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Broadway Bound 'Shrek': Putting Words and Music in the Ogre's Mouth

This is the third and final installment in our “Broadway Bound” series on “Shrek: The Musical.”

When "Shrek: The Musical" opens tonight at the Broadway Theatre, folks will learn a thing or two.

How did Shrek find the swamp?

How did Princess Fiona wind up in a tower? What was it like to live there for years?

Why is Lord Farquaad so short? Why does he hate fairy-tale creatures?

Those answers - delivered by a cast led by Brian d'Arcy James ("Lieutenant of Inishmore") as Shrek and Sutton Foster ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") as Princess Fiona - sprang from the minds of book and lyric writer David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori, two Broadway veterans working together for the first time.

Just as with "Wicked," that other Broadway show with a green star, what sets "Shrek: The Musical" apart from its cinematic forebear is the blanks it seeks to fill in.

This story has a back story.

"Shrek" is Lindsay-Abaire's first stab at writing lyrics, but not a real stretch from playwriting, he says.

"Even as the book writer for 'High Fidelity,' I was still in the thick of collaboration with my fellow writers (composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green). The difference for me is (on "Shrek") I got to dramatize the most exciting part of the scene.

"For 'High Fidelity,' I would write up to a song and say 'You guys take it from here.' Or I would write a scene that they would then pillage and turn into a song," he adds with a laugh.

"It's so much more satisfying (to be writing lyrics)," he says. "Amanda and I worked incredibly well, but there's a seamless transition from book scenes to lyric because it is literally the same voice. I'm doing both, and it helps."

What New Yorker cartoonist William Steig created in the 1990 book and a cadre of writers created for the film was a starting point for Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire.

"We tried to be as true to the source material as possible, the movie as well as the book," Lindsay-Abaire says. "The book, while very different from the movie, still has this irreverence in it and naughtiness to it that makes it accessible to both kids and adults.

"We also tried to stay true to that, as well," he adds. "Yes, it's a kids' story, but also something that parents could find a lot in it to laugh and enjoy, stuff that would go over the kids' heads that parents would like."

Lindsay-Abaire graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a liberal-arts degree in literature and theater. He went on to Juilliard.

"Sarah Lawrence is all about finding your voice and bringing your voice forward," he says. "They did that in spades and I have reaped the rewards of that education many times over. Now, I'm helping characters to find their voices."

He says that writing book and lyric changed him.

"Now, I'm always inclined to cut a book scene, which I never really was in 'High Fidelity,' " he says with a laugh. "Here, it's like 'Let's get to the song as quickly as possible.' "

The team crafted 17 songs for "Shrek," none of which appeared in the original film.

Based on the strength of a few of the songs he wrote with Tesori, Lindsay-Abaire was awarded the 2008 Ed Kleban Award as America's most promising musical theatre lyricist - for a show that won't open till tonight.

The playwright, known for his quirky characters in such plays as "Fuddy Meers" and "Kimberly Akimbo," was the first person DreamWorks Theatricals hired to work on "Shrek: The Musical," the studio's first venture into bringing its films to Broadway. Tesori joined in the summer 2004.

Director Jason Moore says Tesori's soundscape is appropriately eclectic.

"We have German pigs, a Russian ballerina, an urban, modern-talking Donkey, and a Scottish lead," Moore says. "There's a really distinct point of view and flavor to each of their vocal prints and I think the music hopefully follows suit."

Tesori, a Tony nominee for "Twelfth Night," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Caroline, or Change," said she approached the project with no preconceptions.

"For us, Far Far Away (which is where "Shrek" is set) reminds me of when we did 'Twelfth Night.' What is Illyria? When is Far Far Away? I don't know. It has a bit of the old and a bit of the new. You just know it isn't here. But it is here.

"I tend to work in collage a lot anyway. I don't know why, but it's turned out to be a style of mine," she adds. "It turned to be a very large pot, or cauldron, as David likes to say. We threw a lot of things in there."

"I Know It's Today," the first song the team wrote, is the only song that hasn't changed in the journey to tonight's opening.

In it, the audience meets Princess Fiona at 8, at 13 and at 28. At each meeting, she's more desperate, less inclined to believe the happy endings in the fairy-tale books she reads, less of a typical princess.

"The way we approached a lot of the material was to ask 'What don't we know about the characters? What don't we find out in the movie or the book?' " says Lindsay-Abaire. "Some of the first questions we asked were 'How long has this girl been in the tower? What does she do all day? What was it like to be 8 years old? What was it like as the years went by?'

"She must become more desperate. I mean, good lord, she's been there for 20 years.'"

One of the last songs they wrote was "I Think I Got You Beat," a sort of subversive take on "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" from Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun."

Berlin's characters end up winded from the exertion of singing so many notes. In "Shrek," the characters are winded in a more, well, flatulent way.

"The idea of bodily functions throughout is sort of a naughty thing," Tesori says.

"Some people will call it crude, but it's the way of the ogres. It was the way of the ogres in the movie. It's just what it is."

It is also in keeping with that irreverent tone of the book and film.

Says Tesori: "What we try to do is set something up and squirt some lemon juice on it."

To say that Tesori is adaptable is to understate things.

For "Caroline, or Change," she wrote songs to be sung by a bus and a washing machine.

"Once you write for an appliance ...," she says, not finishing the thought.

On "Caroline," Tesori wrote alongside Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner. Here, she writes with Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer last year for "Rabbit Hole." She also wrote music to accompany Shakespeare. That's pretty heady company.

"I do think it stems from me," she deadpans. "Little has been written about it, but let it be said here and now."

"She's an award magnet," Lindsay-Abaire adds, echoing a line from "Shrek," when the ogre declares: "I'm a crackpot magnet."

"That is also true of Jeanine," her collaborator says without missing a beat. "She, too, is a crackpot magnet."

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