Ogres, Shrek said in the animated hit of 2001, are like onions. They have layers. By which he means secrets, unspoken longings, an inner life.
The line is heard again in “Shrek the Musical,” which opens on Sunday at the Broadway Theater with Brian d’Arcy James in the title role and Sutton Foster as Shrek’s love interest, Princess Fiona. And if running time is any indication, this ogre will have more layers than ever.
In previews the show has been clocking in at two and a half hours, a full hour more than the movie. The original children’s book by William Steig, published in 1990, is a lot shorter. A reader in a hurry can canter through it aloud in about 5 minutes 34 seconds. That would do scant justice to Steig’s pictures, which have layers of their own, though Steig never mentioned onions.
Since the release of the first movie, Shrek has proved a robust franchise for DreamWorks Animation, spawning two sequels. With “Shrek the Musical,” DreamWorks Theatricals is making its Broadway debut, going head to head with the Walt Disney Company.
A witty publicity blitz is in full swing, but these are hard times. One hopeful tag line: “Everything’s coming up ogres!” Someday, maybe. For the first week in December the gross for “Shrek” — $701,322, as reported by Playbill — was roughly half those of “Billy Elliot,” “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” and “Wicked.”
Over breakfast at a fashionable Midtown hotel, the playwright and first-time lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted the book and wrote the lyrics for “Shrek the Musical,” recently joined the composer Jeanine Tesori and the director Jason Moore to discuss the challenge of adding layers to the screenplay.
Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is best known for critically acclaimed straight plays like “Fuddy Meers” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rabbit Hole.” Ms. Tesori’s priors include such diverse fare as “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Caroline, or Change.” Mr. Moore’s claim to fame is the long-running puppet musical “Avenue Q.”
“David and Jason had already been working on this project a couple of years before I joined four years ago,” Ms. Tesori said. “One day soon after I came on, David spoke about identity and essence, about the classical shape of the hero’s journey in myth. It was so helpful to map the stages out in a two-act structure, to figure out what moments had to be defined in musical terms.” Joseph Campbell, meet Stephen Sondheim.
Some music cues were clear from the outset, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire said, “but some crept up on us, and some were forced on us, very rightly.”
Steig, who died in 2003, told the story as myth in miniature. Cast out by his parents, Shrek meets a witch who tells his fortune, overcomes an obstacle or two and wins his princess. Not a word of the movie’s dastardly Lord Farquaad or his ethnic-cleansing rampage. Not a word of fairy-tale creatures banished to Shrek’s swamp. Not a word of the way Farquaad tricks Shrek into rescuing his chosen bride, Fiona, unnamed in the book. Not a word of the secret curse that transforms Fiona into an ogress at sundown. In the book the princess is ugly the way Shrek is ugly: 24/7.
“We kept asking questions,” Mr. Lindsay-Abaire said. “What don’t we know? Why does Farquaad have it in for the fairy-tale creatures? What’s going on with Fiona all those years in the tower? How did Shrek wind up in his swamp in the first place? That became our first number.”
For Shrek’s back story there is a clue in the book: “One day Shrek’s parents hissed things over and decided it was about time their little darling was out in the world doing his share of damage. So they kicked him goodbye and Shrek left the black hole in which he’d been hatched.”
According to Claudia J. Nahson, curator of a recent exhibition of Steig’s drawings at the Jewish Museum, Steig offered DreamWorks several ideas for fleshing out his bare-bones plot: “One idea was to have Shrek’s mother recriminate with Shrek’s father for having thrown him out, for the parents to fight violently about it. That never made it anywhere. Steig’s wife once told me he was a pessimist in the short run but an optimist in the long run. Where there’s a problem, there’s a solution.”
In the book Shrek’s parents kick him in the pants with gusto, leering viciously and grinning madly. Even so, the expulsion looks more like a party than primal trauma. Shrek, full grown, is grinning too, flying through the air in a state of pure bliss. In the show Shrek starts out as a scared 7-year-old who is getting some good news and some bad news. It’s a big, bright, beautiful world, his elders tell him as they send him packing, and it’s not for you. Everyone will hate you. Stay out of sight, live alone, and you’ll be happy. For the first few minutes we seem headed into the Holocaust-haunted terrain of Maurice Sendak.
But once past the first number, the show tracks the narrative and snappy dialogue of the movie as closely as the exigencies of musical theater allow, without, however, overlooking new opportunities. Ms. Tesori especially relished weaving different characters’ conflicting concerns and emotions into musical ensembles. “There’s counterpoint and simultaneity,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun to line up moments from different arcs of the story in a thematic way.”
Just as important, Mr. Moore said, songs reveal layers of a character that go beyond the dialogue. “The musical gives the characters the chance to slow down,” he said, “to say the things they wouldn’t tell each other, to speak the subtext. That’s why I love musicals. They show you the heart.”
Moon-June, anyone? Not really. Fiona and Shrek square off — and fall in love — in a number that has a raucous counterpart (title unprintable here) in “Avenue Q.” The thing they most hoped to avoid, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire said, was sentimentality.
“We were always trying to be truthful,” he added. “Jeanine always says, ‘You have to squeeze some lemon into the lyrics.’ ”
Surely Steig would have approved. In his book even ogres get nightmares. Here is Shrek’s: “He dreamed he was in a field of flowers where children frolicked and birds warbled. Some of the children kept hugging and kissing him, and there was nothing he could do to make them stop.” A squeeze of lemon, please.