On Broadway: Taking the Plunge

October 31, 2013

Susan Stroman isn’t afraid to take risks — like her new show, Big Fish

Big Fish blends fantasy numbers with family drama. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Big Fish.

At this point in her brilliant career, Susan Stroman can pick her spots. And after the runaway success of The Producers, she could have kept coming back to Broadway every few seasons with a musical comedy full of her witty, high-gloss production numbers and loaded with built-in box office pull. But she’s chosen a riskier path, directing and choreographing challenging material with distinctly downbeat themes—a dark tale of adultery and murder adapted from French novelist Émile Zola (Thou Shalt Not), a meditation on life and death (Happiness), a shameful miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama (The Scottsboro Boys).


Now she’s returning to Broadway with Big Fish, another far-from-the-beaten-track musical, based on the 2003 movie by Tim Burton. The show revolves around Edward Bloom, an inveterate spinner of unlikely tall tales with an adoring wife, an alienated adult son, and a terminal illness. For Stroman, its appeal lies in its split personality. “It’s not only about a man who tells big-fish stories,” she says. “It allows us to create the tales onstage. So the show has opportunities for big fantastical elements. But it also has a lot of heart. Some musicals have either one or the other, but this has both.”


It also has the dynamic Tony and Astaire Award winner Norbert Leo Butz as Edward and the winsome Tony nominee Kate Baldwin as his wife. Yet in being neither fish nor fowl—that is, neither all colorful fish tale nor all emotional family yarn—the show takes a gamble. Stroman, speaking just before previews were to start, was confident. In Chicago, where Big Fish had its tryout, the reviews were enthusiastic and ticket buyers were moved to tears, she says. “The audience really can imagine themselves as our storyteller, or as the son trying to understand his father. The big-fish tales are entertaining, but in fact it’s the family story that draws the audience in.”


Whether she lands another hit or another also-ran, Stroman has been around enough to be philosophical. Despite critical acclaim, the Broadway production of Scottsboro Boys ran only 49 performances. But Stroman has since mounted the show in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, and is taking it to London. “Scottsboro Boys has had a wonderful life past Broadway,” she says. “And it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. That was the theatrical community saying, ‘You did a good job, but you weren’t commercial.’”


She also takes heart from one of her upcoming projects. After she directs and choreographs the musical version of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, in spring, and before she collaborates with Harold Prince on the greatest-hits compilation Prince of Broadway, in 2016, she does a new musical inspired by the famous Edgar Degas sculpture of a girl in a tutu. Little Dancer opens next fall at the Kennedy Center with New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck in the title role. What strikes Stroman, she says, “is that when Degas created it he got the worst reviews of his entire life, and he was so upset he put it away for 40 years. Now it’s hailed as one of the greatest statues. So the whole show is about art not recognized in its time.”


As for art recognized as classic, Stroman has decided she’d rather try new things than revisit old ones. “I’m offered a lot of revivals,” she says, “but right now I need to create new art. It doesn’t mean I won’t do another revival some day.” And it’s not that she doesn’t enjoy them. “I loved doing Showboat, Oklahoma!, and then The Music Man. Those three helped me understand how to create a musical. I stand on the shoulders of those other shows.”


And there’s also her father, who was, she says, something of a storyteller, like Edward Bloom. “All of us in the theater, we are here because we knew someone who told us big stories.”


Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.