In anticipation of Shrek's Broadway arrival, Playbill.com had a chance to catch up with the cast and creators of the fairy-tale musical, which stars Tony nominee Brian d'Arcy James in the title role opposite Tony Award winner Sutton Foster as his unlikely princess, Fiona.
Shrek director Jason Moore, who staged the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, describes the challenges of translating an 80-minute animated feature into a full-fledged Broadway musical, while still delivering what audiences loved about the film.
"We do something at the beginning [of the musical] with Shrek as a boy, so, hopefully, right at the first moment of the show, people realize that it's not the movie exactly, even though it's similar," Moore explains. "We try to answer some of the questions which musicals answer, which is how do these characters get to be who they are and what do they really want underneath?"
Moore also comments on the expectations of young audience members who have come to know and love the iconic characters of the film. "When we were working on make-up tests, every version of Shrek that we did that didn't look like Shrek, kids weren't interested in," Moore recalls. "And I understand that, because they want to see something they know, [but] I think because enough of it looks the same to them, they're willing to listen. Like most kids, they'll listen to a good story."
A new and unexpected challenge for Moore has been managing the "vocal print," or the signature voices lent by the stars of the animated feature, including Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow and Cameron Diaz. "That's a new problem I've never had to deal with," Moore says. "There's a Scottish sound to Shrek, [and] there's a certain way the Donkey sounds. That's what people love about animation: The vocal print is everything, and the animation follows it. So one of the fine lines has been how to do you musicalize that vocal print? Does Shrek's [music] have a little Celtic feel to it? Is Donkey rhythm and blues? And then how do you [find] the actor that can inhabit that new vocal print and deliver what people loved about it before. It's a very razor-thin line in a lot of cases."
Brian d'Arcy James, the Tony-nominated actor whose voice has left its own imprint in such musicals as Titanic and Sweet Smell of Success, says the original sound of the film was a starting point for his exploration of the giant green ogre.
"His performance is iconic," James replies when asked about Mike Myers' Scottish-tinged vocals in the animated film. "I don't try to necessarily imitate him, but I try definitely to keep the spirit alive of what he imbued the character with. But the story is really what you take your cues from. How the story is written and what's required in particular scenes is what you look to as to how to define how you're going to say something."
It takes a make-up team an hour-and-a-half to transform James into Shrek, and the actor says he has worked to ensure that the human qualities of Shrek aren't lost beneath the prosthetic designs. "I kind of call it my degree of calibration that I have to use in order to find when I have to work with the costume and when I have to go beyond the costume and make-up," he explains. "It's been a real process of finding out how to use the tools that I've been given. Sometimes with the make-up and the costume, I don't have to do anything, because that's telling the story."
Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire may not have been the first names to spring to mind when it was first announced that the family-friendly animated feature was Broadway bound. After all, Lindsay-Abaire (who earned a Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole, a poignant account of a family tragedy) and Tesori (the composer who delivered Broadway one of its most challenging musicals to date, Caroline, or Change) are better known within the theatre industry for their dramatic innovation than for Broadway blockbusters.
"I thought it was really not a good idea," Tesori admits of her first consideration of putting Shrek on stage. "Until I found myself writing, I thought 'How do I get him to sing so it's not trite and show who he is and the complications, especially for someone who doesn't have language?' An ogre who lives alone doesn't really [have language], but it turns out he's quite a poet."
Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire were, however, drawn to Shrek as a quirky, modern retelling of an epic. "It started with the Steig book," Tesori says. "It doesn't really quite matter in a way that they're trolls or ogres. It's the great story of the Iliad and the Odyssey — there's one person who sets out on a quest. If it's not 'The Sword in the Stone,' and he's covered with glop, it doesn't really matter."
