The Big Fish musical that Andrew Lippa and I wrote has been staged hundreds of times across the US. Logistics are all handled by our licensing company, which provides the script, score and other materials. Usually, the only time Andrew and I hear about a given production is when someone tags us in Instagram.
Occasionally, however, something comes up that merits our getting involved. This is one of those cases.
This week we learned that an upcoming production of BIG FISH at the Palisade Playhouse in Pittsburgh has been canceled over a disagreement between the director and the theatre. Specifically, the director planned to include a same-sex couple as part of the background action during the song “Stranger.”
In defending their decision, the theatre argues that, “the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community.” That’s correct; nowhere in the script does it say that any character is gay or lesbian or trans. But nor does it say they aren’t. A director’s decision to signal that two silent characters are same-sex parents isn’t changing the text. It’s providing context and framing. It’s directing.
BIG FISH is a musical about parenthood, family and love. These are shared experiences of all human beings.
The theatre continues: “This added moment of focus created questions about whether the director’s addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.”
Which feels another way of saying, “We didn’t want to risk offending anyone.”
And look, we get it. BIG FISH has been produced hundreds of times in the U.S. in part because it’s so family-friendly and unlikely to offend. There’s no sex or violence. In some cases, we will allow for words to be changed or omitted. We do this because we want as many people as possible to get to experience it – both as an audience and as part of a production.
But “family-friendly” shouldn’t mean ignoring reality. Let’s remember that in America there are all kinds of families, including ones with two dads, two moms, people of all gender identity, color and creed. Family-friendly is something bigger than it once was.
This notion of “thinking bigger” is something Big Fish’s hero Edward Bloom would certainly endorse. After all, his friends include a giant, a witch and a werewolf.
When we see #bigfishmusical videos on Instagram of high schools doing Be The Hero, it reminds us that the show we wrote inevitably changes with every production, every player, every choice. That’s theater. It exists only because people come together to put on a show.
We’re sorry the show won’t go on at Palisade Playhouse, but look forward to working with the director and company to find a new home for their production.
- John August and Andrew Lippa