In a few days it will be time for the 2014 Tony Awards. These awards define the standard of excellence in theater. I am a fan of Broadway and also of New York City so I will be watching. But I will be watching in protest because of a noteworthy absence in this year’s nominations for Best Musical. The missing nominee is a show called Big Fish.
Stay with me even if you don’t care all that much for theater because my point is bigger.
Autumn in New York
Last fall, I traveled to Manhattan to meet my son Frankie who is in college there studying musical theater. It was a memorable trip, and needless to say we spent most of our time in the Theater district. My boy took me to St. Malachy’s Catholic Church, known as the “actor’s church,” which you would never believe could be nestled among those restaurants and theaters. Yet there we were standing among the shimmering votive candles and the Blessed Sacrament in the heart of Broadway. A priest was in the pews saying the liturgy of the hours. I genuflected at the altar. Then, it was back to the streets.
My son maneuvered us toward West 52nd street to the Neil Simon Theater. There was a show he had been keeping an eye on called Big Fish, after the 2003 Tim Burton/Danny Elfman movie of the same name and the novel by Daniel Wallace. A video outside the theater looped previews that were promising enough to hook us.
After a fancy dinner the following night, we walked to the theater and took our seats in the packed house. When the star Norbert Leo Butz took the stage he received a prolonged and heartfelt standing ovation. My son leaned in and reminded me that the play was still in previews, meaning it had not yet officially opened. I marveled that it had already generated such enthusiasm.
The show was one of the best I have ever seen. And as for Norbert Leo Butz and his co-star Kate Baldwin, I have just one question: in what possible world are they not nominated for Tony Awards?
His Name, After All, is Bloom
Big Fish is about a middle-aged traveling salesman named Edward Bloom, a sort of anti-type of Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman because unlike Loman, this salesman is a man who loves his wife and son, loves his life, and understands why he’s here: to sanctify the world, to make it bigger than it is—indeed, to become bigger than he is. From the earliest days, Christians have understood this very thing as the reason for the Incarnation, the reason that God became man:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature“: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
“For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460).
We sense in our private moments that we are born for something bigger than we are, but anyone who is daring enough to accept the grace to realize all of this is going to be misunderstood and marked as a crackpot. Meet Edward Bloom.
The romantic Bloom proposes to his future wife in the beautiful song “Daffodils” from the score by Andrew Lippa, “I will shower you with flowers / or my name isn’t Edward Bloom”. He doesn’t just ask her to marry him, he creates a field of daffodils, and swears the flowers they’re standing in will pale in comparison to the life that will blossom in their marriage. To paraphrase an anonymous YouTube commenter: “If my future husband doesn’t propose to me just like that, the deal is off.” One does not settle down in order to live, one steps up.
The show opens with Be the Hero, sung in the style of another Broadway salesman, Harold Hill from The Music Man. But Bloom isn’t a con- man, he believes every word he sings. This song admonishes listeners to step up and “be the hero of your story.”
Oh, my melting heart.
Bloom is bursting with possibility and his mind is expansive, many around him would say too expansive. He’ll tell you he knows the secret for catching big fish. He demonstrates to his companions on stage that if you tap your feet using a secret method called the Alabama Stomp, the fish literally jump out of the stream at you.
We learn that Bloom once saved an entire city from destruction. He fought a war. He knows a mermaid, and a witch who told him exactly how he is going to die. Once he befriended a giant. This virtuoso stage production, directed by Susan Stroman, brought all of these fantastic stories to life with an intentionally surreal quality.
Bloom’s estranged son Will (played wonderfully by Bobby Steggert) rolls his eyes and wants none of these fairy tales. He is every son in every television situation comedy that features a hapless father (do any of them not?). Modern, educated, and well versed in settled science, Will is annoyed and embarrassed by his dad. And now that Will is married to an expectant wife (Katelyn Joy Brown), and things are getting real, he sees that it’s time to compromise, to settle down.
It’s no secret where the plot is going. Edward Bloom is distracted in the first scene by a sharp pain in his abdomen. Yes he’s dying, but we have to put that fact on hold during the first act. We get to know the man first. Then, we enter a more solemn and absolutely heart wrenching second act. There will not be a dry eye in the house. Bloom dies, but not before the son comes to see through the eyes of love the literal truth of his dad’s tall tales, and is finally able to admit he “told them perfectly” and he is finally able to sing to his own young son “Be the hero of your story.”
Edward Bloom perceives enchantment in the world of facts. He sees with the eyes of faith and love. He says as much in the final sequence. If you’ve read G.K. Chesterton you know what he’s talking about. Reality is strange and startling and always new if you’re really alive. Of course the world follows the laws of mathematics and physics. But that’s the easy part. Reality itself transcends imagination. It is bigger than imagination and it is bigger than us. Facts are facts, but the true meaning of what happens in your life is what grips you, challenges your comfortable narrative, and changes your life if you let it. Read the Gospels using this interpretive guide and see what jumps out at you.
The One that Got Away
Here is my protest. Apparently New York did not like this show, because it closed in December 2013 after a three month run.
Reviews are everything on Broadway, and the show received a disappointingly negative review from the New York Times. Critic Ben Brantley admired the showmanship and the expertise of the talented cast and crew, but he complained that Susan Stroman’s masterful special effects on stage could not have come from such a simple man’s imagination:
You feel these colorful visions are being thrust not just upon the audience but also upon Edward. It’s as if the contents of an immense toy chest had been emptied on top of him, when you need to believe that it’s his imagination that summons these gaudy phantoms into existence . . . it’s as if some cosmic Florenz Ziegfeld is the one doing the arranging, not an Everyman Walter Mitty from Dixie.
But there is a cosmic meaning in the universe. We are no doubt authors of our stories when we exercise our free will. But we have a destiny that did not originate inside our skulls. Our destiny was formed long before we got here. Brantley is right, it’s “as if” there is a cosmic hand helping us to write our stories. Now, drop the “as if” and he’s spot on.
Am I wrong? I am not alone. Another review, a positive one from the Huffington Post, made this catch.
During one of the biggest scenes, the circus ringmaster Amos Calloway (Brad Oscar) says, “People want to see things beyond their imagination,” and that seems to be the mantra of the show.
It is absolutely the mantra of the show. What went wrong? I think what happened is that an elevated story got shackled by expectations that were stubbornly beneath it. The show wanted to be real. The critics wanted mere psychology.
I will enjoy the Tony Awards this year, but I hope someday the incredible production of Big Fish gets the recognition it deserves. It should not only have been nominated for a Tony Award, it should have swept the nominations, and it should have become an American classic.
Treat yourself to seven minutes of gorgeous artistry in this video from the actual recording sessions of the soundtrack for Big Fish. Oh, and by the way, be the hero of your story.