Inside the Big Fish talkback: A discussion with stars Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggart about Broadway’s biggest new musical

Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggart

Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggart

Social media might be the way of the future but sometimes a tweet can’t capture all of the insight and magic of a conversation. So, when the people at Big Fish were kind enough to invite Stage Door Dish to participate with their 3030 Event which allowed some lucky fans the opportunity to see Big Fish and participate in a talkback with stars Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggart, we set out to fully capture the event with live tweets, photos and a full transcript from the Q&A.

Just days from opening on Broadway, scheduled for Oct. 6, Big Fish has already made a splash following their Chicago tryout. The new musical, by John August and Andrew Lippa, has the whole theatre community is buzzing with anticipation for what is seen to be as one of this fall’s biggest hits.

Bobby Steggert, who plays Will, the curious, if not skeptical son of Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kate Baldwin, who plays Sandra, the mother to Steggert’s character and loving wife of the larger-than-life Edward. At the talkback the pair spoke about everything from their own parents to the show’s long road to Broadway, the film’s influence in the stage production and more.  

Q: Perhaps to get started, in lieu of introductions, perhaps one of you could describe your process in Big Fish and what is has been like leading up to this point?

Kate Baldwin: Sure! My name is Kate. My first introduction to Big Fish was in the fall of 2011. I got a call to do a workshop for a reading for the two-week rehearsal process. The writers were trying out material and the producers were trying to figure out how it was all going to be put together. Ever since then I’ve been lucky enough to be asked back every single time. And now we’re here and we’re at the end of a really long preview experience, they finally stopped writing the show yesterday.

Bobby Steggert: I auditioned about a year ago. It was really intensive. Susan Stroman is really meticulous. She doesn’t cast someone off of just a whim. I went to a bunch of auditions and then had to audition with Norbert for a chemistry read to see if we looked right together and if we had the right energy together, so I was cast in it about a year ago. We went to Chicago this spring. It was very challenging, with a lot of ups and a lot of downs, but thank god we did because what we have here is a really strong show that we’re really proud of, so here we are.

Q: What were the biggest changes to the show?

KB: I’d say the first 20 minutes of the show got rewritten almost entirely. The opening song used to be Edward Bloom telling a story to young Will about getting swallowed by a fish and losing his wedding ring and what that meant and all the kind of stuff. It was revised and the version that we have now is more about setting the tone for the evening and talking about the larger themes of storytelling and being the star of your own story.

BS: The big balancing act that they had is that they had to establish these two men as likable people. It was hard to have a protagonist like Edward, who is so loveable, and then a son who really just wants to know the truth. That’s risky because he doesn’t have the same material that the father has to give him point of view. That’s why that new song “Stranger” gives an understandable perspective to the son. That’s the balancing act that we had.

KB: Right, because the second part of the show used to be a big argument between Edward and Will, really angry and this really amazing song that I hope we do in a concert. It was great we had a whole orchestra with it. The question in everyone’s mind was, ‘Why are they still mad? I don’t understand.’ The story needed to be fleshed out and the relationship between them needed to be fleshed out. We needed to see them like each other and then fall apart with the reveal of the wedding.

Q: So I’m a writer and I follow John August and I heard him talking about constantly adding new lines, and punch lines and whatnot through out the show. What challenges did you guys have to go through in all of that?

BS: The challenge is that with the previews you have to be of two minds. You have to be entirely emotionally present to give an authentic performance and you have a list of things that we need to get done through the show every time. Sometimes we’ll come to rehearsal and they’ll have added 15 new pages. You have to be using two different parts of your brain all at the same time.

KB: The challenge is to just go into everything with all you’ve got and to believe in it from the start and not think about what the audience is going to want. It’s really nice when someone says, ‘Oh hey, that’s great, keep it,’ but you guys always just let us know what’s working and what doesn’t run after that.

BS: It’s really not our job so see what works and that doesn’t. We can’t see it and be in it, so we’ve just got to sell it. Stroman is the person who ultimately determines that.

Q: What is your character’s perspective?

