Saturday, April 13, 2013

No Ifs, Ands or Butz: Pleasant, Well-Crafted 'Big Fish' Just Isn't Catchy Enough -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Big Fish
a world premiere, pre-Broadway musical
Music & Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Book by John August
Directed & Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 5

I am not musical and don't have a clear concept on how difficult it is to write a song that is both instantly catchy and thematically meaningful. I imagine it is extremely difficult, even for the most gifted composers and lyricists.

But as a lover of musical theater who has seen well over 200 different musicals--including many truly special ones and several that are just so-so--my advice for anyone attempting to write a new one, whether from scratch or based on a movie or any other source material, would be this:

Start by writing at least 5 killer songs.

5 songs that if I heard tonight, I would still remember--and perhaps even hum--tomorrow. 5 songs that would prompt patrons to buy the cast album upon leaving the theater. 5 songs that cabaret singers would want to cover. 5 songs that could all be highlights on a year-end Broadway compilation. 5 songs that if this was 1951 could be turned into hit singles. 5 songs that would be considered terrific beyond the context of the show.

5 songs that are inventive and catchy and infectious and memorable and truly make people smile, even the first time they hear them.

Because think about it: How many musicals that you truly love don't have at least 5 songs you truly love?

And while it may be valid to say that some great songs take time (and repeated exposure) to appreciate, there have been enough shows I've seen "cold"--without having heard any of the songs previously--that I have absolutely loved, in large part due to their catchy, hummable songs: The Producers, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Avenue Q, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bat Boy, The Visit, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A Christmas Story and Kinky Boots (which enamored me on its very first public performance), just to name a few.

Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert,
Unfortunately, in my estimation, Big Fish, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film and now in Chicago on a pre-Broadway tryout, doesn't have at least 5 killer songs. I'm not sure it even has one.

On Saturday morning after seeing the show Thursday night, the only two tunes I recollect with melodic fondness are "Bigger" and "Fight the Dragons," the latter likely because I listened to it again on the Big Fish website.

This isn't to say that the show isn't tuneful, nor that it is terrible. 

To be fair, I saw a performance that was officially still a preview, and I was a bit surprised at how effusively my fellow patrons in the under-filled balcony seemed to like it, bestowing a standing ovation. So, with admittedly some other things on my mind that night, maybe there is something special in Big Fish onstage that I just just didn't appreciate.

But I still think I would have noticed 5 killer songs.

Though I also assure you that at no point as I sat within the resplendent Oriental Theatre did I think, "Boy, this is really bad."

With a terrific star in Norbert Leo Butz--a bona fide Broadway leading man who I've enjoyed in several shows dating back to a touring Cabaret in 1999--and a superb director & choreographer in Susan Stroman, who helmed my all-time favorite musical, The Producers, there was enough first-rate singing, clever production numbers with stellar dancing and much truly inventive staging & impressive scenery for Big Fish to merit a Seth Saith recommendation--albeit a lukewarm one--for those who love musicals and champion worthwhile new ones like I do.

Scenes from the Big Fish movie
But somewhat akin to--if slightly better than--Catch Me If You Can, which I saw just last week, and Stroman's own Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, the stage version of Big Fish doesn't substantially transcend its source movie to justify an average couple spending $100 & up to see it versus just checking the film out of their local library.

And I say this as someone with little pre-existing love of Big Fish on screen. In fact, somewhat surprising to me and others, upon noting that this world premiere was part of my Broadway in Chicago series, I had to admit that I had never seen, nor to my recall, even heard of the movie (and I see hundreds each year).

A friend advised that before seeing the show I should watch the film, which features Albert Finney as Edward Bloom, a father who has put off his grown son Will (played by Billy Crudup) by telling seemingly tall tales his whole life, several of which are depicted by Ewan McGregor as a younger Edward.

I found Big Fish to be a really quirky and charming movie, likely one of Tim Burton's very best.

With the film's screenwriter John August also penning the book for the musical, he and Stroman admirably re-enact (and somewhat re-imagine) Big Fish for the stage, and probably wisely opted to have a single actor--in this case Butz--embody Edward Bloom from across his teens into his 60s or 70s. Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert also do nice jobs as Edward's wife and son, and it was fun to see Producers stalwart Brad Oscar as Ringmaster Amos Callaway (played by Danny DeVito in the movie).

And Andrew Lippa, the composer/lyricist whose past credits include The Wild Party and The Addams Family, does a credible job in moving the story along with songs that are more-than-passable, even if few felt phenomenal.

But given the somewhat mystical, Burtonesque nature of the film, and the reconfigurations a sensible theatrical rendering likely demanded, I didn't feel that the core story of Big Fish--a man coming to know who his father really was by learning to love the fanciful stories that long made him cringe--was delivered with the same level of magical quirkiness, or just emotion, that makes the movie so special.

And this is hard for me to exactly discern given how recently I saw the movie, but had I not done so, I sense I really might have been confused by what was going on onstage--and why. 

And I still wouldn't have loved the songs.

So while Big Fish has a number of admirable elements, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing it, in keeping it reel, I can't truly say it ever had me hooked.


Anonymous said...

I think the final song, "How It Ends," was really quite beautiful and memorable, and I could even imagine it becoming a standard of sorts. The musical has great potential but it does need a few more great songs to bring it all together.

Anonymous said...

I think it's telling that none of the shows you listed as particular favorites included one with a score by Stephen Sondheim. To discount a song because you can't hum its melody line the next day reveals a tin-eared allegiance to melodic "hooks" and predictable turns of phrase. You might want to consider limiting your intake of musicals to those with pop-flavored scores, "jukebox" shows, or revivals of Jerry Herman classics.

Seth Arkin said...

I love Sondheim enough to take no offense at your comment, other than to point out that the shows I cited as loving were all those that, like Big Fish, I saw the first time with no familiarity of the score.

The only Sondheim show like that was Bounce, which I loved seemingly more than he did (as it morphed into Road Show without the great title song).

Sondheim is by far my all-time favorite composer, because he never resorts to merely catchy kitsch. Nothing in Big Fish came close to having the depth or insight of "Finishing the Hat," "Losing My Mind," "Barcelona" or just about every other SS composition. But many of his songs--"Johanna," "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid," "A Weekend in the Country"--ARE melodic enough to hook you instantly.