Big is a big, splashy musical filled with magic, romance, and the rare opportunity to choreograph for very young dancers. The process of creating Big was fun for me because of those eager, dynamic, dancing tweens. We called them the “Big Kids.”
Our comedy fantasy tale begins at a carnival and a mysterious Fortune Teller machine. The lead character, 12-year-old Josh, impulsively makes a wish – “I wish I was big!” Magically his wish is granted and the young boy wakes up to find himself trapped in the body of an adult.
During our production meetings, my accomplished collaborators John Weidman, David Shire, Richard Maltby, and Mike Ockrent talked about myths and wishes as a major theme in our play. Most people would love to wish their way out of life’s painful chapters rather than deal with the tedious process of working through them. Young Josh has a primal myth – he wants to skip the difficult years of adolescence and get to what he perceives as the easy part of life: adulthood. But as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
For research, the team read Erick Erickson’s book Identity: Youth and Crisis. Erickson, who coined the phrase “identity crisis”, focuses on psychosocial development during adolescence – the transition from childhood to adulthood being the most important. His psychosocial theory looks at how social influences contribute to our personalities throughout our entire life.
I was also observing real 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds out in the world – at malls in New Jersey, at schools, in dance studios, out playing games. Watching how these adolescents used their bodies to communicate, their physicality, influenced a lot of my choreography in the show. The handshake between Young Josh (Patrick Levis) and his best friend Billy (Brett Tabisel) is filled with gestures both rhythmic and comic that illuminate their close bond – a highly choreographed pact that they alone share like blood brothers.
On one of my expeditions I saw a group of 13-year-olds at a food court and listened as they slid their plastic straws in and out of their cups, making noise. I developed that idea into a musical moment for a scene with all the kids on stage – they meet up, each kid carrying a soda, and soon one of them starts to play a squeaky rhythm before they all join in, creating a percussive dance break with their cups and straws.
The kids we hired for the show were outstanding dancers with more discipline than many older actors I’ve worked with. They were highly trained in various forms of dance, they could all sing and were serious about their acting and keen to learn more. I adored working with them, as did the rest of the team. They ended up being the real backbone of the show.
It was while rehearsing the “Skateboard Ballet” that the “Big Kids” began clicking their wrist guards together and chanting, which inspired me to create the “Happy Birthday Rap”. The “Skateboard Ballet” was a number I plotted into three sections. The first time we see the boys and the girls they are dancing in separate groups, never mixing. Later they begin to clump together – not like dates, just boys and girls gathering together. In the last section, they start to pair up – a young girl sweetly rides off with a young boy on the back of his skateboard. The ballet is a reflection of a 13-year-old’s transition into early adulthood. What makes it more poignant is Adult Josh is there to witness it all, coming to realize all the important and wonderful parts of being a kid that he’s missing.
Daniel Jenkins jumped in wholeheartedly to play Adult Josh. He would hang with the “Big Kids” during breaks and you could see him observe and absorb every characteristic and mannerism. All through the show, this great actor convinced us he was actually a boy trapped inside a man.
In our show, the adults move differently than the children. The children dance with abandon at all times, whereas the adults never dance – except for the moments when an adult is tapping into his inner child. In the number called “Fun”, Adult Josh begins to dance on a large piano keyboard in the fabulous FAO Schwartz set designed by the incomparable Robin Wagner. The kids in the store join in and the movement becomes infectious, even the adults hop on the giant keyboard and copy the kids.
The character Susan (Christa Moore) only starts to dance when she remembers being 13. She realizes she has lost her inner child, going from a happy young girl to a dissatisfied adult. In her scene with Adult Josh where they brainstorm an idea for a new toy, he prompts her to remember what she was like as a child. She sings a song called “Dancing All the Time” and immediately the movement and gestures of her younger self return.
During pre-production, Mike Ockrent said “I love the underlying idea – exploring the life force that changes you when you are 13.” He asked the whole creative team, “What was it like when you were thirteen?” Each answer was a window into the personalities of my fellow collaborators. I answered, “I was happy. I was dancing and laughing all the time. When I danced, I felt like I could literally fly – music and dancing made me feel indestructible.” Our talk turned out to be very productive. The next day Maltby and Shire came in with a song called “Dancing All the Time”, basing the upbringing of the Susan character on their impressions of my background.
I WAS LAUGHING ALL THE TIME
I WAS DANCING ALL THE TIME
I HAD ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
HOW THAT LITTLE GIRL SLIPPED BY
HOW THAT STREAM OF DREAMS RUN DRY
SOMEWHERE IN MY TEENS
I SEEM TO LOSE THE MEANS TO FLY
MY, WHAT I'D GIVE
TO BE LAUGHING ALL THE TIME
TO BE DANCING ALL THE TIME
AND HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
How honored I was to have been an inspiration to songwriters like Maltby and Shire. I had admired them since I first heard their show “Starting Here Starting Now”. I played that album to death.
Time was another important theme. “Stop Time” sung by Josh’s mother (Barbara Walsh) is about struggling to hang on to your child as you watch him grow and change. Susan realizes she has lost time, and a happy life, because of her wish to climb the corporate ladder. And Josh recognizes there's much more to being an adult than he ever imagined. He learns we all must grow up at our own pace, in our own time.
Richard, David, Mike, John, and I loved being in the trenches together. The “Big Kids” made us laugh and we noted the significance of our own childhood. We were reminded of how short life is and to cherish every chapter. Each of us tapped into our own inner child while we were together and recognized that every once in a while, it’s good to see the world through the eyes of a child.
Book by John Weidman
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Based on the film by 20th Century Fox, Written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg
Direction by Mike Ockrent
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Robin Wagner
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Paul Gallo
Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy
Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani
The Shubert Theatre
Premiere: April 28, 1996
Full Credits: IBDb