As Shrek the Musical gets ready for its West End opening, The Times talks to Bill Damaschke, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s right-hand man, about the idea, the realisation, and the flop on Broadway.
The idea for a musical came from the respected British theatre and film director Sam Mendes, who had been working with Dreamworks on American Beauty and The Road to Perdition. Damaschke, a former actor who is now president of Dreamworks’ new live theatre division as well as the creative head of animation, takes up the story: “Sam realised that Shrek has all the ingredients of a great musical: a hero’s journey, a love story, a best friend in Donkey, universal and comedic things that people need to sing about.”
All very well. But it also suffers from an intrinsic obstacle. The stage is wonderful for taking real subjects and rendering them fantastical; but with Shrek they are attempting the reverse, to give flesh to fantasy. The cast are burdened with prosthetics to replicate what were only ever animated characters. Did they not consider a stripped-down, more stylised approach? “That’ll be the Donmar Warehouse version in 15 years’ time,” Damaschke, laughs. They tried a number of options, he says, before deciding that the audience needed to see the characters they recognised from the screen, up there on the stage.
The result, on Broadway, was felt by critics and theatre-goers to be unwieldy: with more than 20 songs and not many additions to the original storyline, the 80-minute film was stretched to 2 hours and 20 minutes. Damaschke agrees that much of the problem was timing, but of a different kind: Shrek the Musical opened slap bang at the start of the worst financial crisis in decades.
I remember going to the opening night the very week that Lehman’s collapsed. Their office was just around the corner, and there were literally hundreds of people walking down the street with all their stuff in boxes. A big expensive family musical was just really off, timing-wise.”
The show has been extensively tweaked since then, both during a more successful tour of America, and now for the London show.
We have the most amazing cast in London,” he enthuses. “Amanda Holden is a doll, but she’s also fun, she’s outrageous. She’s a princess but she’s also an ogre! People are going to love her. Even the small parts are super-good. Like at the table read-through, the guy playing the guard, he’s going to be the best guard in the world!”
Photo: Shrek the Musical on Broadway – copyright 2009 DreamWorks Theatrical. All Rights Reserved