David Lindsay-Abaire's window into Shrek came in his knack for writing plays about outsiders with unique points of view who are attempting to navigate through the world. "It's in all of my plays, and it certainly holds true for Shrek," he says. "You know it's a story about a guy who's been ostracized from the world, who thinks he's one thing and the world tells him he's something else. So, he's sent on a journey to discover what he is on the inside and show the world what he is, and that holds true for everything I've done."
Shrek marks the debut for Lindsay-Abaire as a lyricist, who says, "It's the most collaborative thing I've ever done. What's great about the source material is that these characters all have very complicated emotional lives and inner lives, and that's what musicals do best: crack open the hearts of characters and let them sing."
"I've loved working with David because his characters have a way of navigating in the world that's unusual," Tesori adds. "So, it's been really great fun to break some rules in a way with songs." Tesori describes the score as "parlando style, which is spoken-style, it's not always the traditional AAB [song structure]. It's more that they come out of scene work directly, so it's not a stop and sing in a very bombastic way. It's more a Tevye kind of way."
A challenge for Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire has been creating a work that seamlessly appeals to a wide age group. The out-of-town Seattle engagement proved an invaluable experience for the writers, who were able to sit within the audience and watch three generations of one family, who "all laughed at the same things, and then every once in a while they would laugh at different things. And that was a first for me, in my experience of writing a show, that it captured people, across the generations," Tesori says.
It also doesn't hurt that both Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire are parents to children who just happen to be within Shrek's target audience. "Oh, they're so brutal," Tesori laughs when asked about testing out material at home. "Our kids would come in and sit stone-faced through certain things, and I think they were quite honest. They haven't learned to lie yet."
When asked if they were ever tempted to simply rewrite the film and add songs, Tesori replied, "In a way, that would be a revival… We're not interested in doing a revival or a transference. We were really interested in [writing] what I think is a great adventure story."
It was director Jason Moore who first approached Sutton Foster, the Tony-winning star of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Young Frankenstein, to play the role of Fiona in the Broadway-bound Shrek. "I remember running into Jason Moore on the street," recalls Foster, "and he looked at me and said 'Have you ever played a princess?' And I said, 'No, but I would love to.'"
"She's not you're typical princess, she's a little off. And characters that are a little off are fun to play," Foster says of the role which she developed as part of Shrek's initial readings. "I love Fiona's struggle between being a princess that you see from the story books and also who she really is. It's been fun to really discover that and really live in that."
In less than a month Broadway audiences will have the chance to venture to "Far, Far Away" and greet the well-known green guy and his motley crew of backwards fairy-tale friends. "Hopefully, people might think they know what we're up to, or what Shrek the musical is going to be," Foster says, "but hopefully, we'll surprise them, and I think that's what the whole moral of the story is. The idea that you might think you know what a green ogre is, but actually he surprises you, and he surprises himself."
Produced by DreamWorks Theatricals and Sam Mendes' Neal Street Productions Ltd., Shrek officially opens on Broadway Dec. 14 at the Broadway Theatre. Josh Prince has choreographed the production, which features musical direction by Tim Weil, set and costume design by Tim Hatley, lighting design by Hugh Vanstone and sound design by Peter Hylenski.
The cast of Shrek also features Passing Strange's Daniel Breaker as Donkey, Avenue Q Tony nominee John Tartaglia as Pinocchio and Christopher Sieber (Monty Python's Spamalot) as Lord Farquaad. The ensemble comprises Haven Burton, Jennifer Cody, Ben Crawford, Bobby Daye, Ryan Duncan, Sarah Jane Everman, Aymee Garcia, Leah Greenhaus, Justin Greer, Lisa Ho, Chris Hoch, Danette Holden, Jacob Ming-Trent, Carolyn Ockert-Haythe, Marissa O'Donnell, Denny Paschall, Greg Reuter, Adam Riegler, Noah Rivera, Heather Jane Rolff, Jennifer Simard, Rachel Stern, Dennis Stowe, David F.M. Vaughn and Keaton Whittaker.
Tickets for Shrek are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.
Visit www.shrekthemusical.com for more information.