Phillip Lowe, Katrina Retallick, Adam Rennie and Kirby Burgess.

The fantastical and magical musical had a massive budget on Broadway, but the Hayes Theatre is premiering a brand new, stripped back version of Big Fish, which still promises to be, well, big.

Daily Review’s Ben Neutze spoke to director and musical theatre nut Tyran Parke about how he plans to bring this story to the stage.

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For those who are completely in the dark, what’s Big Fish about? What sort of an experience will it be for audiences?

Big Fish is essentially about a man who doesn’t feel he is enough for his son. He is a travelling salesman who thought he’d amount to more than that … and so he invents his life through stories — or so his son believes. But fantasy and reality live side by side in this world and sometimes when someone sees the world as magical, well, it is!

Audiences can expect something very immediate – a family drama that plays out as a man tries to reconcile his relationship with his father before he, himself has a son plus a huge dollop of fantasy, adventure, comedy and magic. What kind of an experience? A buzzy, exciting, crazy, silly, moving, connected and unique experience! (That’s what I wanted the poster to say but you know, we didn’t have enough space.)

The musical version of Big Fish is drawn from both the 2003 Tim Burton film, and the 1998 novel upon which it is based — how closely does it resemble the film?

Both the film and the musical are written by John August (based on the novel by Dan Wallace) so they are very similar. Of course, several things have shifted because of the new form, but it has always been the same story, of a father and a son trying to connect. I think what Tim Burton gave us in the film was a pretty magical palate and John August provided us with a through-line, as the novel is almost a selection of short stories. But the same characters are in all three versions: Edward, his son Will, his wife Sandra, The Witch, The Giant, The Mermaid etc. But in this version, they sing.

It has music by Andrew Lippa, one of his generation’s most popular musical theatre composers. How would you describe the score?

The score was my first contact with the show. On hearing the cast album, I fell in love with the music, which then lead me to the novel, then the film. (I only watched the film for the first time after I’d cast the show.) Basically, I’m an up myself snob when it comes to music; I love “intellectual” music — before the end of the year, I’ll have directed a Monteverdi Opera and an operatic ballet — but one of the most appealing aspects of the score is that, not only is it “clever”, in that it always furthers narrative, builds tension, reveals character (all the stuff a director wants it to do) … it’s just so damned catchy (all the stuff an audience wants it to do).

The show was conceived as a dance musical so it’s got all sorts of crazy cross rhythms that grow and build and because it is set in Alabama — deep in the south of America — it draws upon country and jazz and folk and always feels accessible. It is Lippa’s best score and our cast sound amazing singing it.

And did you hear the story? I coincidentally found myself sitting next to him at Kristen Chenoweth’s concert in Broadway in November? He was charming and very enthusiastic about what we are doing at the Hayes with this production.

It’s a big, big story to tell in the rather intimate space of the Hayes — how do you go about fitting everything into that tiny theatre?

Yeah, the clue, and the challenge, is in the title. It ain’t a small fish. Good question … and the answer is — ask someone else!

You do it through a duo of designers that bring with them the right balance of play and commitment and a whole bunch of assistants, and ask them, how should we shoot our lead character out of a cannon? Or how should we best show a mermaid losing her tail? Or a man becoming a fish? And then wait…

How hard can it be right?

Anna Gardiner, Martelle Hunt and Matt Tunchon are design legends in the making and they have a “magic pudding” approach – the “well” they seem to draw on is endless. Then you put the most inspiring actors, with a man who is equal parts genius and silly genius in choreographer Cameron Mitchell and make them do things like tap dance till fish fall from the skies.

Yep, Cabaret it aint! Not a single Nazi in sight!

Do you think having the kind of restrictions that come with working in the Hayes are a bit of a blessing? Do they force you to be creative and open to new theatrical solutions?

Absolutely. I’m a big fan of the Hayes and I think I’ve seen pretty much everything that’s played there. And, in my opinion, the most successful shows have been where a musical has been reinvented for that space. There’s nothing worse than seeing a show given the same treatment as it would in a large-scale commercial production, at the Hayes. Surely that’s not what it’s there for? The true challenges lay in how to reinvent a piece as if it is a chamber piece, cos — like it or not — at the Hayes, it is. This show on Broadway had about 100 times the amount of our budget. Why would we even try to reproduce the ideas that lead to that kind of cost? I think Big Fish is a brilliant piece of programming because it really is a chamber piece where the magic exists in the imagination of a young boy – and theatre does magic like no other medium.

The cast is absolutely wonderful — both very experience performers and some relative newcomers. How do you go about putting together a cast for a production like this? 

You think so? Well, I do too. This was the hardest casting process I’ve ever been through. I knew that the world of this play was a world that was in the imagination of a young boy so I didn’t want people to look like “actors” but people – and what’s more, exaggerated people. The casting was so hard because we were overwhelmed with interest – it’s the kind of show that does that to actors.

So about 300 actors contacted us. Everyone sang first (hundreds of songs) and were great. I got it down to about 50 potential actors for 14 roles. I figured we’d narrow it down further after the acting. Usually the dance call knocks people out of the running but pretty much all 50 were still there and doing brilliantly. Damn them! So, I threw some impro at them and, they could do that too!

In the end, it came down to so many small things but there was some certainty too. I’d worked with Kirby Burgess before and ever since her star turn in Dirty Dancing. Adam Rennie and I were in New York (where he lives being a flashy New York actor) last year and I mentioned it to him. He happened to be home on a holiday, walked in and blew us away. When Katrina Retallick auditioned, the entire panel burst into tears and Philip Lowe, well he had me at hello.

The musical wasn’t a massive hit on Broadway, but has been recognised since then as a wonderfully fascinating piece of musical theatre. How is your production different to what was seen on Broadway?

Let’s call a spade a spade, it was a shocker financially! I don’t think anyone should feel the need to deny that. The writers acknowledge that, in the fact that we are premiering the new re-written version. I think the pressures of trying to create a show are always immense and on Broadway with all that money and therefore fear, wow, I’m amazed anything gets on without the creative team in intensive care. And like so many shows (pretty much everything Stephen Sondheim ever wrote) things become clearer after the fact, and theatre takes time.

We are benefitting from that with a re-written show, new songs, different structure and a production that has a much more ensemble feel to it. All over the world theatre is currently reacting against the huge mega-musical born in the’ 80s with intimate, connected smaller scale works. I think in reinventing Big Fish in this way, the show has found its rightful home.

Big Fish is at the Hayes Theatre from April 18 to May 14

Photo by Chris Pavlich Photography

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