William Daly with Alexander Gemignani, who plays Will’s father in the musical ‘Big Fish’ at the Marriott Theatere. (Joe Mazza/Brave Lux )

One River Forest 13-year-old is making a big splash in the theater world. William Daly will be performing alongside Broadway stars as Young Will in the Marriott Theatre production of the musical Big Fish.

Based on the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel, “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions,” and its 2003 film adaptation, the musical examines the tense relationship between a boy named Will and his dying father, whose fantastical life stories amused Will as a child but later led to their fractured bond. 

“The show is just filled with such magic,” Daly gushed.

With his father now facing the end of his life and Will approaching fatherhood himself, the adult protagonist wants to know the truth in his father’s tales. Unraveling fact from fiction, the story plays out along two timelines: the present day and his father’s storybook past. The latter is where Daly’s character comes into play. 

“The character of Young Will in ‘Big Fish’ is critical because he lets the audience see the genesis of a young man’s strained relationship with his father,” said Henry Godinez, who is directing the musical.

William Daly (Joe Mazza/Brave Lux )

As he is still a child, Daly shares the role with another boy, but he doesn’t view his counterpart as competition. Quite the opposite actually.

“Since we’re the only two kids, we gotta stick together,” the young thespian said.

Having two different boys playing the same role, plus an adult to play his character as a grownup, has led to some farcical mix-ups in rehearsals. To add to the confusion, Daly shares a first name with his character, which keeps him giggling. The whole situation, he said, is “really funny.”

Despite his youth, Daly keeps it professional. Godinez praised his work ethic and acting chops, calling the 13-year-old “a joy to work with” because he is “so focused and prepared and deeply invested in the character.”

“He more than holds his own in a cast of Tony-nominated adult actors,” said Godinez.

“Big Fish” is not Daly’s first time working with adult actors, nor was it his first professional gig. He performed in the ensemble and as the understudy of Michael in the 2022 U.S. tour of the musical “Elf.” 

On that tour, Daly perfected his pre-show ritual – the consumption of a honey lozenge to relax his throat, then vocal warmups. If he’s feeling really nervous, he does some jumping jacks, which gets his adrenaline pumping. 

“Then I’m just like ready to go on stage,” he said.

He also shared his trick for memorizing lines, writing down the first letter of each of his lines, then recalling what comes next. He learned that technique after looking up memorization tips online. 

“It really helps with just focusing on what letter correlates with what word,” he said. “After you do that a couple times, it’s just like engraved in your brain.”

Daly got the musical theater bug from his little sister. The two perform at Ovation Academy for the Performing Arts in Oak Park, but it took some nudging to get Daly in there at first. His mother, Amanda Daly, founder of the popular local bakery the Daly Bagel, said her son was not at all interested in theater at first. She “borderline dragged” him into his first rehearsal, but by the end of it, his whole attitude had changed 

“He came out and he said, ‘That was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,’” Amanda said. “He was glowing.”

William Daly

The life of a working actor is a busy one, especially when that actor is still in school. He attends St. Giles Catholic School in Oak Park, which has been very accommodating and supportive of his theatrical pursuits and the demanding schedule it requires. His principal took time away from visiting family, driving over an hour to see Daly perform in “Elf.”

“They are absolutely wonderful,” said Amanda of the St. Giles faculty. “I cannot say how grateful I am to them.”

Daly’s weekends and school day afternoons are usually packed with rehearsals and lessons, but when he can, he tries to make the most of his free time. He is quick to set up playdates and knock on the doors of kids in his neighborhood.

His busy schedule makes it difficult for him to participate in the activities other kids get to do, but he understands that pursuing musical theater comes with some sacrifices. He had to miss out on performing in his eighth-grade play, which was disappointing for him. 

As long as musical theater continues to bring him joy, his parents are happy to support him in his pursuits. It doesn’t appear that interest in the theater will be fading any time soon. He’s got his eye on bigger stages. His dream role is to play Shrek in the musical adaptation of the ogre love story.

In the meantime, however, you can catch the rising star in “Big Fish” from Jan. 25 through March 19.

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