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Green machine: 'Shrek the Musical' powered by kid feedback

The Shrek franchise, which began with the 2001 animated feature film, continues to whistle past the straight-to-video graveyard. While other top-grossing animated movies burn hot and fast (The Lion King, The Incredibles) or take a generation to realize (Toy Story’s third installment is due in 2010, 15 years after part one), Shrek has, in seven years, released two blockbuster sequels and a popular television special, 2007’s Shrek the Halls.

Now comes Shrek the Musical, an all-new show running Aug. 14–Sept. 21 at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. A cynic might regard this latest offering as the producers’ attempt to kill the green beast. After all, despite The Lion King’s huge box office appeal — it remains the most successful non-CGI-animated feature — it never returned to the movie theater after The Lion King Musical hit Broadway in 1997. Instead, two subsequent animated releases (a sequel and a “prequel”) slipped quietly into Blockbuster Video $9.99 bins.

Still, the success last year of Shrek the Third and Shrek the Halls underscored the swamp-dwelling ogre’s bulletproof appeal. In creating Shrek the Musical’s music and lyrics, Broadway veterans Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire tried to write music, scenes and lyrics with wide appeal, to put the “broad in Broadway,” as Tesori put it. To achieve this broad-spectrum appeal, they relied not only on their own eyes and ears, but on those of their offspring.

Creating a musical for ages 8 to 80 means never focusing too much on the young ones, despite the show’s provenance. “We don’t approach this as kids’ material,” says Lindsay-Abaire, the show’s lyricist and storywriter. “Clearly it’s kid-friendly, but when we write scenes or songs, first and foremost we entertain ourselves. We’re telling an emotional, honest story and rarely do we have to think ‘Are the kids going to like it?’ We try to be true to the source material, but it’s a rare occasion where we have to go back and tweak it because ‘Oh, the kids won’t get this.’”

Tesori, the show’s composer, agrees. “One of the things about Shrek that’s really interesting and why it’s so successful is it reaches people on two levels. What we’re doing is trying to reach parents and kids. David and I do not consider this just a kid show by any stretch. I don’t think of separating things that way. A piece like this should entertain everyone and that’s our goal — to entertain the whole audience.”

Their children (Tesori has a 10-year-old daughter, and Lindsay-Abaire, a 7-year-old son) were present at many rehearsals and would offer nonverbal critiques of the show. “Our kids plus the kids of all of our families on the team would come to the workshops and they would become our test audience,” Tesori says. “Where they start swinging their feet, we know we don’t have them.” Lindsay-Abaire agreed, adding, “They helped us calibrate the show. When they got bored in the second act we knew we needed to tighten up there and make sure the kids don’t get bored. And when I have a new song, I run it by my son, and Jeanine definitely runs it by her daughter. They are part of the experience for us of developing the show.”

What about adults swinging their feet during Shrek the Musical? Not likely, considering the talent involved in this production. Although we’ve collectively spent $1 billion for Shrek at the box office, it’s clear Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire, along with Shrek, Donkey, Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaad, will bring plenty of surprises to the 5th Avenue stage.

Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.


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