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‘Big Fish’ Creators Blast Pittsburgh Theater for Canceling Musical Over Gay Dads in Chorus

“‘Family-friendly’ shouldn’t mean ignoring reality,” composer Andrew Lippa and script writer John August say

Andrew Lippa and John August, the composer and script writer of the 2013 Broadway musical “Big Fish,” have blasted the decision by a Pittsburgh theater to cancel an upcoming production because of the director’s plan to include a same-sex couple and their child in one of the show’s production numbers.

“‘Family-friendly’ shouldn’t mean ignoring reality,” Lippa and August said in a joint statement to TheWrap on Thursday.  “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.”

August and Lippa made the statement after they learned that the Palisade Playhouse in Pittsburgh had halted the production following the resignation of director Nik Nemec and several cast members. Nemec quit when he clashed with playhouse producers over how to include a gay family in the background of a song.

Lippa and August added, “Specifically, the director planned to include a same-sex couple as part of the background action during the song ‘Stranger.'”

The Playhouse producers had been working on “Big Fish” for a run starting June 15, but announced on Facebook a month before opening that it was halting the production.

“The decision to cancel ‘Big Fish’ comes on the heels of a dispute between the director and co-founding producers over how to proactively insert representation of an LGBT+ family despite the fact that the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community,” read the May 15 statement posted on Facebook.

“The script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community,” said August and Lippa in their statement. “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,” added August and Lippa.

“Big Fish” is based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and was also adapted in a 2003 movie starring Ewan McGregor and directed by Tim Burton.  The story centers on a frustrated son who tries to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father’s life.

Initially, the producers had agreed to let Nemec include the gay family with two fathers walking across the stage in the background where Will Bloom sings about becoming a father for the first time. However, when Nemec changed the blocking of the scene so that Will focused more on the two fathers, the producers protested the blocking because it “created a question about whether the director’s addition would convey a message about gay marriage that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.”

Read the Palisades Playhouse facebook statement, followed by the response by August and Lippa.

It is with deep sadness that Palisade Playhouse announces a decision to halt production of the upcoming musical “Big Fish”.

The decision to cancel “Big Fish” comes on the heels of a dispute between the director and co-founding producers over how to proactively insert representation of an LGBT+ family despite the fact that the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community.

In an effort to show genuine acceptance and welcome all, an initial compromise had been made upfront to include two gay fathers holding a baby and walking across stage as part of a scene with a bustling park setting. The direction shifted with blocking and scene direction that would have created an additional moment of reflection between the lead character and the gay parents during an emotionally charged song about the feelings of becoming a father for the first time. This added moment of focus created question 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.

As a result of the dispute, the director resigned and some cast members followed, creating a divide between the producers, directors, cast and crew, and igniting a fiery discussion on social media in the days following. Additionally, a campaign to disparage the reputation of the Playhouse emerged, and it soon became clear that working in harmony to produce the show on time and within budget would no longer be possible. Without the ability to move forward as planned, the Playhouse will face a significant financial loss and face the possibility of closing permanently.

Since its founding in July 2016, people of all different walks of life and with diverse views and beliefs have existed harmoniously and cooperatively within the Playhouse. Throughout this time, the Playhouse successfully produced a variety of family-friendly musicals, a host of choir concerts and events, and was fully immersed in the current 2018 season of shows, concerts and events. All shows were produced and planned with the intention to be welcoming to all, regardless of personal beliefs and views. Many people in the area had happily received the benefit of these offerings.

Palisade Playhouse’s founders grieve with those who feel hurt by this decision, but also grieve because of the intolerance and the spite with which they were treated as well. Palisade Playhouse remains true to its founding ideals, and for that reason, Palisade maintains the need as an organization to maintain a level of neutrality on this issue and many other issues, so that all people may feel welcome.

- Palisade Playhouse

Read August and Lippa’s statement below:

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