BWW Interviews: Debut of the Month - BIG FISH's Ryan Andes
Ryan Andes makes his Broadway debut as 'Karl', the gentle but misunderstood giant in the new Broadway musical Big Fish. Featuring direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a new book by screenwriter John August, the musical brings to life a world of fairy tales and fantasy emanating from the creative mind of traveling salesman Edward Bloom (two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz) The production opens officially on October 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Andes recently played 'Stewpot' at the Muny's production of South Pacific. His recent TV credits include a guest spot on CBS's 'Person of Interest". He has appeared on screen in The Widowers, and has an impressive list of NYC stage credits as well as opera, musical theatre and voiceover work. In a true twist of fate, Ryan's grandfather, Keith Andes, starred opposite Lucille Ball in Cy Coleman's Wildcat at the Alvin Theatre, now known as the Neil Simon, the very stage where Andes makes his Broadway debut.
The actor spoke exclusively to BWW about dancing on stilts, family traditions and why he counts himself "one of the luckiest people" he knows.
The audience response to the show the other evening was phenomenal. That must be a wonderful feeling for you.
It's amazing. There's no way to describe it properly. I've never been in a show that's had such an outpouring of love and response. And I get comments after the show about how much people enjoyed it and how much it has touched them.
And you certainly have a challenging role. The creative team has come up with such a unique way of transforming you into Karl the Giant, but how difficult is it, not only to walk but to dance under those conditions?
(Laughing) Yeah, it's been a process! First of all, I've never walked on stilts before in my life. When I auditioned in fact, I remember Stro [Big Fish director and choreographer Susan Stroman] asked me if I had a fear of heights because she had in mind for me to walk on stilts.
So at the workshop, back in Spring 2012, they brought in a stilt expert, Mark Mindek, and he spent an hour working with me on these stilts. They're high tech , hydrolics-driven stilts and they're very forgiving. After an hour with Mark, I realized I had a bit of a knack for this thing and he told me I was a quick study. And once I got comfortable walking around, we started with some very basic dance steps. As time whent on I got more and more comfortable and Stro, you know once she sees you can do something sort of well, she tries to see how far she can take it. So it became a little more difficult but a lot more fun. I think I am now to the point where she can throw anything at me - the jitterbug, doing cartwheels, and I think I could probably pull it off!
How tall are you in real life?
I'm actually 6'4"
Ahh, so you really had height in your favor already.
Yes, and apparently that's a good thing when you're working on stilts. You have a higher center of gravity and that gives you an advantage. So yeah, I was already a giant, adding a few more feet was no big deal!
And of course you already had that beautiful operatic bass voice.
Yes, I did opera for years. My voice I think was a great selling point.
I understand that your grandfather starred in Cy Coleman's 'Wildcat' at the very same theater that you're making your Broadway debut in.
Yes, that's right. Isn't that amazing? What a surreal thing. It's absolutely extraordinary. I have no idea how to really put that one into words. And I didn't even know that until Brad Oscar, who plays Amos in the show, told me back in February. All this time I was completely unaware of it. And then when we got in the theater and I realized I was walking on the same stage, inhabiting the same halls that Grandpa once inhabited over fifty years ago with Lucille Ball, there's nothing like that. I've been kind of living in a dream-like state. The serendipity of it all is truly remarkable. It makes me feel that I have a much deeper connection to the place and to this art form that I really have a passion for.
My dad told me a story that he used to come out to New York and watch Grandpa in the show and then they would go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station and sit at the bar and eat oyster stew together, that was their thing. So I found out there were actually more family traditions surrounding this thing that I never even heard about. And now I've gone to the Oyster Bar and sit just where my dad and grandpa sat - so it's very cool.
One of the themes that I loved in the show is the relationship between fathers and sons, which is really just what you've been speaking about. So I'm guessing the story probably takes on a special meaning for you.
Definitely, oh yeah. For me especially because of the relationship between my grandfather and my dad. But the story really takes on a very universal quality as well. Everybody has a parent that they may or may not get along with, but there is a part of that relationship that is illustrated in this particular story that everyone can relate to. And I think that's what makes the show so special and so remarkable and gives it so much heart. Everyone takes something away from it.
And what it does in such a wonderful way is give people a chance to maybe be a bit more reflective about their relationships, think a little deeper about what they mean to them. I think the show is more than the sum of its parts and I think if anything, that's the most important thing about it.
You are working with some true Broadway pros in Big Fish. What has that experience been like and what have your learned from them?
Oh boy. I mean it starts with Stro. She is simply amazing. I've never worked with anyone like her. She is a force of nature, she is just amazingly lovely and intensely passionate. Working with her is just like being surrounded by family. She's incredibly supportive and what comes from her is this feeling of never being able to fail. She makes you feel so at ease about trying new things and being creative. There's really nothing you can do wrong. She takes everything by the reins and makes you feel like we are all well taken care of.
And watching Andrew Lippa work and John August, the two of them working together in such an amazing way. And seeing how this process unfolds. When they have an issue they work it out. It's always fascinating to me how they fix things and make them better, which they are both incredibly gifted at doing.
And of course the cast, my God, I'm surrounded by musical theater geniuses. Norbert, Kate, Bobby, Brad, JC Montgomery - you know it's such a family, it's such a community. People who really care about each other and really want to see each other do the best work possible.
What was it like to make your Broadway debut?Extraordinary. It's funny to me how the world works. I'll make this brief, but I was going through a period of time about two years ago where I wasn't singing very much, I was pursuing other endeavors like voiceover work. I think I hit a bit of a low point and was ready to throw it in. So I decided I would give myself one more year, one more chance. That was October 2011. So when I got the audition for Big Fish that February, I felt very much non-chalant about it, which is maybe why I got cast. I wasn't going in there dripping with desperation that a lot of actors do when they're very interested in getting a role. So in my wildest dreams, I didn't expect it to happen this way and now that is has, I feel like I've walked into someone else's life.
Getting up and going to work, getting to walk and dance around on stilts like a giant is an extraordinary experience. And being able to do it on the same stage where Grandpa performed, there's really nothing like it. And I count myself as truly one of the luckiest people I know.
BIG FISH began previews at the Neil Simon Theater (250 W. 52nd Street) on September 5th, and will open on Sunday, October 6th.
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik
Photo credit: Timothi Jane Grahm