KB: Edward Bloom is the love of my life. His story and his imagination are so much a huge part of him and I think that’s part of why I love him. Likewise, the child that I have wants to see the world for what it really is so I am quite torn between the two people that I love most. My first song is about trying to get them to understand that no matter what, they are family. I’ve got to try and be the peacemaker.

Q: When did you know you were a part of something really, really special?

BS: When you do a run-through for a bunch of rich people and they’re crying like babies, you think, ‘Okay, you’ve seen a lot and it’s as if you just lost your cover. This is going to hit people pretty universally.’

Q: I’m sure you all, with different shows, approach characters differently so do you have and pre-show rituals that you do or any backstage traditions?

KB: Pre-show rituals? No, just drink a ton of water.

BS: Usually just try and sleep and drink water.

KB: And watch Orange Is The New Black in my dressing room. We’re super professional.

Q: So Bobby, you had tweeted that you never want to take a job without Kate Baldwin in it.

BS: We’re doing two new projects together.

KB: I’m not playing his mother, so it’s a step up!

BS: That will be four things in one year. It’s kind of crazy! The universe sort of conspires that way.

KB: If you put our headshots next to each other, you start thinking, ‘Well we do kind of look alike.’

Q: When are you guys doing a cabaret together?

BS: Oh my god, my dream is to sing a duet with her. I would love that.

Q: As someone who is currently in college as an actor and wants to eventually peruse the same career that you guys are currently doing right now, how do you transition out of school into the field and then into a show?

BS: It’s so individual. The bigger answer is an annoying answer that it’s not very practical is more abstract. Always be vigilant about expressing your own point of view and being yourself. It’s a cliché, but if you’re steadfast in who you are then people will respond to you more. Never try and be anything but yourself.

KB: That goes along the lines of what I was going to say. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Just do your thing and do what you do. If nobody is casting you, make up your own play and do it. Do what you do, and keep on the lookout. I always think it’s good to keep learning and to know that when you’re out of school. Your learning doesn’t stop. It’s really great to find a teacher or two that you trust or a peers that you trust and say, ‘Can you do this scene with me?’ or ‘Can I sing this song with you?’ They help you think. It helps you continue the learning process, and I still do that because that’s important.

Q: Have you found that the show has affected your relationship with your parents at all?

KB: Yes, for sure.

BS: My dad really is like Edward Bloom. I’m Bobby and he’s called ‘Big Bob’ in our family. It’s because he has this huge personality and he really just takes all of the oxygen out of the room in a really kind of wonderful way. Like Edward Bloom, as frustrated as I get with him, he’s the reason I’m successful because he always believed that anything was possible. He doesn’t really have insecurity. He just struts out in the world in this really magical way. It’s helped me to integrate that frustration into under-appreciation for my own father.

KB: I think about it in a different sense with my parents because I play so many different ages in the show, from 17 to 60 something. My parents are 60 something, so I watch them and how they move and how they talk and I think about the aging process. It’s such a downer but it’s the truth. I feel connected to the universe in a way and time in a way and this show makes me think about those relationships. It makes me think about how special they are and how we’re only here for a short time and how everything is temporary.

Q: I have a question for Bobby. Your character is sort of the one who tries to bring down the illusion. Did you ever wonder if your character would be construed as a villain?

BS: Absolutely, but I’m a smart enough actor to know that you need a conflict in a play for it to exist. I have always operated from a place of love and a desire to understand, and I just have to trust that that will always come across. Will just has to understand that his dad was really always gone and was never very level with him ever. With that comes a real resentment that I can completely understand. I think the reconciliation is what is really important in this piece. If he’s a villain, so be it, but I think he’s one with a really strong point of view.

KB: I think that the genius part of casting someone like Bobby is that Bobby walks on stage and you immediately like him and trust him. You know that he’s smart and he has a good heart. Ninety percent of the work is done by who he is.

Q: Big Fish is an iconic movie. Were there any fears you had knowing you were stepping into that world and these characters?

