Interview: Andrew Lippa on Being One of The Heroes of The Story for his Musical BIG FISH

The show will be performed at The Music Center at Strathmore on March 23rd with a cast of over 150.

By: Mar. 20, 2024
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Interview: Andrew Lippa on Being One of The Heroes of The Story for his Musical BIG FISH
Andrew Lippa. Photo by Chris Casella.

Composer Andrew Lippa is probably best known for his musical The Addams Family but his work spans far beyond that one show. He wrote additional songs for the Broadway production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and wrote the off-Broadway version of The Wild Party.

One of Mr. Lippa’s Broadway musicals in particular did not, in my opinion, get the acclaim it deserved. Big Fish opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on October 6th, 2013, and closed on December 29th of the same year. That’s a measly and insanely small amount of performances to be sure. As you will read, the show has had many good fortunes since its initial Broadway run.

On March 23rd, Young Artists of America (YAA) will present a symphonic premiere and fully realized production of Big Fish at The Music Center at Strathmore for which Andrew Lippa will be in attendance. He also served as a guest mentor for thew show. The production will feature a newly commissioned set of orchestrations and over 150 performers.

Andrew Lippa was nice enough to let me ask him a few questions via Zoom about the show’s origins and more. What follows is the exchange. He is truly one of the heroes of the show’s story.

Was it your idea to turn Big Fish into a musical or were you approached to work on it after the project had been established?

I met one of the producers of the 2003 film, Bruce Cohen, who has since become a very frequent collaborator and great friend. After I met Bruce, he had given me his contact information and I wrote him a few days later and I said.  “Hey, have you guys considered turning Big Fish into a musical?”  He said, yes, they had actually considered it. I didn't know at the time that they had approached a different songwriter but it didn't work out. In December of 2004 I started working with book writer John August. I wrote two songs and showed them to him and the producers and that’s how it all started.

When you first started work on the show, how did you decide what the overall musical style of the score was going to be?

I think it’s more about what it’s not going to sound like. Is it going to lean full on into contemporary country music or bluegrass or any number of what could be known as as country styles or is it going to be a hybrid?

The show has many fantasies plus elements of romance and magic. One theme that I wrote late in the process ended being our musical through line to capture all of those.

Interview: Andrew Lippa on Being One of The Heroes of The Story for his Musical BIG FISH
YAA Company and YAA Junior in rehearsal for Big Fish.
Photo courtesy of YAA.

When Young Artists of America approached you about performing Big Fish with a newly commissioned symphonic orchestration and a cast of over 150, what was your initial response?

I jumped for joy!  I'm very good friends with Rolando Sanz who is YAA’s Producing Artistic Director and co-Founder and our executive producer.

I became friends with him when Strathmore commissioned me to write I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk which premiered in 2016. We’ve been friends ever since.

I had seen a video of YAA’S Children of Eden and thought it was really something to see all of these kids in a gorgeous venue with a huge orchestra performing that show.

It excites me that the orchestrations are going to be expanded to include harp and lots of strings.

Are there any adjustments to the material that were made to accommodate a cast size many times bigger than originally written for?

I honestly don't know what I'm going to see on March 23rd. I have been very hands off. The cake is the cake and YAA is putting the frosting on it. I just know it's going to be thrilling and exciting.

There are some of my scores where I’ve felt that a full orchestra version isn’t a good idea. The Wild Party should never have a full orchestra treatment. That's not the style of the show. It’s a big band at best. Big Fish, however, I know that a full orchestra treatment is just going to be glorious, and the orchestrator Ryan Fielding Garrett is a friend and I know he’s going to bring so much life to it.

Your orchestrator on Broadway for Big Fish and The Addams Family was the immensely talented Larry Hochman. Can you please talk about the composer orchestrator collaboration you had with him on those two shows? And was it different from working with our dearly departed Michael Gibson on The Wild Party, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and A Little Princess?

The answer is that from show to show, it's different. Even if you work with the same people. Director Bartlett Sher always has the same design team and because of that they can speak the same language when collaborating.

So that was how my relationship was with both Michal and Larry. In every case, my process with an orchestrator is the same.  I fully notate everything.  I'm not just sending them lead sheets or chord progressions. I write out every note and I usually do all the vocal arrangements for my shows.

Michael Gibson said the only other composer who he had worked with that did what I did in terms of score notation was John Kander. That’s some company to be a part of.

Interview: Andrew Lippa on Being One of The Heroes of The Story for his Musical BIG FISH
Kate Baldwin and Andrew Lippa during a rehearsal
for the pre-Broadway tryout of Big Fish.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Big Fish on Broadway had a shorter run that in my opinion, was undeserved. Looking back ten years plus, is there anything you would have done differently with that initial production and has the show had changes made to it since

The show was very much what we wanted to make, and we thought very strongly at the time that what would be exciting was that the family scenes would be played in the front and very intimately and that the fantasies would be as big as possible. That felt right to us. It did not feel right to everybody who experienced the show however and we had no way of knowing that until it was too late.

Since that time, Big Fish has been performed in many languages and in many places. We are getting hundreds of productions per year performed. And, in fact, I'm going to Tokyo in June to see it performed in Japanese.  John and I, a couple of years later, were given the opportunity to create a small cast version, which we thought was a good idea and so did our licensing company Theatrical Rights Worldwide. We made changes to the writing because we thought we could make it even better.  Then we did the production with Kelsey Grammer and a bunch of other amazing people in London, and that director had other ideas.

In fact, John and I are in conversation with some folks at the moment of the potential for doing the show again in a significant way and yet again we have done rewrites because we original production turned out bigger than we imagined the show to be. I hope it continues to be performed and keeps getting reinvented.

Can you please tell us about any upcoming projects you have for 2024 and beyond?

I've written all of the songs for a film musical called A Totally Awesome Christmas Story.  It is very close to getting made, which is very exciting. We've been working on it for quite a number of years.

It takes place in a shopping mall in the 1980s and it's all a bunch of takes on 80s songs, which I never thought I would have anything to say about and it turns out I did.  I might also have two stage projects finding their way to production but to be continued on that.

Special thanks to Kendra Rubenfeld at Kendra Rubenfeld PR for her assistance in coordinating this interview.


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