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Northwestern alumna Kate Baldwin stars in musical adaptation of ‘Big Fish’

Sam Freedman, Writer

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In fall 2011, Kate Baldwin (Communication ’97) went in to read for what would become one of the most high-profile roles of her career.

The part was a lead in “Big Fish,” a musical adaptation of the beloved novel by Daniel Wallace that had already been cinematically adapted by Tim Burton in 2003. Baldwin has been living with it ever since.

Directed by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman with a book by John August (who also penned Burton’s adaptation), “Big Fish” is staging its world premiere at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre from April 2 to May 5 before it opens on Broadway in early October. It tells the  tale of Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz), a larger-than-life man whose elaborate stories of his adventures earn only skepticism from his son Will (Bobby Steggert).

A Tony nominee, Baldwin was selected to play Bloom’s wife, Sandra.

“It’s a fantastic story,” she said. “It’s a constant reexamination of what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a child and what it means to understand somebody you’re supposed to know really well.”

Though she hasn’t had a chance to speak to Albert Finney or Jessica Lange, who played the older Mr. and Mrs. Bloom in the film — “It’d be my dream!” she said — Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the producers on the show, had also produced Burton’s adaptation. Between their involvement and that of John August, Baldwin has been surrounded in “Big Fish” the musical by many of the same names that surrounded Lange in “Big Fish” the film.

“(The process has been) incredibly rewarding — and moving,” she said.

Some of Baldwin’s most formative years as an actress and musician were spent at Northwestern, where she served as a vivacious member of the theater community.

“I loved going to Northwestern,” she said. “I think the most valuable thing I got from acting class at Northwestern was how to observe other people, how to get outside of yourself — the idea that the way to build a character is to look for that person in the world around you.”

But Baldwin’s theatrical explorations certainly didn’t end at the classroom.

“I did, like, 17 shows while I was at Northwestern,” she said. “I was a beast — I was kind of an animal about it. It was too much for me, but what was great about it is I just immersed myself and really went for it. I made it a goal to work with everyone on the faculty and to perform in every space there: the Barber, the black box, Cahn Auditorium, Shanley Pavilion. I did a show everywhere, just to find out what that felt like.”

Baldwin graduated from NU in 1997 and went on to receive a Tony nomination in 2010 for her performance in “Finian’s Rainbow.” After that, her career kicked into overdrive.

“Forever, your name is ‘Tony Nominee Kate Baldwin,’” she said. “You always have that title … It has opened doors for me to get to work on things like ‘Big Fish.’ All of the sudden, you’re kind of put on the map in a way that you weren’t before.”

She remains humble about the distinction, though.

“To be honest, it means something very big to a very small group of people,” she quipped. “(But) I’m so lucky and so grateful, and it definitely changed my life.”

Musical theater is an art Baldwin has always been closely attached to.

“I’ve always loved music,” she said. “The story that my mother tells is that when I was five or six, she and my dad went away for a weekend and I stayed with close college friends of theirs. When she came back … her friend said, ‘Well, she’s a hummer. She hums everywhere, she sings all the time.’ It didn’t occur to my mother that other 5-year-old girls didn’t do that.”

And if music was Baldwin’s passion, theater was her escape.

“It was a way to experience life that I didn’t get to experience growing up in Wisconsin,” she said. “I was a good student, and I was a beautiful daughter, and I was a good kid, but to take that away and pretend to be the dictator of Argentina (in “Evita”) for a couple hours a day was thrilling. You could get mad at people, and you could cry and you could sort of experience life in a safe environment. And music seemed like a logical way to express myself.”

Despite her natural tendency toward musical theater, no part is an easy ride for Baldwin. She says she enjoys finding the particular challenge in each role, whether it’s a particularly difficult scene or song or character nuance.

“I think with every character, I try to find a way to keep looking at it,” she said. “I’ve come to a point now, luckily, where I can go onstage and treat each night as an experiment.”

Though she’s considering trying out film in the future, the stage is where her heart ultimately resides.

“Musical theater really is my first love, and I think will always be my first love,” she said. “I’ve been hesitant to loosen my grip on that.”

It’s not her only first love, however. Baldwin gave birth to her son Colin James in April 2011.

“It’s joy,” she said of raising him. “It’s complete and utter, astonishing, fantastic joy — just to see the world through a new person’s eyes is an incredible thing.”

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