"Shrek the Musical" will play at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre in a pre-Broadway run Aug. 14 -Sept. 21, 2008. With a magical set and costume design by Tim Hatley, the stage production draws inspiration from the classic William Steig book "Shrek!" and from "Shrek," the 2001 DreamWorks film.
You may well be among the hordes who have seen the blockbuster movie “Shrek,” the first in a series of popular DreamWorks animated films about an antisocial ogre who finds love and friendship.
And maybe you also read “Shrek!” the whimsical storybook by the inimitable cartoonist and author William Steig, which the movie was based on.
But Shrek’s fairy-tale world is being retooled and transformed once again, this time into a big Broadway musical.
The well-hyped production begins previews for its world-premiere run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre on Thursday, and it moves on to the Great White Way in November. And theatrical designer Tim Hatley promises that, unlike some extravaganzas in the long parade of animated movie-musical knockoffs aimed at Broadway, DreamWorks Theatricals’ live “Shrek” will not be a slavish replica of its celluloid ancestor.
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“Theater is a very distinct thing,” stresses the lanky, gregarious Brit, who is in Seattle working exhaustively on the musical. “It happens live, in front of an audience, in a finite space. My job is to reinvent the ‘Shrek’ story for the theater — not to copy the film.”
Big ol’ Broadway spectacles take a long time to pull together, and Hatley has been toiling for two years on devising costumes and sets for “Shrek.” He swears that to stay on track with his own ideas, “I haven’t even gone back to watch the movie in the last six months.”
But he and his collaborators are not reconstituting “Shrek” from whole cloth, so to speak. The lead character is still the big, bald, green guy (played here by Tony Award nominee Brian D’Arcy James) with protruding, tubular ears.
And he’s the same grouchy swamp creature who falls for a princess, and pals up — reluctantly at first — with a smart-mouthed but loyal donkey.
Retooling a big-screen hit
If you’re wondering whether Broadway really needs another tuner culled from another hit animated G-rated flick, you’re not alone.
But as a movie and book, “Shrek” exerted surprisingly wide appeal among adults and children. And, contends Caro Newling of Neal Street Productions (DreamWorks’ theatrical co-producer), the live show aims to bridge the gap between faithful homage and fresh, new piece — while further “illuminating” the beloved characters via music.
The musical has a hot young theater director (Jason Moore, of “Avenue Q”), a new script more faithful to Steig (written by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire) and a dozen original songs composed in a variety of styles by Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change”). Meanwhile, Hatley’s trans-Atlantic team of artisans has concocted hundreds of new costumes and scenic elements.
Hatley has been down this screen-to-stage road before. Topping a design résumé that includes operas, movies (“Closer,” “Notes on a Scandal”) and plays in London and New York (he won a Tony for designing a revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”), he contributed mightily to the Broadway smash “Spamalot,” based on the film comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
His eye-popping riot of cutout landscapes, pixilated sight gags and gloriously fake Middle Ages gear helped set the zany tone of “Spamalot,” which came to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre last year.
It was also an effective audition for the role of “Shrek” designer, notes Newling. “We wanted someone from the set-and-costumes school, who could give us the whole picture. Tim is a very creative man who does both things brilliantly.”
Hatley calls the sophisticated computer animation in the “Shrek” films “gorgeous, but it’s not theatrical.” It was his charge to envision the same characters being played credibly by live actors, who walk, talk, sing and dance in real time.
The retooling included Shrek himself. “He needs to be lovable, human, agile,” suggested Hatley. “It’s a big terrain he has to cover onstage, and it wouldn’t work if we made him super-big, with the actor wearing stilts.”
Instead, he and his team crafted a “film-quality prosthetic device” — a head mask that transforms James into the ogre.
For Donkey (played by Chester Gregory II), a full-body costume was in order. It lets the actor “go down on all fours, or stand erect,” points out Hatley. “And the fur is fabric threaded with venetian-blind cords, to make it swing and move, giving it more life.”
For Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster, a co-star of Broadway’s “Young Frankenstein,” which had its pre-Broadway premiere in Seattle), Hatley retooled the film’s everyday green dress (made in different sizes to accommodate the lady’s quick-changing girth) and a wedding gown.
“The green dress has a beautifully detailed velvet bodice,” Hatley reports. “But this is not fashion, it’s theater. So it’s all about textures and how it moves under the lights.” (The show’s lighting designer is another respected Brit, Hugh Vanstone.)
Another challenge: garb for the pint-size rival Lord Farquaad. It has to accommodate an actor (Christopher Sieber, a “Spamalot” alum) who plays the entire part on his knees.
Not exactly a monster budget
The level of labor-intensive detail Hatley can lavish on the “Shrek” visuals is rare, beyond the world of Broadway and opera. But while this is an expensive venture (the producers won’t specify, but say the budget is “south” of the $20 million spent on “Young Frankenstein”), the designer still had to economize.
“It was fine, because I like simplicity and I come from a philosophy of creating good theater that doesn’t have to cost gazillions,” says Hatley, who has worked frequently with the leading British experimental troupe Theatre Complicite, and at the esteemed, nonprofit Royal National Theatre.
But nothing looks bargain basement in the pile of colorful costume and puppet sketches for the dozens of characters in the musical, played by a cast of about two dozen performers.
Since Shrek’s turf is “invaded” by exiled fairy-tale figures, Hatley also created fanciful togs for a Peter Pan; a Pinocchio; a sugar plum fairy (with a tutu of sparkly blue leaves); three blind mice (“they’re a bit ‘Dreamgirls,’ in evening gowns”); and a classic, pointy-nosed wicked witch.
As for the scenery (built, piece by piece, by artisans in London, Seattle and New York), it includes an ornate, 16-foot mirror; a large tree adorned with fluorescent spiders; and a giant, fierce and flirtatious dragon.
The latter is a puppet (constructed from carbon-fiber hoops covered with a translucent pink fabric) that can belch smoke. And it takes three actors lurking inside to manipulate her.
Overall, praises Newling, “Tim has come up with a fluency of stage language that isn’t just about bringing a lot of set pieces on and off. The design really morphs, it moves. It is really light on its feet.”
But the London-based Hatley says he has another agenda, too. “My main goal as a designer is always to support the story and the actors,” he emphasizes. “For me, the story of ‘Shrek’ is simple, but it has a lot of meaning and a lot of heart. What I do has to be part of that.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org