By Lanford Beard
October 06, 2013 at 07:00 PM EDT
Paul Koinik
  • Movie

Even before Big Fish hit movie theaters in 2003, screenwriter John August knew its yarn-spinning hero was bound for Broadway. “You look at Edward Bloom’s stories…and they feel like production numbers,” says August. “There are moments when words fail you, and you break into song. That’s what [the film] was missing.”

Buoyed by a rash of screen-to-stage hits — including three of the last five Best Musical Tony winners (Kinky Boots, Once, and Billy Elliot) — Big Fish, the moving, epic tale of a father and son opens tonight at the Great White Way’s Neil Simon Theatre. “Broadway is a risky business,” admits producer Dan Jinks, “but if the show works… investors can make far more money than they would make traditionally on Wall Street, and I’ve just always had this tremendous belief in the story that we were telling.”

It didn’t hurt that Jinks and August stacked the deck by enlisting some stage pros for the live version of his film, including composer Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family) and Susan Stroman, the director-choreographer of 2001’s Tony-sweeping hit The Producers, which was itself based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 film. So how did August, Jinks, and Stroman combine movie magic with good, old-fashioned stagecraft to hook audiences in for their fantastical re-imagining? Read on…

In truth, August and Jinks have been working on Big Fish almost non-stop since Daniel Wallace’s novel was published in 1998. The two acquired the rights and began readying the big-screen adaptation. A big get came in the form of Tim Burton (who’s since collaborated with August on several projects, including last year’s Oscar-nominated Frankenweenie), who imbued the novel with his trademark sense of whimsy. Though box office was disappointing — its $68 million domestic take didn’t cover the reported $70 million budget, which international box office eventually covered — the film scored an Oscar nod for its score, four Golden Globe nominations, and seven BAFTA nods (including one for August’s screenplay).

Still, August and Jinks weren’t satisfied the story had been told as fully as possible. They brought on Lippa soon after the awards-season rush, and they worked on the show for years. August believes the process helped him enrich his own storytelling. “I’ve had to perform Big Fish about 150 times. So it’s literally me and Andrew at the piano playing things for the producers,” he says. “It forces you to be a little bit more honest in the writing, because I’ve had to play all of these characters, many, many times.”

When it came to translating the lavish visuals of Edward Bloom’s stories for the stage, the producers knew they’d need someone who could step out of Burton’s shadow. Actually, it was advice Burton had given August himself: “He was great about saying ‘Make it its own thing,'” says August of a conversation the pair had in 2008, before Stroman came on board. “He was just right in the sense of don’t try to duplicate but try to innovate.”

Stroman entered the picture in 2010. She says she was drawn to the story because “all of us who are in the theater… are storytellers, and we are here because someone told us stories.” She adds that Big Fish also “has an accessibility for people who love the theater — because, if you love the theater, you probably had somebody in your house (whether it was your mother or you father) who told you Big Fish stories.”

Even as he and August were headfirst and years-deep Big Fish‘s screen-to-stage transformation, Jinks admits he still had his apprehensions: “Going into it was my biggest concern as a producer [was that] it would be it’s crazy to try to put the film up on stage… [We made a point] not try to literally translate the movie, but the feeling one got from the movie and from Daniel Wallace’s book. Of course having Susan Stroman as your director/choreographer, that’s like getting Steven Spielberg or Tim Burton to direct your movie.”

Though Stroman took inspiration from Tim Burton’s visually distinctive film, “once you start on the road to a musical, you do leave all that behind because you can’t do some of the things you can do in a film.” For example, Stroman points out, “we live [and watch theater] in a wide shot, so some things have to be clearer than you normally would do in a movie where you can show an emotion in a close-up. Here you might have to sing that emotion.” August notes, “With Stro, it’s her ability to create these production numbers sort of out of nothing. The ability to bring movement and dance to this was something I had never had experience with. I watch her with wonder and awe every day as she breaks out a new step that transforms something.”

Among the “How’d they do that?!” touches audiences have seen during the show’s previous incarnations (including a Chicago tryout this spring and nearly a month of Broadway previews to date), Stroman and her team have fashioned a flowing river in the orchestra pit and an eye-popping circus sequence that spans years. “It’s very big, and we have dancing elephants, and we have a dancing bear. We have all the wonderful people that you would see in a circus like jugglers and clowns and things,” says Stroman. “That particular scenes is very large, and it has different sections to it. For me, that was the biggest challenge. It was the largest in collaboration of sets and costumes and projections and lights and music and orchestra. There are so many different departments when you’re doing a musical — it’s a miracle a musical gets up because of that. Every department has to be on the same page to make it happen.”

Another stage-specific choice came into play regarding casting. Unlike the film, which starred Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor as the older and younger versions of Edward, the musical relies on two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz to play Edward through all 46 years of his relationship with his wife, Sandra (Kate Baldwin). Both actors, as a result, regularly switch between their characters’ teen selves, their middle-aged selves, and their elderly selves — sometimes all within a scene or two. “You’re just more emotionally invested in the character if it’s one actor playing it [all],” says Jinks. “I think that’s part of what makes this a Broadway musical is that sort of theatricality.”

It’s also a boon for the actors, Baldwin believes. Stepping into the shoes Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman filled in the movie, she was thrilled to effectively originate a new role. “Being on stage affords you much more license in your characterization,” she says. “Because there isn’t a camera close up on you, changing a wig or changing the silhouette or you dress and your high heels and subtle differences to your spine and your gait and your rhythm really do add up to what age you’re playing.” She adds, “It’s a challenge, but it’s also fantastic. I remember what it was like to be 18 and how I felt. It’s wonderful to be able to revisit that as a woman in her mid-30s, to go back and play a scene where you’re falling in love for the first time.”

August agrees, “Theater is really about magic. It’s the transformation that happens in front of the audience is where you really feel the excitement and everything on the show is down to an eight count. You watch the traffic pattern flow like how people get on the stage and off the stage, the next costume change. That’s the thrill and that’s the thing you don’t sense in the movie.”

Baldwin also thinks the musical, which features Butz doing “The Alabama Stomp” and fighting dragons, at times departs from the film in tone: “The movie is so Tim Burton-y — it has that eerie, mystical quality that Tim Burton brings to all of his films — and we are doing a musical, which is much brighter. Musicals are, by nature, optimistic and happy.” And, whether audience members leave crying (thanks to an ending that Jinks says packs an “emotional wallop”), the team behind Big Fish believe — based on performances so far — that they’ll be happy, too. “There’s nothing like a standing ovation,” says August. “You can make a movie that people like a lot and maybe they’ll clap at the end, but there’s nothing like being in a live theater seeing them really stand up and cheer when the story ends.”