Please see the events listing for upcoming events.
Experience a radical reimagining of “the greatest fairy tale never told.” Shrek the Musical follows the adventures of a curmudgeonly ogre, his best friend, Donkey, and the spirited Princess Fiona, who confront the evil Lord Farquaad in pursuit of happily ever after. Along the way, they discover the power of celebrating your true self. Featuring Jeanine Tesori’s brilliant Broadway score and set in a funky, urban landscape, this theatrical fable for grown-ups will make you a believer.
Book and Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Based on the book by William Steig
Directed by Laura Marie Duncan
Music directed and conducted by Eric Stern
The 2:00 p.m. performance of Shrek the Musical on Saturday, November 16 will feature an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. If you are interested in viewing the performance with clear sightlines of the interpreter, please choose the price code “ASL Interpretation” when purchasing tickets.
This performance has been selected as part of Boston Conservatory at Berklee's 2019–2020 Center Stage collection. Learn more about Center Stage and view all Center Stage performances.
ABOUT COMPOSER JEANINE TESORI
Songs for the Swamp: Shrek Composer Jeanine Tesori
By Alyssa Schmidt, Shrek the Musical Dramaturg
To understand why composer Jeanine Tesori deems Shrek the Musical a “quest” story, it is helpful to trace her own journey from piano playing at the age of three, to studying to become a doctor, to creating music for a swamp on Broadway.
Born in 1961 on Long Island, Tesori was raised in Port Washington by parents who were in the medical field and encouraged her to express herself artistically. They often opened the home for those found too ill to be in a hospital, helping Tesori develop a sense of empathy that informs much of her work, such as her thoughtful treatment of a young woman who seeks transformation following an awful accident in Violet (1997), of the psychological trauma navigated by the title character of Caroline, or Change (2003), and of Alison coming to terms with her closeted father’s suicide in Fun Home (2015). How did this once pre-med student become the prolific and decorated theatrical composer that she is, with five Tony nominations for five Broadway musical scores, including a win for Fun Home shared with Lisa Kron that made history as the first writing team of women to win that award?
Tesori reminisces that, as a child, she could not have dreamed of a later career that at the time “felt like it was something else I couldn’t figure out,” wondering what she was “going to do with the piano besides play it?” By the time Tesori switched her college major to music, her ambitions were more clear: “It was almost switching from organic chemistry to species counterpoint; it used a similar part of my brain,” she offers. This cerebral side is matched only by her own high standards for herself, especially once she moved from nearly a decade arranging and conducting before her foray into composing for musical theater at age 31. A frequent collaborator with Tesori, Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner deems her work ethic of tremendous heart and extraordinary rigor, beyond compare. When we examine Tesori’s remarkable body of work as a theater composer specifically, her abiding interest in diverse construction of songs and characters who ask for our compassion emerge, from her command of music and of those characters who are, in her observation, often “the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center.”
Tesori’s contribution to Shrek is the result of her command of both the artistry and construction demanded of such a sweeping project. After Steven Spielberg bought the rights to William Steig’s children’s book Shrek! (1990) in 1991, DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberger became interested and secured the rights in 1995. After a couple years of discussions and false starts, producer Bill Damaschke describes a “come to our senses” moment after the team had considered enlisting “17 different composers” to fill an eclectic jukebox of songs, akin to the way the film mixes in Leonard Cohen with Smash Mouth. Tesori’s name came up when they decided that this opportunity deserved a composer who was a storyteller, who could truly take on the transformation of an animated classic to the unique possibilities of live theater. Tesori, who had experience working on incidental music for film, treaded lightly into the project, honoring the obvious inspiration in the DreamWorks film while taking care not to be haunted by it. All involved in the project recalled that Katzenberg’s constant cry was “don’t just put the movie on stage,” and Tesori and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, creator of the book and lyrics, took this to heart. Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire addressed their collaboration on the music and lyrics of Shrek—“obstacles, fires, moats, with some farts and burps,” she quipped—with equal parts whimsy and reverence, fitting for a story that lovingly disrupts traditional expectations about everything from fairy tales to beauty standards.
In conversation, Tesori makes clear that at the outset, she approached Shrek like she had every other musical: “I do it based on what I don’t know.” Questions emerged from the motion picture, such as ‘how did Shrek get where he is?,’ an inquiry Tesori explains was answered by the “first two pages” of William Steig’s 1990 children’s book Shrek!, upon which the film is based. Further consideration of this “little darling [now] out in the world doing his share of damage” (Steig) led Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire into more material from DreamWork’s initial ideas for the film, things that “normally would’ve ended up in the bottom of desk drawers,” but that delighted Tesori to organize and imagine anew. The matter of expanding not only the characters but also the soundscape of the story daunted her at first. The challenge, in her words, is that the songs “need not to polarize, or pull apart, when the story itself is so inclusive.”
