The Bizarre Phenomenon of Shrek The Musical

It's pretty bizarre that a musical production exists of Dreamworks' 2001 animated film Shrek. The movie was created as Jeffrey Katzenberg's revenge on Disney after numerous disputes with other executives at the company. It satirizes common Disney and fairy tale tropes, one of those being the use of musical numbers performed by the characters. I recall reading an early interview about the film (that I can't find anywhere online now) in which one of the filmmakers said that Shrek doesn't sing because they just couldn't see such a tough and emotionally closed-off character belting into song. Instead, Donkey serenades him with well-known radio hits to Shrek's great dismay. Yet, despite his aversion to sinigng, a musical version of the film in which all of the main characters sang original songs hit Broadway theaters in 2008 and remained there for two years.

Shrek the Musical

I was vaguely aware that this show existed but didn't know much about it until a professional recording dropped on Netflix in 2013. I found it pretty forgettable, especially compared to the film, which had some state-of-the-art CGI for its time that could not be reproduced on stage as well as some jokes that could only land properly in its original medium. My overall reaction to the recording was "Well, that happened." I more or less forgot about it until last night when a free performance was presented at a local park. The show was presented by the Central Texas Theatre Academy and was done quite well, with some fantastic actors and singers. It follows the same story as the film in which Shrek is recruited by Lord Farquaad to rescue Princess Fiona so he can recover the deed to his swamp, but it also includes some extra details like how his parents sent him away as a child, as presented in the original book by William Steig, and Princess Fiona's experience of growing up in a tower in one of the show's better songs, "I Know It's Today," which is performed by three actresses at different ages.

What makes this musical so awkward is that while the movie version of Shrek takes the concepts behind the movies of the Disney Renaissance and does something new and creative with them, the stage version follows more literally in Disney's footsteps by creating a watered-down carbon copy of the film with some shoehorned-in additional content to match the extended runtime of a Broadway show. In the case of Disney, which already has Broadway-style musical numbers in most of their films, they do this by adding unnecessary dialogue. Shrek does the opposite. The movie has some brilliant dialogue, but few original songs. The musical version pads its runtime with mediocre new songs that add very little to the story and make several scenes more awkward turning them into a knockoff Disney production rather than a satire. While I wasn't a huge fan of Disenchanted the Musical, the songs from that were at least more in the spirit of the original Shrek film than those from its own musical. Instead of making fun of Disney musicals, this show embraces them, which clashes with the satirical heart of the original film.

Suppose you were to take this show completely at face value and disregard the movie. In that case, it's a cute little story about accepting your true self and bonding over shared trauma, which is why "I Think I've Got You Beat," in which Shrek and Fiona realize that they have similar quirks due to both characters being abandoned by their parents as children, is the only truly meaningful number in the show. However, it is impossible to ignore the film and the ground-breaking impact it had on the animation industry and all the fairy tale and princess-related movies that came after it. Fiona was one of the first fairy tale princesses to be seen beating up a group of stronger-looking men, which has since become the standard. Surprisingly, that scene is not included in the live production, nor is Fiona's gorgeous musical score from the film, which was also translated into a lovely song. Essentially, Shrek The Musical removes everything that makes the Shrek franchise so memorable.

I know I sound like a negative Nancy here, which is why I decided not to make this a review. I enjoyed seeing this show live, especially now that we are living in a time when it is so rare to experience things in person. It's a sweet love story about two irreverent characters who are misunderstood by everyone except each other. However, without the elements that made the film stand out from similar movies of the time, the musical feels like a generic children's show that colors squarely within the lines. Admittedly, I have never seen a live production based on an animated film that I liked better than the original, so maybe that's just how it goes. Either way, if you enjoyed the movie but avoided the musical up to this point, I can assure you that you aren't missing much.


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