Tales From the Yorkside

Author: Jim Morgan and Charles Wright


Program Notes for Big, The Musical



Jim: Charles Wright has been crafting program notes for the York for many years now.  His words always have an elegance and style that seems to me to be a perfect match for what we put on our stage. As our second post, we thought we’d publish the program notes Charles put together for our first Mufti in this year’s Series: Big, The Musical.  Enjoy!

Big, the musical was among the most anticipated shows of the 1995-96 New York theater season. By April 1996, when Big opened, lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., composer David Shire, and librettist John Weidman had spent more than three years searching for the most effective way to craft a musical from the plot and themes of an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg. Those years of creative effort are chronicled in Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical by journalist Barbara Isenberg, who was embedded with the production, both out of town and in New York.

Big, the 1988 movie, was directed by Penny Marshall and features Tom Hanks as an impatient kid who finds himself in a pickle when, by some obscure magic, his wish to be grown-up is granted. The movie brought Hanks the first of his five Academy Award nominations (he has won twice).

Big, the musical, directed by Mike Ockrent and choreographed by Susan Stroman, was lavishly designed and, at a cost of more than ten million dollars, was one of the most expensive Broadway productions up to that time. The sets by Robin Wagner, David Peterson, and Atkin Pace included a roller coaster, a dining room at Tavern on the Green, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and, as in the movie, the selling floor of F.A.O. Schwarz. The cast was headed by Daniel H. Jenkins as Josh (the Hanks role), Crista Moore as Susan (Elizabeth Perkins on screen), Jon Cypher as MacMillan (the Robert Loggia part), Barbara Walsh as Josh’s mother (Mercedes Ruehl in the movie), and Brett Tabisel as Josh’s sidekick Billy. The ensemble included a children’s chorus, which meant that a third of the 31-member cast had not yet reached adulthood.

The lead producers of the Broadway show – James B. Freydberg, Kenneth Feld, Laurence Mark, and Kenneth D. Greenblatt – enlisted F.A.O. Schwarz as an investor. The celebrated toy retailer opened Big merchandise boutiques in all of its 37 locations and sold tickets to the show in its Fifth Avenue flagship store. Though F.A.O. Schwarz received an “in association with” production credit, the magnitude of its financial stake in the show was a well-guarded secret.

The Big company rehearsed at 890 Broadway in December 1995 and January 1996, then traveled to Detroit at the beginning of February for a four-week “tryout.” In the midst of rehearsals (on New Year’s Eve 1995, to be exact), Ockrent and Stroman were married, deferring their honeymoon until after the New York opening. In Detroit, the critical notices were less than encouraging, with Variety lamenting “the script’s blatant celebration of F.A.O. Schwarz.”

When the exuberant production, with its spectacular staging, opened at the newly renovated Shubert Theatre in New York on April 28, 1996, the critics were divided; but, in the New York Times, Vincent Canby described Big as a “bright, shiny, larger-than-life toy of a show” and, in USA Today, David Patrick Stearns called it “the ideal family musical.” Canby concluded his Times review with two brief, carefully cadenced sentences: “It worked as a movie. It works as a show.” Big received five Tony nominations and 10 Drama Desk nominations.  Brett Tabisel was recognized with a Theater World Award.  Big closed on October 13, 1996, after 193 performances.

The following year, the Pace Theatrical Group mounted a first-class national tour, which reached 35 cities in 40 weeks. The touring production, with book and score revised by the authors, was directed by Eric D. Schaeffer, co-founder and artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, and choreographed by Karma Camp.

In a conversation for this program note, Mr. Maltby commented, “While the musical is called ‘Big,’ the emotions involved are personal and intimate and human. When we were preparing the show to tour, we went back to our original impulses and Eric Schaeffer encouraged us in that.”  Mr. Weidman recalls: “The tour was an opportunity for Richard and David and me to make second choices as writers and to bring the emotional part of the story downstage and into focus.” Jim Newman, who played Josh on the tour, characterizes the revised version of Big as being “filled with heart” and “in touch with the joy of childhood and the sweet innocence with which children see things.”

Musicals in Mufti is utilizing the version of Big that was seen on the national tour, with a few subsequent editorial changes, including restoration of a song, “This Isn’t Me”, eliminated after the Broadway run. Mr. Weidman views this Mufti presentation as a chance for the authors to see the show “for the first time since the tour and to listen to what we’ve written performed by first-rate artists.” In the intimate quarters of the York Theater, with streamlined staging and a minimum of props and costumes, Michael Unger and his cast may assist the creative team in getting even closer to the emotional truth of Big than before.