That was the challenge facing the creative team behind Shrek the Musical, the re-telling for stage of the DreamWorks Animation 2001 smash hit film Shrek, the story of an ogre whose peaceful swamp solitude is upended by the arrival of banished fairytale creatures, necessitating a journey to rectify the matter that culminates in finding true love. The Broadway version enjoyed a 13-month run, closing in January 2010. Now on tour, it comes to Segerstrom Center for the Arts October 4–16.
Nominated for eight 2009 Tony® Awards, including Best Musical, the show won one, for Best Costume Design of a Musical; costume designer Tim Hatley also provided the fanciful sets. As did all the show's creators, the British-born Hatley took his cues from the film, but worked his magic specifically for theater. He'd been recruited in part because of his Tony-nominated work on Monty Python's Spamalot, which had a similar witty-silly sensibility, and because he had won a 2002 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for a revival of the play Private Lives.
For the stage, Hatley made the decision to downsize Shrek, relatively speaking. "He needs to be lovable, human, agile," he told the Seattle Times, just before the show's pre-Broadway run in that city. "It's a big terrain he has to cover onstage, and it wouldn't work if we made him super-big, with the actor wearing stilts."
What did work is a head mask/shoulder pad prosthetic device covered by green foam latex, which in turn covers the forehead, cheeks, chin and ears of the actor playing Shrek. For the mask, a cast is made of the performer's face, so that all the pieces are formed specifically to that particular actor. The eyelids, eyebrows and lips are real; the upper eyelids and upper lip are painted green. It takes 90 minutes for make-up and another 15 to 20 to get into the 45-pound fat suit. Add three-inch lifts inside boots and voila! Not-quite-instant Shrek.
Princess Fiona's long, green dress is similar to that in the film, made in various sizes as the character wearing it transforms from princess to ogre. "The green dress has a beautifully detailed velvet bodice," Hatley told the Seattle Times. "But this is not fashion; it's theater. So it's all about textures and how it moves under the lights."
For Donkey, a fairytale swamp resident who accompanies Shrek on his quest, Hatley devised a full-body costume, enabling the actor inside it to stand or walk like a four-legged animal. "The fur is fabric threaded with venetian-blind cords," Hatley said, "to make it swing and move."
Donkey's tail is made of real horse hair, rather than donkey hair. "We braid it to give it texture, flat iron it and then unbraid it," says Mitchell Beck, associate hair designer and hair supervisor for the Shrek the Musical national tour. Beck, whose other tour credits include Spamalot, Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard, is responsible for the show's 120 wigs; only Shrek doesn't wear a wig (he wears a bald cap), while for most of the other actors, playing multiple roles calls for multiple wigs.
"We call it quick-change village [backstage]," says Beck, who keeps a notebook with photos of every set and comb-out. "For the very first change, from villagers to fairytale creatures, we have two minutes, and sometimes, a minute and a half. You have to have the costumes and wigs pre-set. Everything's choreographed backstage, just as it is onstage." Late in the show, when Princess Fiona transforms into an ogress, "It takes seven of us to make it happen, in less than a minute."
Fiona's wig undergoes its own transformation. Her long red braid is made from human hair for beauty and shine; after her metamorphosis, her shorter 'do is made from yak hair. The latter, Beck says, is "malleable, very coarse and easier to buy than human hair. It agrees with the design." It is also used for Shrek's mother, "the way it catches the light, the way it looks, matches Mama Ogre's costume," he adds.
Then there are the fairytale characters, such as Pinocchio, Peter Pan, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Ugly Duckling, the White Rabbit and the Pied Piper, for whom wig/hair designer David Brian Brown, with Beck's assistance, created new shades and methods of upkeep. For the Sugar Plum Fairy, for instance, "We use a certain kind of color process to make the colors pop," Beck says. The Wicked Witch's red wig is adorned with purple and red streaks to make it look aflame; the Dragon also sports a purple streak.
"We used different shades of purple, red, yellow, blue and orange," Beck says.
And, of course, green.
Libby Slate is a Los Angeles-based arts writer.
Dates: October 4–16, 2011
Tickets: $20 and up
For tickets and information, visit SCFTA.org or
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