'Big Fish' Producer Dan Jinks Relives the Triumph (and Trauma) of Producing a Broadway Musical (Guest Column)

10:00 AM PST 04/21/2014 by Dan Jinks
Illustration by: Koren Shadmi

It took the producer of "American Beauty" and "Pushing Daisies" 10 years to get the adaptation onstage, four months for it to close and a few days to write about his experience.

This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

I make my living producing movies and television, but on Oct. 6, 2013, I produced my first Broadway show, Big Fish.

It was one of the greatest nights of my life. There was a tremendous standing ovation at the end. Audience members still had tears in their eyes from the emotional last 15 minutes of the show. I had tears in my eyes because I knew how long it took to get to that moment.

I love producing movies and TV and feel quite fortunate to do what I do. But I've always been a big theater geek, and producing a Broadway show was a dream of mine.

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Standing there that night, I couldn't help but think about the long journey it took to get there. In December 2003, during a press junket for the movie Big Fish, which I produced with Bruce Cohen, screenwriter John August first suggested making it a musical.

What could possibly have taken so long? Well, it took around a year to find our songwriter, the incredibly talented Andrew Lippa. And then it took several years for John August and Andrew Lippa to come up with a version of the show that we felt was ready to bring to a director. New musicals take a while to write under any circumstances. Our process was perhaps slower because John and Andrew lived on different coasts.

Once we finally had a version of the show that we were happy with, it was time to find a director. Our first choice was SusanStroman. She is Broadway's top director/choreographer. Fortunately, she said yes.

Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, a man who tells larger-than-life tales that everyone loves, except his son. Finding the right star to play Edward Bloom turned out to be a more difficult part of the process. Unlike the movie, where the role of Edward is split between Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, in the stage version, one actor plays the whole part, making it a giant role for a leading man. For a time, Hugh Jackman was a real possibility. He did the first reading for us and was quite wonderful.

The reaction to the show at that first reading was extraordinary. Suddenly this show -- which, at times, had felt like a very expensive hobby -- was feeling very real.

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But, in the end, Jackman decided not to do it. It's tough for a movie star to commit to spending a year performing in a stage show, which is the minimum time for a new musical to pay back its investors. Michael C. Hall did a reading for us, but he was always committed to going back for a final season of Dexter. So, ultimately, we convinced ourselves that we didn't need a big Hollywood name; the show itself would be the star. We cast a Broadway star, two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, who was great in the part (as were co-stars Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert).

The hardest part of the job of producing a Broadway show was raising the money. I've produced seven feature films and four television shows and I've never had to raise a dime. This was a huge learning experience. I would never have made it without the help of my general manager, Wendy Orshan, and a wonderful co-producer named Roy Furman, who was a great mentor throughout the journey.

A challenge for any Broadway show is securing a theater. Fortunately, Nick Scandalios and Jimmy Nederlander of the Nederlander Organization came to a reading and fell in love with the show. They committed the Neil Simon Theatre, one of Broadway's best houses, many months before our opening night.

After a successful tryout in Chicago, where the reviews were very supportive, still more work was done on the show before previews began on Broadway this past September.

Finally, opening night arrived. My family had flown in, as well as several of my closest friends. Even my high school drama teacher flew in for the occasion.

The opening-night party was at Roseland, across the street from the theater. Around an hour or so into the party, our press agent, Michael Hartman, called me, Bruce Cohen and Bill Taylor, the other general partner, upstairs away from the festivities to read us the reviews. Some of the reviews were wonderful, but a few, including the all-powerful New York Times, were disappointing.

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This was a show without a big movie star and without a huge, easily promotable concept. We needed reviews. We plotted our course of action. We had already shot a new television commercial and quickly inserted some of the best quotes from critics into it. We planned a full-page ad in that week's Sunday edition of the Times. We did everything we could think of to keep the show going. But, sadly, we weren't selling enough tickets.

I flew from L.A. to New York to tell the cast after the Nov. 10 matinee that Big Fish would close at the end of the year. That was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do. People who had seen the show were confused as to why it was closing early. Frankly, I still find it confusing, and I saw the numbers.

As emotional as the opening night was, the closing was even more so. I expected it to be a great performance, with lots of crying onstage and in the audience. What I didn't expect was the huge number of fans in the theater, many who had seen the show several times already. They applauded everything. They applauded things that had never got a response before. It was heartwarming to be reminded how many people were greatly moved by this show.

So many friends came to see Big Fish during its Broadway run. Every night I'd receive emails, text messages, Facebook messages and even old-fashioned phone calls from people saying what a wonderful time they had.

I'm asked on a daily basis if I would do it again. I would. I loved this experience, and I'm incredibly proud of the show that played the Neil Simon Theatre this past fall. I loved working with Susan Stroman, Andrew Lippa and John August. I loved producing a show on Broadway.

Dan Jinks has produced films including American Beauty and Milk and such TV series as Pushing Daisies and Emily Owens, M.D.

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