It takes a lot of courage, patience, and dedication to commit oneself to a pre-show ritual of cumbersome green prosthetics, a medieval fat suit, and guy tights. Even more impressive, the natural ability to elevate the physical phenomenon known as “flatulence” to an art form — on the Broadway stage, no less. And yet, musical theater star Brian d’Arcy James does it all — with a wink and a belch and a swamp-ful of gusto.
“It’s an amazing experience playing Shrek, feeling from the very beginning of the show how receptive the audience is to this big green ogre,” he says. “Shrek is a magnetizing character who draws kids in because they relate to him. He wants what they want: a friend and a home and to be happy.”
Of course, to get to his happy ending place, Shrek must go through all those fairytale heroics that made the animated film version such a blockbuster (and led to two sequels, with two more in the planning). On the massive stage of the Broadway Theatre, though, having a flesh-and-blood Shrek, Princess Fiona, Donkey, Lord Farquaad — not to mention oodles of storybook personalities — to act out the exploits ratchets up the magical ante to spectacular proportions.
D’Arcy James, who appreciates an irreverent, fantasy-packed adventure story as much as the next guy, has been a fan of the Shrek
films since the get-go. “I’ve seen them all. I can even remember where I was when I saw them and with whom,” he recalls. “My daughter, Grace, loves the movies, too. She’s was 6 when I started working on the role and was definitely interested in how I was going to become the ogre.”
Having a young child around during his metamorphosis certainly gave the Tony-nominated actor an interesting perspective. “As I was creating the role, I kept trying to imagine how this or that would impact her,” he says. “And early on there was some question as to where Daddy ended and the ogre began.”
Which didn’t stop her from becoming an active participant in her father’s creative process. “She started giving me notes on my accent — letting me know what didn’t sound right,” he adds.
The original story has been both embellished considerably from the engaging children’s book by William Steig, and lovingly tweaked for its transformation from screen to stage. In keeping with the overall spirit of Shrek
, however, the musical definitely sticks with the original notion of reinventing the standard fairytale format.
A curmudgeonly ogre — chartreuse, super chubby, with little trumpet ears — is the hero; a singing/dancing/standup-comic Donkey (played to hilt by the wonderful Daniel Breaker) is his devoted sidekick; and a gorgeous red-haired Princess with attitude to spare (Sutton Foster) is the object of his affection (and vice versa). Oh, and as for the villain — well, it’s one thing to see an embarrassingly puny Lord Farquaad cartoon, but quite another to see six-foot-plus actor Christopher Sieber portray the snarky evildoer on his knees with tiny faux leg appendages.
d’Arcy James, who’s starred in such shows as Sweet Smell of Success
and The Apple Tree
, makes it clear that his fellow cast members make doing this show pure joy for him. “I’ve been in a lot of big musicals, but I will say that our director, Jason Moore, said from the beginning he was hell-bent on finding people who were hilarious and talented and willing to take risks,” he says. “I’ve never worked in an ensemble who has given so much thought to what they’re bringing to the parts. Each member of the company is amazing.”
Still, it’s the audience — little kids and grownup kids who share a love for oddball romance and cheeky, gross-out humor — who bring it all home for d’Arcy James. “One of my favorite stories is about the cutest little girl — she couldn’t have been than 4 — who pulled me aside after a performance, and clearly she felt she had to tell me something very important. So I bent down and she said to me, very seriously: ‘I like to fart, too.’”
And just in case you’re wondering, the stage musical has been a big hit with many of the stars from the film. Cameron Diaz (the voice of Princess Fiona) has seen the show twice, and Mike Meyers dropped in backstage prior to catching a performance in January. And while Meyers doesn’t have to deal with marathon makeup like d’Arcy James does when he plays Shrek, he empathizes thanks to his multiple roles in his Austin Powers
“We commiserated,” says d’Arcy James, adding that Stephen Spielberg (DreamWorks Theatricals was responsible for the film) had some wonderful things to say about the show. “He said that after seeing the musical, it was hard to imagine the story without music. It was so kind of him to say that — and, quite thrilling to see how impressed he was.” Shrek the Musical
is playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd Streets). For reservations, call 212-239-6200.