PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Jason Moore
By Robert Simonson
September 3, 2008
No more ping pong balls and fur for Avenue Q director Jason Moore. He's Broadway-bound with Shrek.
Moore first came to attention as one of the collection of creative unknowns that turned out Avenue Q, the wry, adult puppets-and-humans musical that surprised audiences with its wit and originality when it bowed Off-Broadway in 2003 in a co-production between the Vineyard Theatre and The New Group. It surprised again when it moved to Broadway later that year (and won the Best Musical Tony Award), and continues to surprise as it moves into its sixth year at the Golden Theatre. Moore, moving from puppets to ogres, is now in Seattle with another musical. This one, Shrek, based on the popular animated film series, was intended for Broadway from the first, and carries with it a bigger budget and bigger expectations. Moore, sounding delighted with the out-of-town-tryout experience, spoke to Playbill.com about the road from Avenue Q to Shrek's swamp.
Playbill.com: How are previews going in Seattle? I understand you've put in a few new songs.
Jason Moore: We've put in three new songs since previews began. A song a week. One is called "I Won't Let You Go" and one is called "When Words Fail" — Shrek's song for act two.
Playbill.com: Does that mean the composer and lyricist have been writing furiously, producing songs overnight?
JM: Every day we have a writers meeting in the morning and talk about changes going into the show. We're still also figuring what the best structure of storytelling is for the show.
Playbill.com: Does the addition of songs also mean some songs were cut?
JM: Yes. One song has been a direct replacement. This is the part of process, where you say, "Oh, the audience already knows that. We don't need to spend much more time on that. But here let's slow down and get into the emotional story."
Playbill.com: This is your first time dealing with an out-of-town tryout of a Broadway show.
JM: First time with an out-of-town tryout, but I've developed plays in front of a live audience before. And Avenue Q was downtown [first], but it was a similar process in the previews. I love changing the show every day. It keeps everyone on their feet in a helpful way.
Playbill.com: Maybe that's why you like the tryout so much, because it's totally new to you. Most people hate tryouts. Maybe later you'll start tearing your hair out.
JM: There's definitely been some hair on the floor.
Playbill.com: How did you land this job?
JM: I was in London with Sam Mendes talking about the possibility of producing Avenue Q. Sam asked me, "Do you know the movie Shrek?" I knew that he had been putting it together with Dreamworks. I had seen it, but I didn't really remember it, to be honest with you. I remembered it was funny and that it was irreverent, and I thought, "Oh, that must be the Avenue Q connection." When I watched the movie again, I saw that it actually had a big heart. [Librettist-lyricist] David Lindsay-Abaire was aboard, but there still was no composer. It wasn't a musical yet. Jeanine came aboard, and it was an exciting prospect.
Playbill.com: As I understand it, the show includes aspects of not just the first movie, but also the second?
JM: It's really the plot of the first movie. If you know "Shrek" II and III, you'll recognize little elements. But the first movie is the most emotional story.
Playbill.com: The movie was very tongue-in-cheek as far as its treatment of fairy tales. Do you sense a similarity in the tones between Shrek and Avenue Q, which poked fun at "Sesame Street," among other things?
JM: I always say Avenue Q made fun of the very thing people wanted delivered, and still delivered it; it made fun of a certain kind of song, but delivered that kind of song as well. I think we're trying to do that here. Audiences, I think, are slightly skeptical of musicals and love them all at the same time.
Playbill.com: What has your audience been in terms of adults, kids, etc.?
JM: Very mixed. Matinee audiences are a lot of kids, way more than I might have expected. Then our Saturday night audiences are a lot of adults and theatregoers.
Playbill.com: The movies are so familiar. How do you go about avoiding doing copies of the work that Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy did in the films?
JM: You know, I think you can't avoid it. You have to confront it on some level. People walk in the theatre with different kinds of expectations. But what you can do is you can make a clear choice, make a strong choice that engages the audience and tells the story. We want to deliver what people love about the movie, but hopefully tell it from a point of view that might be different. You'll be learning how Shrek got in the swamp, and what it's like to be in a tower for 20 years for the princess. The movie's only 80 minutes long. It doesn't stop to ask a lot of emotional questions.
Playbill.com: What's the most expensive design element in the show?
JM: I don't know. What I do know is we're trying to create a theatrical place that executes things in a simple way. I call it high-tech lowbrow. There are a lot of silly gags in the show. It's similar to Avenue Q, which is a bunch of bags of fur with ping-pong balls on their heads. We do have a lot more that's technical to offer, because it's a Broadway show, but I hope part of the delight of it is that it has whimsy to it, too.
Playbill.com: About Avenue Q, are you surprised that it's running so long on Broadway?
JM: Every day. It's thrilling. When we worked on it, we always thought it was going to be for 20- and 30-somethings, but it's ended up having incredible life, even around the world, strangely. I guess I realize [the theme of] finding your place in the world is such a universal thing.
Playbill.com: Do you think Avenue Q composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx will ever write another show?
JM: I think they are, actually. I think they've got a couple songs for an idea they have. I don't know how fleshed out it is at this moment. I hope they do. Those guys are funny. I hope they get together again.
The following addendum to the above Aug. 25 conversation took place on Sept. 3:
Playbill.com: I hear there have been some changes out there?
Jason Moore: Yeah. We have a cool new addition I'm bringing out. I called Rob Ashford and asked him to come out and take a look at the show. We've been adding three or four new musical numbers. We're slashing and burning, which is the fun part. But, as always, time is ticking, so we want to get as much accomplished here as we can. Rob got here last night. He'll be with us through Seattle. It will be another pair of hands on deck.
Playbill.com: Are these new numbers in addition to the new numbers you mentioned last week?
JM: By the time we open it will be three new numbers and one full reworking of another.
Playbill.com: How will you and Rob work together?
JM: Well, he just got here last night, so we'll figure out exactly how we'll distribute the tasks. Really it will be on a number to number basis. He's a friend of so many of us in the show, including the actors. [Actor] Chester Gregory II [who plays Donkey] has a lot of new material, so it will be nice to work on his material in particular.