There’s a particular creeping dread I get when watching stage adaptations of well-known movies. My shoulders start creeping up around my ears, a little voice in my head whispers …it’s coming…
In Big, the musical adaptation of the beloved 1988 film, it is a giant piano. A giant floor piano that you jump on to play. Well, that Tom Hanks jumps on to play. It’s the most iconic scene in the film, probably, and one that plunks onto the Dominion’s stage with an air of resigned inevitability. Yes, it’s time for the piano. Yes, we have to applaud for the piano. Even though it’s not even a real piano, even though there’s obviously no danger of an actual mistake because some pit musician is the one actually playing a piano. Could they really not just get a real floor piano? Have one iota of risk, one glimpse of the thrill of liveness where something might go wrong so it’s all the more exciting and impressive when it doesn’t?
But Big is, I guess, too much of a big, glossy studio musical for that. Based on a movie with literal magic. About a child who magically turns into an adult and then teaches all the adults around him about finding their inner child. About how adults can’t successfully make enjoyable things for children—or indeed lead enjoyable lives themselves—if they lose track of the genuine love of play that animated them in their youth.
And listen. As a critic, it is not lost on me how easily that exact story could be told about the work I’m doing here. The crusty critic needs to stop being such a cynic and rediscover the joy of theatre. But it’s because I love theatre—I swear—that something like Big makes me feel so cynical. There is one truly exciting, surprising theatrical moment at the very end of the show, and at no other point does it feel like any particular thought has gone into why or how to turn this movie into a musical.
The most egregious but telling example of this lack of thought comes at the end of the first act. One of the plot points from the film that is probably best glossed over is the fact that child-in-an-adult-body Josh acquires an actual-adult girlfriend. They kiss. It is all but stated that they have sex. The song before they kiss for the first time is the first act finale, where the boss of the toy company Josh finds a job at encourages his employees to connect with their children in order to make better toys. The metaphor he chooses for this, the title of the song itself, is ‘Cross the Line.’ Cross the line?! Why would you even suggest that phrase, why even plant that seed in our minds, immediately before a grown woman and essentially a twelve-year-old child kiss?!?! Did anyone spend a single second thinking about this show?!
I’m struggling to find evidence that anyone did. The songs all sound vaguely alike, and come so thick and fast it’s sometimes hard to tell if you’re hearing a reprise or a new song. There’s no particular logic to when and how they are deployed—some are traditional ballads expressing a character’s inner turmoil, some are just exposition, at least two are completely inexplicable. The bland melodies and lyrics don’t create any really distinct sense of character, so every song just comes off as oddly perfunctory, never really advancing our understanding of the people we’re meant to care about.
When I told friends I was going to see a musical version of Big, several people asked me why on earth anyone would make that into a musical. I think it’s a pairing of story and medium that could make perfect sense. The heightened world of musical theatre, with emotions and ideas exploded into the unrealistic medium of song, is perfect for a story with such a larger-than-life (if you’ll forgive the pun) premise. Songs could express the wonder and terror of seeing and experiencing the adult world through a child’s eyes. They don’t.
I know making musicals is really, really hard. The cast works really, really hard. But they’re laboring against material that feels like it was thrown together by a focus group, half pastiche of basically every musical you’ve ever seen and half live shadow-cast of the movie. I’d feel more generous if there were just a hint that this project was animated by the values its story espouses. You know, fun. Play. Love.
Big the Musical is on at Dominion Theatre until 2nd November. More info and tickets here.