Big Fish flops; parting thoughts

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Many, if not most, of today’s Broadway musicals are the products of a difficult transition: From film to stage, from drama (or comedy) to musical, a transition that can go any number of ways. Whether or not we enjoy such musicals depends on how much we love the originals – and on how well that transition is handled.

Little Miss Sunshine, Once, Kinky Boots: How we receive a movie-based musical is inevitably tied to how we felt about the film. I was eager to see director Susan Stroman’s musical version of Tim Burton’s 2003 film version of Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish. I never read the book, but the movie was such a joyous, magical, exuberant and moving experience, telling a tale as outsized as its name implies, that I couldn’t wait to see what Stroman and company could do with it. Perhaps I should have been a bit more wary.

So when it was announced Sunday that the show will close on December 29, officially making this Fish a flop, I wanted to give some credit where it’s due.

As hard as the company tried, and as elaborate and ambitious as the staging was, Big Fish didn’t live up to its big promise. It opened barely a month ago, and the reviews were pretty consistent: Norbert Leo Butz is terrific in the lead role, the dancing (Stroman also choreographed) is spectacular at moments and everyone loved the original film. But Andrew Lippa’s music is so by-the-numbers, traditional Broadway doo-dah that it feels as though the unique, surprising movie had been forced into a straightjacket, subjected to a check-list of things-you-just-gotta-do on Broadway. The whole thing felt labored in a way that the movie never did.

I would only add one thing: The heart of Wallace’s story remains. Despite its flaws, and despite it not attaining the beauty of Burton’s film, I was moved by Big Fish. And that’s more than I can say for a lot of contemporary Broadway musicals.

Big Fish the musical may flail like a fish out of water, but the denouement of the story still snuck up and got me. It’s a story of love and forgiveness, of father and son, and of the rewards of looking past our rationalizations and resentments, of dropping the ego’s durable story line. I was ready to be moved, and I was. Not in the way I had been moved by the movie, since I was analyzing how they were handling what I already saw coming, and they weren’t handling it as well as they could have. Even so, I found myself moved.

More importantly, the musical had an impact, in real life. The message of the art left the theater with me, and changed my life. Immediately.

After the conclusion of Big Fish, as I walked home, disappointed but nevertheless touched, I thought of my own father. I thought about the distance between us, the things that weren’t said, and the fact that, with his death, that distance would remain. There was no longer any possibility of bridging that distance.

Then I thought of a close friend with whom I’d recently had one of those inane text-only tiffs that exploded into a disastrous, angry, and seemingly-irresolvable distance. Having been softened up by Big Fish, I let the crack which the story had opened in me, open wider. I let those feelings of resentment and of my need to be right, and of all the arguments I had marshaled to support my case, escape from my heart like so much poison. I let that feeling, that openness which good art can engender, grow in me. I let the story expand my heart.

As corny as it may sound, I thought of what Big Fish was saying to me, and of time passing, and of loss, and of the importance of not missing every opportunity to love and grow.

So I texted my friend a sincere, unqualified apology. I love him, and as much as I felt right in my position, what was really happening wasn’t a victory, it was a great loss, for both of us. So I texted him, and he received it with the grace and forgiveness that I have always found in him. I was told later that he received the text in the company of two of our closest mutual friends, and that the news of the text defused a tension that had hung over all our friendships since our falling out.

And I thought, I don’t really care how well Big Fish “works,” in a theatrical or even musical sense. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But I also want to give it its due, because the show, with all its flaws, had an impact. I wanted to share this experience, because once again, I was struck by the power of art – even flawed art – to loosen us up, to move us past our brilliant analyses, and our jailing egos, and to allow us to escape into a larger truth.

A Broadway musical could do worse.

– David Watts Barton

Big Fish continues until Dec. 29 at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street.  



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