Shrek The Musical puts DreamWorks’ animated blockbuster on stage at the Broadway Theatre. Triple-threat designer Tim Hatley took on the challenges of set, costume, and puppet design for the show not long after finishing work on Monty Python’s Spamalot, which opened in 2005.
The inaugural live-action offering from DreamWorks Theatricals, the $20-million show is a coproduction with Neal Street Productions. “Knowing Sam Mendes and Caro Newling at Neal Street and having done Spamalot, my first musical, got me involved,” says Hatley. “They were keen to find a team that hadn’t done the project 101 times before. They wanted relative newcomers, and we all fit the bill.”
The show tried out at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre last August and September, before opening on Broadway this past December. “Creating it has been a huge chunk of our lives,” says Hatley, who adds that part of it was waiting. “For a year and a half, there was nothing on my notepad except the word ‘Shrek.’ There was no score and no book, no indication of whether it was going to be just the first film, as was eventually decided, or the two sequels as well, and no title. It was an open book, and I just got on with it.”
With everything up for grabs in the early stages, the biggest decisions were how much to stick to the 2001 movie, says Hatley. The designers could, however, do it differently. “The clothes in the movie are plain and not very detailed,” Hatley says. “At the beginning of the project, I spent a few days with the animators in LA, who were working on Shrek the Third. They said that the one thing they weren’t able to do on the first Shrek was animate fabric, which was time-consuming and expensive. If I just copied the film, it would look really, really dull. So we went for great cuts, colors, and textures.”
Shrek’s lady love, Princess Fiona, has a bodice made from organza, cut velvet, and a silk base. “Color-wise it’s a number of greens that work well with Sutton.” Donkey is clad in a costume made entirely from bespoke fur. “It’s not an off-the-shelf fun fur, but something unique, with a scale to it. It’s a stretched net, with short suede cord ties individually tied on, like a rug, and lightweight and aerated. ”For Shrek’s vertically-challenged nemesis, the fairy tale-hating Lord Farquaad, “The design is a simple vaudeville trick, just sticking a pair of shoes on his kneecaps. We cover his shins in a shin guard that is molded to his leg and heavily padded. The shoes are on a complicated, articulated mechanism that allows the feet to move up and down so it appears as if he’s walking…”
Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James, in the title role, is encased in a green prosthetic head that takes 90 minutes to get on. “His costume is basically an enormous fat suit, but we had to get it moving, so it wasn’t like a stuffed cushion,” Hatley says. “We layered in different types of foam, with different weights, so it’s sort of like a bean bag, with a belly that hangs and sags. It’s got holes cut into it so that air can travel up, though it’s still hot. He’s got a release mechanism on the top outer layer of his wool costume that can clip away very quickly and open up so air can get to him very quickly when he comes offstage.”
Hatley’s sets recall the ones in the film but do not duplicate them. The swamp where Shrek lives “is the swamp of the film, with a door set among stumps that abstractly form the house he has in the movie,” he says. “What I’m most proud is the floor of the stage, which PRG Scenic Technologies built for us. There are no tracks on it at all. There is one giant revolve, with a smaller revolve inside that, and an even smaller one inside that, all moving in different directions, but very subtly. This enables, for example, Shrek’s door to travel up and down stage and Fiona’s castle to come up through the floor and move forward at the same time.”
The most complicated set element is Farquaad’s advisor, the 12-foot high by 8-foot wide Magic Mirror, for which Hatley designed the mirror and frame. “We went through various ideas for that…we settled on an LED screen—a 500x300 pixels XL Video F-LED 11mm LED wall—and Live Time live animation, which may come as a surprise, as it looks like a pre-recorded film segment. John Tartaglia has motion-capture points on his face, so as he moves in realtime, the animation changes on the screen. We have the potential to build in interactivity with the audience, but we haven’t done that yet.”
Atop the to-do list from the start was deciding on a green for Shrek. “The lighting is always changing, as well as where Shrek is and what he’s standing against: the green swamp, the white-blue of Farquaad’s kingdom, Duloc, or the dark blue of the dragon’s keep,” says Hatley. “A green that was effective in one setting didn’t work in another; it would go yellow in the dragon’s keep. Hugh [Vanstone] worked closely with Naomi to get that working.”
For the full article, check out the March issue of Live Design.