It’s not easy being green, even when you’re a cute little wisecracking frog like Kermit. Or even a flying green leading lady who gets the guy like Elphaba in Wicked.
So just imagine how tough it is to be huge, reclusive, cranky — and scarily green. That’s the cross Shrek has to bear, at least before his story takes a turn for the hopeful. Actor Lukas Poost, who dons green makeup, prosthetics and a heavy costume to become the giant ogre eight times a week in Shrek the Musical, knows exactly how rough it is to play this particular animated star-turned-Broadway leading man.
“I wear a 45-pound fat suit that acts like a giant sponge,” Poost says from a tour stop in Indiana. “It absorbs more and more sweat as the show goes on.”
Yecch. And cool.
Shrek the Musical , which visits the Ziff Ballet Opera House at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts this week, is DreamWorks Theatricals’ entry into the screen-to-stage market that Disney has so profitably mined with such shows as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Shrek the Musical is based on the first movie in the four-film Shrek series, the highest-grossing animated franchise of all time. But this stage adaptation is just that: a musical that goes places that the Shrek the movie didn’t.
The show’s script and lyrics are the work of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole. The music is by Jeanine Tesori, a four-time Tony Award nominee whose other scores include Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change.
Bill Damaschke, DreamWorks’ chief creative officer, says the playwright and the composer are “the kind of people who worked at DreamWorks. They’re brilliantly talented, with fresh voices. We wanted people who were a little quirky. David is working on a movie for us for next Christmas, The Rise of the Guardians. He’s a deeply emotional writer but also twisted and funny. And in Jeanine, we thought we found, in one person, someone who could write story songs, R&B — different styles for every character.”
For Lindsay-Abaire, the five-year process of transforming a hit movie into a musical involved embracing the spirit of the original while making something new. And he wanted to answer questions that the movie hadn’t.
“I wondered how Shrek ended up on the swamp. Why does he feel as he does, that the world hates him and he has to find a hole to live in? How did Fiona end up in the tower? Why does Lord Farquaad have this distaste for fairy-tale creatures?” the playwright asks. “We added a lot of new stuff, in addition to 19 original songs.”
Creating Shrek the Musical, which wound up having a respectable 478-performance run on Broadway, was never easy though. Songs and even characters have been added and subtracted through the musical’s Seattle tryout, its Broadway run, its London version and two tours. Working solo on one of his plays is just a matter of getting “in the zone,” Lindsay-Abaire says. Writing and revising a musical is a drawn-out, constant back-and-forth collaboration.
“It’s like going to the optometrist when they’re flipping the lenses. That’s the process for five straight years. Shrek the Musical has gone through so many changes. I’m eager to write another musical, but something original. I don’t want to adapt anything. It’s too hard for me,” the playwright says.
Stephen Sposito, assistant director of Shrek the Musical on Broadway and director of the non-Equity NETworks touring show coming to the Arsht, says reinvention is the key to making a hit movie live onstage.
“You really have a chance to add to it,” Sposito says. “Songs can speed up time, but they can also slow things down, so that for two or three minutes, you can explore what a character is feeling. The musical tells the same story, but it’s a very different experience.”
Sposito calls Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori “highbrow, but also so funny.” Like the best musicals based on animated hits, he says, Shrek the Musical has moments designed to appeal to kids, others aimed squarely at entertaining their parents.
The director also faces some unusual challenges in working with his cast. Poost, for example, has to try to be facially expressive while wearing those custom-made, one-time-use prosthetics that are shipped to each city where the show plays. Putting on the Shrek makeup takes more than an hour and a half, so on two-show days, Poost spends the time between performances resting, dining and taking care of business still decked out like his green alter ego. Fellow actor Merritt David Janes plays the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad while kneeling in a special rig that makes him look tiny, with fake miniature legs dangling from a full-sized torso.
“He’s only in it for about 20 minutes total a night,” Sposito says. “The pressure gets distributed through the rig, but the back and stomach hurt most, because he has to hold himself erect.”
Liz Shivener, who played the Arsht last season as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, is returning as Fiona in Shrek the Musical. She has her own physical challenge as the princess who becomes a perfect match for the big green lug who adores her.
“I have about 60 seconds near the end of the show to become an ogre,” Shivener says. “I have people waiting for me just offstage — two for wardrobe, two for makeup, two for wigs. It’s a whirlwind. I’m still always afraid; I always think, ‘Will I make it?’”
Like the Shrek movie, the musical appeals to kids and adults because of its witty humor, fairy-tale characters and inside-showbiz references. But director Sposito thinks that the show’s big heart and message are the real sources of its appeal..
“The show is about finding your true self,” Sposito says. “How the world sees you is not who you are. You are the author of your own destiny. What’s on the outside isn’t always a reflection of the inside.”