Deep Waters

8.29.2013

By Jerry Portwood

Bobby Steggert navigates stormy father-son relations in the Southern epic musical 'Big Fish.'

Photography by Jeaneen Lund

Yesterday, Bobby Steggert was starring opposite Tyne Daly in the final performance of a Bucks County, Penn., production of Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons. Tomorrow, he’ll be halfway to Thailand for a much-needed vacation with friends. Today, however, he sits on the stump of an ancient tree in Inwood Park, a leafy oasis just a few blocks from his apartment in a corner of upper Manhattan, a spot few visiting Broadway fans will ever set foot in.

“It’s a survival instinct,” Steggert says of his choice to put down roots in the neighborhood. “Living here was my solution to not going crazy in this city, not letting the energy swallow me.” His remote perch allows him to take walks and decompress from his hectic schedule. But the bucolic setting is also almost too perfect given his latest — and biggest — role yet, as the lead in this fall’s lush, country-set Broadway musical Big Fish (previews begin Sept. 5, opening October 6 at N.Y.C.’s Neil Simon Theatre).

Based on Daniel Wallace’s Odyssey-inspired 1998 book, which was given the big-screen treatment by Tim Burton in 2003, the Southern Gothic fantasy centers on the strained relationship between tall-tale–telling Edward Bloom (Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz) and Will (Steggert), his frustrated, grown-up son who’s determined to uncover the truth of his father’s past. With direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, a score by Andrew Lippa, and myriad eye-popping visuals, this version mixes fairytale with existentialism, and has all the trappings of a hit.

The role also marks Steggert’s most mature, complex portrayal to date. Up until his turn as a gay dad in Mothers and Sons—"I think it's a gay actor's responsibility to give full-blooded life to gay characters"—the 32-year-old actor spent years starring in coming-of-age stories. He played a conflicted gay soldier in the Off-Broadway World War II musical Yank! and earned a Tony nom for his performance in the 2009 revival of McNally’s Ragtime. His work in the latter actually inspired the four-time Tony-winning scribe to write a role for him in Mothers. “Now I’m playing men dealing with adult issues,” Steggert says.

Though he admits to being drawn to the gorgeous effects and cinematography when he originally saw the movie, it’s the story, of a father on his deathbed reconciling with his son, that has him in thrall. “As a teen, I didn’t consider what it might be like to have to say goodbye to a parent,” Steggert explains. “Now, in the show, I have to watch my dad die every night. It’s what’s terrifying and beautiful about this musical.”

Luckily, Steggert has a strong rapport with his own father. “When my dad saw Big Fish during the trial run in Chicago, he was a wreck at the end,” Steggert says. “He said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do that.’ It’s scary, but sharing the experience with him helps.”

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