In interviews on the process of developing Shrek the Musical, Tesori asserts that the entire creative team had a vision that while this “foul and fearless” (Steig) ogre was born on Broadway, Shrek’s is a story that everyone should have access to, especially communities and schools on a budget prohibitive of major technological or design elements. Tesori insists that because “spectacle is not what theater does best,” the songs of Shrek need to step in and impress where a moment of spectacle may have appealed to the audience of the movie. Perhaps her work on the waltz-inspired “When Words Fail” is most illuminative in how music can aid this story steeped in metamorphosis:
It was all about possibility and this guy who’s a hero who looks like the villain, summoning up the strength to go out on a limb. He’s auditioning himself for this new role as a romantic hero. It’s really touching and very funny and at the very end, he completely fails, in his perception. So it’s all a show about what it looks like versus what is.
Shrek is a story about outsiders trying to find their own way, despite the way they may be seen by others. Transformations are characterized by restlessness, by growing pains, by awe in revelations of one’s own inner self. Tesori works in constant wonder of such “science and mystery,” inquiring into every moment, considering what, and who, is as of yet, unfinished, and what discoveries can be made through song. Music is “an odyssey,” Tesori says, “where you go away from home, you develop, and then you return different because of all the changes that have happened on the way.”
ABOUT 'SHREK!' AUTHOR WILLIAM STEIG
The Story Behind Shrek, Illustrated
By Alyssa Schmidt, Shrek the Musical Dramaturg
In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Caldecott Medal, author William Steig (1907–2003) offers a perspective that makes the path of his book Shrek! from page to the stage seem inevitable: “Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe.”
Steig’s ability to tell stories both intimate and iconoclastic are the result of a life spent in reverence of all those close to him, mixed with a distaste for conformity and the injustices of the class system. One of the most prolific cartoonists for the New Yorker for more than 70 years, Steig is known for his later-career children’s books, especially the Caldecott-winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and the ancestor to the musical, Shrek! (1990). Steig’s impulse to channel his worldview into something creative was cultivated throughout his life. Steig was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents who imparted empathy for the downtrodden, reflected in their involvement in socialist labor reform.
The tense wartime atmosphere directly informed Steig’s mid-century commentary on humankind’s foibles and follies. Though his decision to delve into creating children’s books at the age of 60 may seem like a departure from his satiric illustrations, no one can accuse Steig of losing his acerbic side. The inspiration for both the 2001 animated film and 2009 musical, Shrek! began to “give off his awful fumes” in 1990. The name “Shrek” is a Yiddish word that is synonymous with fear or fright. Steig’s employment of punctuation in the title is echoed in the titular ogre’s hissing, cackling, snapping, belching, swaggering, snapping, and snorting from the swamp where he was “hatched” to living “horribly ever after” with the princess whom a witch had foretold him was “even uglier” than he, and “like fire and smoke,” they belonged together.
Lest one pity Shrek, it must be noted: in this topsy-turvy world, Shrek grins as he gobbles on lightning bolts, is amused by an irascible dragon who proves no match for his “putrid blue flame,” is rude to the “jabbering jackass” who carries him for several pages, and his nightmare is napping in a field of flowers where children frolic and birds warble. His frightening exterior is not armor, it is his regalia, as our insight into his thoughts instruct us: “How it tickled him to be so repulsive!” The delightful illogic of Steig’s ogre is that he is not so much immune to insult as inspired by it. This is reflected in a scene in which Shrek, after overwhelming a knight with a blast of fire to enter a castle, sees himself in a hall of mirrors containing hundreds of appallingly hideous creatures. He faces his many selves, "full of rabid self-esteem, happier than ever to be exactly what he was." This is not the vulnerable Shrek of the stage musical, wherein the oft-sardonic whimsy remains, but a more consequential threat materializes, to Shrek’s sense of self, and to the world he inhabits: Lord Farquaad.
The guarantee throughout Steig’s books is that characters are surprised by circumstance—potions will falter, lightning will strike, favors will be taken for granted, storms will come, and we will lose our way. The manifestation of this in Shrek! may seem inexplicable, but we would do well to imagine ourselves as the ones surprised by circumstance in his story: Shrek is different, and he lives a long life with the princess “scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them.” In this final line, we learn that Shrek is content to be himself, warts and all; it is those who are afraid of him that make him scary.
Might we bend and lean as the trees do as the awful fumes from this seeming monster go by, to learn greater compassion? In Steig’s words, we ought to build worlds other than our own in art because “unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, [art] helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life.”