World premiere youth version of Big, The Musical – Natascia Diaz joins DC cast
Five or so years ago, when Adventure Theatre was an undersized children’s theater with a tiny budget and less-than-stellar artistic capabilities, someone must have gone to the carnival and found the “Zoltar Speaks” machine. “I want Adventure to be BIG!” he must have said to the machine.
“Your wish is granted,” Zoltar must have replied.
Now Adventure, having produced the East Coast premiere Harry Connick Jr. musical The Happy Elf and traveled to Singapore and Kuala Lampur to show Just a Dream: The Green Play, is about to experience its biggest adventure yet – a world premiere children’s theater production of Richard Maltby’s and David Shire’s Big, The Musical next July.
According to Adventure Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt, the company’s big moment came from a small one – a conversation he had with Jeff Frank, the Artistic Director of Milwaukee’s First Stage. “Jeff and I agreed that an adaptation of Big, The Musical would be terrific for kids,” Bobbitt said, “so we reached out to Musical Theatre International,” who holds the rights. “They were as thrilled about it as we were, so they sent us the material – ” the script and the score—“and we took a first pass-through.”
They had four initial objectives, Bobbitt says. They wanted a seventy-minute version. They wanted the script to enable companies to have as few as 12 actors. They wanted the chorus to be expandable, so that companies which could afford to have more singers would be able to do so. And they wanted to be able to stage it without a live orchestra.
“There was nothing that we needed to add to the script,” Bobbitt said. “The [adult version of the] script is great. All Jeff and I did was edit it down to size.” The adult version of the musical is two and a half hours long.
In the full musical, which follows the plot line of the 1988 movie starring Tom Hanks, 12-year-old Josh Baskin, having suffered a humiliation at the local carnival, asks the “Zoltar Speaks” machine to make him big. He awakes the next morning with the body of a 30-year-old man, and, chased out by his terrified mother, lands in the big city. Frightened and confused, with only his best friend Billy aware of what has happened to him, Josh eventually finds a job with a toy manufacturer. There, his fresh-faced ingenuousness and sense of fun make him an unexpected asset.
Susan, a young executive at the company, falls in love with him, and in so doing recognizes the cynicism and falseness which had marked her life to that point. Josh, delighted at being a corporate superstar pursued by a beautiful woman, has second thoughts about returning to his life as a child. But Billy, who is laboring ceaselessly to break Zoltar’s spell, eventually prevails and Josh returns to who he is meant to be.
In editing the script down to size, Bobbitt and Frank changed its focus. “In the full musical, Susan has the biggest journey,” Bobbitt says, noting that she discovers the potential for her life through her love for Josh. “But we’re focusing on the relationship between Josh and Billy, and how Josh learns the consequences of growing up too fast. Susan has become more of an obstacle to Billy reconciling with Josh.”
The different focus will make the musical more meaningful for young people, concludes Bobbitt, who has a ten-year-old son of his own. “They know friendships. They know sleepovers. They know how traumatic it is when their friend has interests that are different than theirs. Losing their best friend is traumatic.”
Losing great songs was traumatic for Bobbitt. “We’ve dropped, sadly, a lot of Susan’s songs, including ‘Dancing All the Time.’” The fate of another well-known song, “Little Susan Lawrence,” is still up in the air.
Bobbitt and Frank sent the first cut to Maltby, Shire and librettist John Weidman, and soon found themselves in conference with the Broadway megastars. “They couldn’t have been more encouraging,” Bobbitt reports. They did a walk-through of the new script in New York, and then a three-day workshop in Milwaukee which went unusually well. “There were very few notes that there were any disagreements about,” he says.
“What an amazing opportunity for us,” Bobbitt enthuses. “This will be a huge contribution to children’s theater. I think that once this is where the writers feel like it’s finished, it will be produced all over the country. And we are super-close to that stage. We have ten months before rehearsals, and I think that we could go to rehearsal with this script.”
Bobbitt, who first established his Washington reputation as a choreographer, says “I particularly love the danceability of the score – there’s some really great grooves in the score, particularly the big scene in the toy store (where Josh meets the owner of the toy manufacturer, and the two end up dancing on a giant keyboard). – we’re going to dance this show.”
As much as Bobbitt loves the scene, though, he knows that it comes at a cost. “It’s expensive,” he concedes. “To play ‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ that keyboard has to go two and a half octaves, and every note must light up.” But to help handle the challenging expenses, Bobbitt has his First Stage co-producer…and hopes of a national tour. Twelve years ago, a national tour of the adult version under the direction of Signature mastermind Eric Schaeffer helped to restore the musical after a less-than-successful Broadway opening.
“I have to court booking agents to see what their interests are, but we’re optimistic that a national tour is possible.” Bobbitt notes that they are designing a set which can travel.
Some roles in the production, which premieres at Round House – Bethesda in July of 2012, have already been cast. Adventure Theatre mainstay Kurt Boehm will play Josh in his adult body; Susan will be played by Helen Hayes laureate Natascia Diaz, and the versatile Tracy McMullan will play Josh’s mom.
After its run at Round House, the new Big, The Musical will move to Milwaukee in autumn at First Stage. And after that…well, only Zoltar knows for sure.
But it looks like it’s going to be big.