‘Shrek the Musical' solves mysteries about the green ogre
"Shrek" put DreamWorks on the map.
The 2001 animated film about a glum green ogre with a Scottish brogue as wide as the Firth of Forth was a huge hit, grossing more than $484 million worldwide and thrusting the young studio into the ranks of Disney and Pixar as a big-league animation house.
But as good as it was, "Shrek" left a lot of unanswered questions about its characters. They turned into the inspiration for "Shrek the Musical," which expands on the movie's story.
The touring production of "Shrek the Musical" comes to the Pantages Theatre next week, and its storyline owes a lot to the children of David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the musical's book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who penned the songs.
"David and Jeanine had young kids who had seen the movie many times," said Bill Damaschke, chief creative officer of DreamWorks Animation and a producer of "Shrek the Musical."
"When they came on board they both said, 'Our kids have so many questions about the film: Why does Shrek live in a swamp? How did he get there? Why is Fiona in the tower and what did she do there for so many years? Why does Lord Farquuad have such a grudge against fairy-tale characters?' The answers to those questions ended up being the first songs that were written for the (musical)."
The creative team started work in 2002, years before Shrek turned into a multi-movie franchise for DreamWorks. The group had an impressive pedigree: Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer for his play "Rabbit Hole"; director Jason Moore snagged a Tony for helming "Avenue Q"; and Tesori, who came on board in 2004, was a Tony finalist for her work on "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
But the impetus for the show didn't come from this high-powered group. It was film director Sam Mendes who originally suggested turning "Shrek" into a musical, Damaschke said.
"We had been working with him on 'American Beauty' and 'Road to Perdition.' He said he thought 'Shrek' would make a really great musical because it had all the ingredients a good musical needs to have."
After a five-year gestation period, a reading took place in 2007, followed by a Seattle tryout production in the summer of 2008. A 13-month Broadway run followed, ending in early 2010. The touring production was launched last summer.
Each incarnation of the show has undergone major changes, Damaschke said.
"I think probably our biggest challenge in terms of telling the story well is presenting it in a fundamentally theatrical way and using stagecraft to enhance the experience. It was pretty tough and we've kept working at it."
Shrek's costume and make-up, for example, presented major challenges.
"It had to be something that would withstand the rigors of a two-and-a-half hour performance. The actor would be doing a lot of moving and sweating. And he has to be able to express himself through all of that. You assume that the costume does all of the work, but the costume does nothing if the person underneath it doesn't deliver."
The dragon that guards Fiona was another thorny technical issue.
"It's the biggest character overall and the biggest effect. We have something new coming to L.A. that we created for the London production, which just opened."
In the Broadway version of "Shrek," the dragon was created by nine women moving and speaking at the same time – a formidable feat that nevertheless seemed underwhelming to Damaschke's eye.
"Now it's a giant puppet operated by four puppeteers and an offstage voice. It's big and fluid and scary and beautiful and delivers the moment in a way that it didn't in New York. We're very happy with it now."
WHO NEEDS DOOHICKEYS?
The show's many bells and whistles notwithstanding, Damaschke thinks "Shrek" works well because it's a simple and elemental story that people can easily relate to.
"For all the whiz-bang doohickeys and giant flying things it has, the story is ultimately about three characters. A misunderstood guy goes on a journey, falls in love and finds a best friend. That's the soul of 'Shrek,' what makes it so popular and enduring."
The strength of the book is essential if "Shrek" is to have a life after the national tour is history, Damaschke said.
"After all the tours and big productions are over, 'Shrek' is the kind of show that will be performed at your local high school. Jeanine has always said the show works just fine without all the fancy (effects)."
Damaschke said the green ogre is regarded with great affection at DreamWorks as he approaches his 10th anniversary and the musical becomes a worldwide phenomenon. Licensed productions are slated to appear in Brazil, Holland and other non-English-speaking countries.
"'Shrek' was very important to us. After having produced many different types of films, some of which were very popular, this one seemed to shine through and connect with a huge audience in a special way.
"We've gone on to create other great films, but 'Shrek' is the one that really placed us on the big playing field. And it looks like it still has a long life ahead of it on stage."
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