Big hearts: ‘There’s a childlike quality to Dubliners’

The producer of ‘Big: The Musical’ believes the nature of Dublin people will make them amenable to his show

 

Michael Rose has been living in an all-singing, all-dancing world for more than 30 years, but even with his stellar background in musical theatre, the man appears to be straying into outlandish fantasy when he starts musing wistfully about Ireland and its people.

While talking about bringing Big: The Musical to Dublin for a Christmas run in the Bord Gáis Energy theatre, the producer expresses the view that the reimagining of a story that first entered our collective consciousness in cinemas in the 1980s, with a young Tom Hanks took the helm, will play particularly well in Ireland because of our “childlike” quality.

Faced with somewhat arched eyebrows from this writer, Rose continues. “Yes, I think there is a childlike – and I mean this in a very positive way – a childlike quality to the people of Dublin. That is why I firmly believe you came out of your recession faster than we did in the UK,” he says.

The eyebrows arch further. “People here kind of said, ‘Oh well, we will get on with life’,” he says. “There is a generosity of spirit over here in Dublin and that is why it is always very exciting to bring something like this, something that has such warmth and charm, because the people of Dublin will embrace it and take it to their hearts.”

Rose has clearly never heard of our national sport – begrudgery – and our willingness to complain about pretty much anything at the drop of a top hat and tails.

Sitting in the foyer of the theatre , he is clearly excited to be bringing Big to Dublin ahead of its West End premiere next year. The producer has previously travelled to the Daniel Liebeskind-designed theatre at Grand Canal Dock with White Christmas, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Elf: The Musical.

But perhaps more is at stake this time out, because if the musical, which is billed as being “for the Big kid in all of us”, is a hit in Dublin and then in London, Rose will be able to bring it back to Broadway, where it started out on its stage journey 20 years ago.

The trouble with the original

The musical by David Shire, Richard Maltby jnr and John Weidman was first staged in 1996. Although it was nominated for five Tonys, the original production lost money and its Broadway run was cut short. A revised version had a successful and critically acclaimed tour of the US.

“It wasn’t a massive success in 1996 on Broadway,” he says. But when the writers had another go for the US tour two years later, “it was a raging success, all five-star reviews,” he recalls. “In fact the Variety reviewer said: ‘Why the hell did didn’t we have this on Broadway instead of what we initially had’. They kind of rushed into it for the Broadway production, and it has kind of scared people off ever since.

“The book and a lot of the songs are totally different to the production that was on Broadway. It almost like a completely different musical and rightly so because it’s a very simple story and what they tried to do was to turn it into something that it wasn’t. The story was dwarfed by these massive sets. I’m not saying we’re not going to have big sets – we are, there is no question of that because there are so many various locations – but [we] never lost sight of what was the heart of the story.”

The comedy, about a 12-year-old boy who hates being little and whose wish to be big is granted, has been revised yet again for its new run with Jay McGuinness, a Strictly Come Dancing champion and singer with boy band The Wanted, in the lead role. Diana Vickers plays Susan Lawrence and Gary Wilmot plays George MacMillan while The Hoosiers star Irwin Sparkes plays Paul.

It is not a Christmas story, but Rose believes Christmas is an appropriate time for it to make its revamped return, “because it is so family-orientated. I think it has a wide demographic and is a happy story, and what we want to hear at Christmas time is a bit of happiness, unlike the 6 o’clock or the 10 o’clock news that we get these days. I think Big is a great reminder of all that is good in humanity. I think we really need reminding of that.”

Universal appeal

He believes the musical will have universal appeal because children want to be grown up, and adults want to be kids. “Kids who are coming up to their teens have all those desires; ‘Why can’t I be big? Why can’t I stay up to watch such and such on TV? Why can’t I go to the funfair or learn to drive? When is my first girlfriend going to come along?”

Meanwhile, adults who know better what it is to have all that autonomy also know that we can’t “run away from situations any more. As kids we can run back to mum and dad, we can run and hide, we can say ‘I’m just a kid’. But when you become an adult you have to face up to the responsibilities of life.”

Big is not Roses’s only reworking of a beloved film. He also staged Once in London, although it took him a while to be convinced of its stage potential. “I have to say I wasn’t a great fan of the movie and I was very sceptical until I went over to Broadway to see it. And I thought, Jesus this works better on stage then it ever did in the medium of film. It is interesting how different things happen and the emotional impact varies depending on which medium it is.”

It is nearly 30 years since the film first appeared, but even people who saw it back then and have only the sketchiest of memories of the plot will probably remember the keyboard scene: when Hanks dances on a piano mat in a department store. The scene has been repeatedly referenced in everything from The Simpsons to The Late Late Show ever since.

The scene is pivotal to the musical, too. “ I think the stage floor cost more than I usually spend on an entire musical,” Rose says. “It was hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the whole front of the stage transforms into this piano keyboard at the end of the show.”

Another climax and “one of the most magical moments” will see the grown-up Josh morph back into the child Josh at the very end. “We are going to attempt to do it in a very magical way,” says Rose. “We will see the transformation on stage, which I think is going to be quite an illusion and quite spectacular as well as emotionally riveting.”

No pressure, then? Rose laughs. “I try not to think about that, because if I thought about that too much I would probably have a panic attack. I’m not panicking about this because I just see it working. I think the timing is right. I think the material is strong. I think the story has such a great appeal and I think it is going to excite a really, really wide demographic and is going to make them feel warm and fuzzy. What more do you want?”

Big: The Musical is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin until January 7th

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