Writing Is Personal For Composer, Lyricist Andrew Lippa Of 'Big Fish'

May 22, 2015

The cast of the Broadway musical 'Big Fish'
Credit http://www.bigfishthemusical.com

Music Theatre Wichita has named Big Fish among its productions for 2015. The story centers on tall tales and a strained relationship between a father and son. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur has this look into the Big Fish story and its music…

Originally a novel by Daniel Wallace, the story of Big Fish weaves whimsical and surreal memories into a very real relationship between Edward Bloom and his grown son, Will. Edward is known for tales so tall they’re hard to believe, like meeting a witch who gives him a vision of his life and death.

What if I said I met a witch when I was very young? What if I said she showed me how I die? Powerless in the face of it, terrified in the wood. That was where my life was changed for good."

Bobby Steggert as Will Bloom in the Broadway musical, 'Big Fish'
Credit http://www.bigfishthemusical.com

The music and lyrics to the musical were written by Andrew Lippa, who was in Wichita recently for a workshop.

“It’s the story of how these two men have never quite connected," Lippa says. "When the father is late in life, the son wants to finally understand who his father is and why his father has told these fantastical stories.”

Will grows tired of his father’s tall tales and wishes he’d live in the real world. He doesn’t understand why these "big fish" stories are so important to him.

"My father told me stories I could never comprehend. In every tale he'd claim to be the hero. I've tried to understand him. But I wonder if I can. 

Because after almost thirty years, I still don't know the man. I wish I knew the man.

“Edward is an embellisher; he's a born storyteller," Lippa says. "It's about the son really learning how to grow up and how to appreciate his father for who he is and not who he wants him to be.”

One of Lippa’s favorite songs for Big Fish is a piece that stands as a swan song for the main character. On his deathbed, Edward desperately wants his family to understand why he tells these stories--he wanted to be significant.

"He stands there in front of all the people who love him, and he sings, 'I know I wasn't perfect, I know my life was small, I know that I pretended that I knew it all. But when you tell my story, and I hope somebody does, remember me as something bigger than I was.”

“And for me, that's something I truly feel," Lippa says. "I feel like that was what my father wanted as well. I think that's what many people want, to be acknowledged that we did the best we could, but when you talk about me, just make it a little bit better. Not completely crazy better. Just a little bit better.”

Lippa says he looked inward for inspiration. When he sat down to write many of the lyrics for Big Fish, it wasn’t the book or movie that he wrote about. It was his own family--his own life.

“I wanted to write about what it felt it like to have a child, what it felt like to meet the love of your life, what it feels like to die. And to approach that not in a sad way, but in a joyful way," he says. " I want to write about myself. It's sounds terrible when I say it out loud, like I should save it for my therapist, but writing is a selfish act, and I have to write what matters to me.”

Lyricist, composer, book writer, actor and producer Andrew Lippa
Credit Sean Sandefur

After a short stint on Broadway, Big Fish is now making its way to regional theatres, colleges and high schools throughout the country. Lippa wants audiences to enjoy his take on Edward and Will Bloom.

Many musicals have been born out of books and movies, but what makes a good candidate? What will translate to the stage and entertain an audience? Lippa says there’s really not a good answer for that.

“You could say, I'd like to write a musical about a barber in Victorian London who takes revenge on people by killing them in the barber chair and turning them into meat pies and most people would look at you and say, ‘that sounds disgusting and horrible. Who'd ever go see it?' But Stephen Sondheim wrote Sweeney Todd and that became a masterpiece, and everyone has heard of it,” he says.

Lippa also took inspiration from the dark and macabre, writing the lyrics to a musical take on the Addams Family.

It premiered on Broadway in 2010. It was a big success, but he admits that working on big budget musicals can produce a lot of anxiety. He’s currently working on something that’s very personal to him—an oratorio he wrote entitled, I Am Harvey Milk. It chronicles the life of the first openly gay man to hold public office in California, up until his assassination in 1978.

“I met guys who met (Harvey Milk), and for the first time in my life, I got the opportunity to write about my own gay experience through the lens of a great gay hero and a person who gave his life in service of equal rights,” Lippa says.

Lippa is touring with his Harvey Milk production.

Music Theatre Wichita will premiere its production of Big Fish in July.