It’s one thing to turn a 26-page children’s book about an ogre, a princess and a dragon into a cartoon movie.
It’s quite another challenge to turn the smash-hit animated movie, familiar to millions, into a live Broadway musical.
Just ask Stephen Sposito, director of the national tour of “Shrek the Musical,” which arrives Tuesday at the Orpheum Theater for an eight-performance run. On a stage, you can’t draw your way around the problem of a chronically short prince, a fierce and flirty dragon or a princess suddenly transformed into an ogre.
“It’s always sort of a tightrope walk, working with a property so well known,” Sposito said last month amid rehearsals with the road company in New York City. “You want to make it new, but also keep it true to the source material.”
Bill Damaschke, chief creative officer for DreamWorks and head of DreamWorks Theatricals, confirms the daunting task of adaptation, tracing it all the way back to the movie’s origins.
“They explored puppetry at one point,” Damaschke said by phone from Los Angeles. “At another, they had a whole different character design and look for the movie.”
The 1997 death of actor Chris Farley, who had recorded most of Shrek’s dialogue for the movie, was another turning point. Fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Mike Myers took his place, giving the character a Scottish accent.
“There was a very hilly and bumpy development period till it found its core,” Damaschke said of the movie.
But when the movie’s directors, Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, settled on a spoof of all things fairy tale, and a sendup of pop culture, that idea unlocked what the movie and then the musical became, Damaschke said.
“Shrek the Musical” translates the story into the language of musical theater, Sposito said. It celebrates the genre with playful pokes at other Broadway musicals — including some based on hit cartoon movies — staying true to the movie’s tongue-in-cheek tone.
“Shrek” began as a 1990 children’s book by William Steig. Steven Spielberg, one of the founding partners in DreamWorks, bought the film rights. Another partner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was enthusiastic about the simple story of an ogre on a quest to rescue a princess.
In the movie, Shrek the ogre agrees to the rescue so he’ll be left alone in his swamp. Instead he gets a new best friend, Donkey, and falls in love with Princess Fiona.
“Shrek is an outsider,” Sposito pointed out. “We all, at some point, feel like an outsider. He goes on a journey and finds out where he belongs in the world. That’s a journey everyone goes on. Life surprises us all. And not everyone is what they appear to be at first sight.”
Those universal themes, plus a simple story children could follow, plus witty fairy-tale and pop-culture spoofs for adults, turned “Shrek” into the top-grossing animated franchise of all time. Four Shrek movies, plus a “Puss in Boots” spinoff, have hauled in $3.5 billion.
In 2002, the original “Shrek” won the first Oscar for best animated feature and was nominated for adapted screenplay as well.
Soon after, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) proposed a musical version.
Mendes got busy with other projects, so Damaschke and DreamWorks Theatricals hired Jason Moore, who had directed “Avenue Q” on Broadway.
Unlike other animated movies made into musicals — “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” — “Shrek” the movie didn’t have its own hit songs. For those, DreamWorks hired writer-lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire (“High Fidelity,” “Rabbit Hole”) and composer Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”).
“Her composing had a lot of variety, different voices,” Damaschke said. “She found an R&B sound for the dragon, a villain sound for the prince, a rock-theater sound for Shrek.”
Lindsay-Abaire, meanwhile, answered questions in his witty lyrics: How did Shrek get in that swamp? Why is the prince so angry at the fairy tale creatures? How does the dragon feel, guarding the princess? Lindsay-Abaire’s wit and sophistication, Sposito said, were what the movie had and the musical needed.
“You try to find moments in the story that are musical,” Sposito said. “Where does the story get big enough to sing? How do we tell this story using the language of musical theater? Maybe a splashy dance number about the kingdom of Duloc. Maybe the princess talking to the animals. Maybe rats with tap shoes.”
After a tryout in Seattle, “Shrek the Musical” opened on Broadway in December 2008. Despite mixed reviews, it got eight Tony nods, including best musical, and ran for just over a year.
The revamped road-tour version, which Omahans will see, features a reimagined dragon that can fly and move more quickly, a new opening with a lighter tone, and a story less bogged down in backstory.
“We continue to refine it to what audiences will enjoy and have responded to in the past,” Sposito said.
In the end, Damaschke said, musicals and animated movies have a lot in common in the development process.
“In both, you try to have as many chances at working on your piece, trying things out, as you can. In animation we work over the material in screenings. In theater, it’s workshops and out-of-town tryouts.”
But the stage musical, Sposito said, is different in one essential way.
“We’ve got great musical numbers and dancing and costumes. And it’s all live, that’s what’s different. Shrek’s in the flesh, right in front of you. The dragon, the magic, the princess — it’s all living and breathing, which is sort of thrilling.”
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