KB: Yes, because the film is so Tim Burton-y. It has that underlying creepy mysterious thing about it. Musicals, by nature, are rather sunny, so that’s a contrast. Once I figured that out I thought, ‘Oh, we’re doing something completely different. We don’t necessarily need to feel in the shadow.’ But Jessica Lang? Come on. I felt intimidation about all of that. Once I realized that we were doing our version where a giant fish pops out, that kind of just falls away.

BS: It’s so different that we are free to look at if from new eyes.

Q: So much of the show is about the tales you’re told as you grow up. Did you guys have any particular tales that you have jumped off of or thought about for inspiration? Anything that your parents told you?

KB: My parents had story about how they met in college and all that kind of stuff that seemed more entertaining to me as a kid and seemed movie-esque. The Edward Bloom figure in my life was my mother’s father. He was a salesman and he had a way of drawing everyone to him and making everyone in the room love him. He made everyday things special. He would tip the waitresses because they were friendly. He would say, ‘We’ll give her a quarter because she was friendly’ or ‘We’ll give her a dime because the food was on time.’ This was back in seventies. Until I was seventeen, I thought that was how you tipped someone. He was the kind of person who made everyday things into something special and interesting.

Q: Had you guys seen the movie before you got called in for these roles?

KB: I saw the movie in the theaters about ten years ago. It was the one thing at the time that my boyfriend, who is now my husband, could take his mother to. It appealed to everybody and I think it still does. It’s a story that appeals to everybody who has parents and that’s all of us.

Q: Along that same line, Sandra is a terribly empathetic character and is the glue that holds the family together. Did you draw on your mother or motherly figures in your life?

KB: All of the mothers that I know hold it together for their families. More so, I looked at Southern women because I’m from the Midwest and we say what we think and are very flat about it all. Southern women have this wonderful way of dancing around it all and softening the edges and dripping with honey. That was my challenge, to not go, ‘This is what you have to do.’ I know so many mothers who keep it all together, but the challenge for me was the Southern part.

Q: How long do your contracts allow you to stay?

BS: Leads usually are a year and ensemble is usually six months.

Q: Fabulous.

BS: It’s both daunting and wonderful. If the show does survive, we’re very lucky to have jobs and it’s also like, ‘Shit, we have to remain in this headspace for a year.’

Q: Is every show like that?

BS: Every show has that question. We have no idea.

Q: When I was in the show, one thing I noticed was that there are a lot of moments where there are these big, audible laughs. There’s so much that I assume you can respond to from the stage. There were also some beautiful quiet moments where I noticed the people around me dabbing their eyes. As an actor, how do you receive those moments? Is that something you feel from the stage?

BS: What’s more powerful to me than the laughter is the pin drop silence in those hospital scenes. When I can feel the entire audience unable to breathe in that moment, I know that we have that. That’s more powerful to me than laughter.

Q: Will you do a soundtrack with the original songs?

BS: In a couple of weeks, we will.

Q: I was knocked out by the act two opening number. What was the process in developing that USO style?

KB: I can tell you that two years ago, it was a march but now it’s a swing number. It was really red, white, and blue. Stroman wanted to make it a sexier, swing jazz thing. It was always a fabulous tap number and always what you think of when you think of Susan Stroman. It’s a bunch of girls with amazing legs and beautiful smiles dancing. That was the jumping off point for it. I think the idea for the scene came later, that they would have a rumble in the middle and the goofiness that comes along with that.

Q: Whose idea was that, to reveal the orchestra?

KB: I think that it was Stroman and the set designer from the beginning. In Chicago, we revealed the orchestra at the top of the show, so that you always knew they were there. They were there also there at the top of the show but now they’ve chosen to save it until act two, which is great.

Q: I think the sets are one of the things that make the show so magical. How have the sets changed since you started until now? Is that a constant evolution?

KB: It’s gotten more detailed, I think. The tree grows.

BS: The projections have become more prominent, but the physical stuff is designed so far in advance that the set pieces that they planned and the ones we actually use are the same.

KB: I love the set because there’s a balance between hard and soft. There’s the hard structure of the barn with its rough wood. Then you’ve got the soft projection over it that makes it malleable. It can feel like water, it can feel like trees. It can feel like a forest. I think it’s genius. I love it.

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