When Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” was released, songwriter Andrew Lippa was so moved by the movie that he immediately wanted to turn it into a musical. Ten years later, in 2013, his wish came true when the show he wrote with the original screenwriter, John August, opened on Broadway. After a modestly successful run there, the musical has enjoyed a second life in regional theaters, and it will finally have its D.C. premiere when it opens Saturday at the Keegan Theatre.
“The movie affected me a great deal,” Lippa says by phone from Columbus, Ohio, where he lives when not in New York. “The main character lives part of the time in fantasy and part of the time in reality, which is both beautiful and sad. It felt like I was watching my own biography, because that’s me: the person who’s encouraged to live my life in an imaginary, childlike place, which is wonderful for my work but which can be maddening for the people around me.”
As in the movie and Daniel Wallace’s source novel, the stage version centers on Edward Bloom, an Alabama traveling salesman whose tall tales both charm and infuriate his family, friends and neighbors. No one is more frustrated than his son, Will, who wants to know the reality behind the stories but can never get his father to drop the tale-spinner persona and talk plainly.
Lippa approached the film’s producers, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, about his idea for a musical. He already had a reputation, having crafted songs for “The Wild Party” and a revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in New York. Cohen and Jinks had already been working on a musical version, but the first songwriter hadn’t worked out. So they flew Lippa to Los Angeles, where he met August for the first time at the airport. As soon as they got into the car to drive to their rental house, they started talking about how to handle the lead character.
In the movie, Edward is played by three actors: Albert Finney as a dying old man; Ewan McGregor as a young man; and Perry Walston as a boy. Lippa and August quickly decided that would never work onstage; every time a new actor took over the character, they feared, he would lose all the trust the audience had invested in the previous actor. But a theater audience would trust the same actor, even if he wasn’t the right age for each scene.
“Movies are literal,” Lippa argues. “When you set a movie in outer space, it has to look like outer space. The machines have to look like machines in outer space. But in the theater, you can hold a silver rocket in your hand and say that’s your spaceship. You can say the actor is 16 or 60, and the audience might believe it. There’s more latitude for imagination in the theater. In fact, the more literal it becomes, the less successful it often is.”
Lippa and August hit it off at once, and when they presented the first two scenes to the producers, they got the go-ahead to do the whole show. It wasn’t enough, however, to write good songs, Lippa soon discovered; they needed to put the right songs in the right spot. For example, early in the show, when Will learns that he will soon be a father himself, he wonders about his unsatisfying relationship with his own dad. In the original version of the show, he expressed that in the song “The River Between Us,” which describes the gulf dividing Will from his father as growing hopelessly wide.
“During the first production in Chicago,” Lippa says, “we found that the audience already likes Edward at that point, and if Will says something so pejorative about his father, the audience thinks Will is just a downer who doesn’t know how to have fun. So we moved that song and replaced it with ‘Stranger,’ which is about Will’s desire to reach out to his father and get to know him better. The real challenge in this show is to make sure the audience doesn’t like either Will or Edward more than the other, that the audience recognizes that they both have good reason to be unhappy with the other and good reason to admire one another.”
One of the show’s big ballads is “Time Stops,” which Edward sings when he meets his future wife and is stunned into silence. It captures the sensation not only of love at first sight, but also of musicals when the dialogue stops and the character bursts into song, reality seemingly frozen in place. When Lippa plays the song’s intro on the piano over the phone, a catchy, lilting phrase is played once, and then in another key. That simple key shift moves the song into another realm before Lippa sings the opening line, “Time stops when suddenly you see her.”
“When it changes keys,” he explains, “you know you’re in another place. A song can be like a Shakespearean monologue, where the actor steps forward and the action behind him freezes. Audiences won’t accept that anymore, but they will accept a song that does the same thing. Nobody sings their feelings in real life, but onstage the right music can seal off reality and light up the emotional part of your brain.”
Lippa isn’t involved in the Keegan Theatre production, which will be directed by Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith with Dan Van Why as Edward and Ricky Drummond as Will. But Lippa is excited that Keegan is doing a chamber version of the show with a smaller cast and smaller band in a more intimate space. The songwriter believes that theater often works best in close quarters.
And he’s happy to have his work back in the Washington area. It was just last year that the Music Center at Strathmore premiered his epic oratorio “I Am Anne Hutchinson/ I Am Harvey Milk.” Lippa sang the role of the San Francisco politician Milk, and Lippa’s frequent collaborator Kristin Chenoweth sang the role of the 17th-century religious-freedom crusader Hutchinson. They were joined by a full orchestra and a 140-voice chorus, thanks to the support of the Young Artists of America, a nonprofit organization that operates out of the Strathmore.
“It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my whole life,” Lippa gushes. “I hope the show can be produced again someday.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that David Van Why was playing Edward Bloom. The actor’s name is Dan Van Why.
Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. 202-265-3767. keegantheatre.com.
Dates: Saturday through Sept. 2.