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'Shrek' Leads DreamWorks Into Broadway Battle
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'Shrek' Leads DreamWorks Into Broadway Battle

Arts & Life

'Shrek' Leads DreamWorks Into Broadway Battle
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Fourteen years ago, the Walt Disney Company formed a theatrical division and produced a hit Broadway adaptation of their animated film "Beauty and the Beast." Since then, with shows such as "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins," Disney has pretty much been the only game in town for large-scale family entertainment. But now, they've got some competition. Tonight, a musical adaptation of "Shrek" opens on Broadway. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: A long time ago in an animation studio far, far away, several movie executives and creative types were on a quest.

Mr. BILL DAMASCHKE (Head of Creative Production and Development, DreamWorks): We were searching - we were searching, what did it mean to start an animation studio? What did it mean to not be Disney? What did it mean to not be Pixar?

LUNDEN: Bill Damaschke was one of those executives. The studio was DreamWorks, and the film they were working on was "Shrek," a computer-animated movie about a smelly green ogre, a talking donkey, and a princess with a secret. Damaschke says that was the film that really put DreamWorks Animation on the map.

Mr. DAMASCHKE: With "Shrek," there was a sense of humor. There was charm and heart but wrapped up in this very irreverent type of storytelling, contemporary characters, even if they were in a world that's far, far away. And I think, with "Shrek," we kind of discovered creatively, comedically, story-wise, tone-wise what type of films we were good at making.

(Soundbite of the movie "Shrek")

Mr. MIKE MYERS: (As Shrek) Ahhhh!

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY: (As Donkey) That was really scary, and if you don't mind me saying, if that don't work, your breath certainly would get the job done because you definitely need some Tic Tacs or something because your breath stinks.

LUNDEN: The 2001 film, which took some not-so-thinly-disguised shots at Disney, was an enormous hit, winning the first Academy Award for animated feature and spawning two sequels. And now, it's spawned a very expensive musical on Broadway.

(Soundbite of "Shrek the Musical")

Mr. BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES: (As Shrek) (Singing) Your big, bright beautiful world. I'm happy where I am all alone.

LUNDEN: Gordon Cox covers theater for Variety. He says the $25 million production of "Shrek the Musical" has DreamWorks once again moving onto Disney's turf.

Mr. GORDON COX (Writer, Variety): It is one of the boldest attempts from a Hollywood studio to kind of replicate what Disney has been so successful at over the last 10 or 12 years, which is, you know, basically create an in-house theatrical production arm that adapts their popular animated films into hopefully popular Broadway shows. And as the first well-funded outing and a really high-profile outing, it is something that people have their eye on and want to see whether it sells or not.

(Soundbite of "Shrek the Musical")

Mr. JAMES: (As Shrek) (Singing) Things are looking up into luck.

CHORUS: (Singing) Just take a look.

LUNDEN: And like Disney, who enlisted artists from the worlds of off-Broadway, the ballet and opera to adapt their films, DreamWorks has lined up a high-profile creative team that includes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and three-time Tony-nominated composer Jeanine Tesori. While the writers felt honor-bound to keep familiar elements and lines from the film, producer Bill Damaschke says they also felt free to explore the characters more deeply and create new situations for them.

Mr. DAMASCHKE: I hope that when people come to see "Shrek," that it will feel completely familiar, yet completely original at the same time. It's all the stuff I love about the movie and tons more than that.

(Soundbite of "Shrek the Musical")

Unidentified Women: (Singing) Now I know he'll appear because there are rules and there are strictures.

LUNDEN: When the process of developing "Shrek" into a musical began several years ago, Broadway was in a much healthier financial place. But with orchestra seats costing over $100 during an economic downturn, even a branded entertainment like "Shrek" is high risk. Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News says Disney has had its flops and is currently offering a special family discount for tickets to its shows.

Mr. JEREMY GERARD (Editor, Bloomberg News): The Disney brand is not a sure-fire thing at the box office. It's got to be a great show. The family shows are going to take a brutal hit in this economy because it's so expensive to bring your family to a show, and it better be great. It better not have your kids falling asleep or saying, oh, that was OK. That's not good enough, and that will be the test for "Shrek."

(Soundbite of "Shrek the Musical")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Top this, I missed my prom...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) My dad and mom, sent me away. It was my birthday.

Unidentified Woman: I was sent away on Christmas Eve.

LUNDEN: "Shrek" is aggressively courting audiences, offering deep discounts through mid-January, taking over a corner of the Times Square subway station with humorous ads promising that Broadway is getting a make-ogre, appealing to teens and college students with a Facebook-style Web site called And this week, the show began running traditional TV ads, says co-producer Caro Newling.

Ms. CARO NEWLING (Co-producer, Shrek the Musical): It will really demonstrate that the "Shrek the Musical" experience is a proper, big, Broadway experience for people who might be struggling with the - well, how did they put that on stage? We will, with the TV spot, be actually showing them that they get, you know, the bang for their buck, as it were - and they really do.

LUNDEN: "Shrek the Musical" opens at the Broadway Theater tonight. While the producers hope for a storybook ending, the critics, who can sometimes be ogres, weigh in with their opinions tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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