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'Shrek' Leads DreamWorks Into Broadway Battle

Fourteen years ago, the Walt Disney Co. formed a theatrical division and produced a hit Broadway adaptation of its animated film, Beauty and the Beast. Since then, Disney — with shows such as The Lion King and Mary Poppins — has pretty much been the only game in town for large-scale family entertainment at the theater.

Now, there's some competition from DreamWorks. On Sunday, Shrek: The Musical opens at the Broadway Theatre.

The 2001 computer-animated film, which took some not-so-thinly disguised shots at Disney, features a smelly green ogre, a talking donkey and a princess with a secret. "With Shrek, there was a sense of humor, there was charm and heart, but wrapped up in this very irreverent type of storytelling," says DreamWorks executive Bill Damaschke. With it, "we kind of discovered ... what type of films we were good at making."

Shrek was an enormous hit, winning the first Academy Award for an animated feature and spawning two sequels.

Turf Wars

The $25 million theatrical production has DreamWorks once again moving onto Disney's turf, says Gordon Cox, who covers theater for Variety.

"It is one of the boldest attempts from a Hollywood studio to kind of replicate what Disney has been so successful at ... [to] basically create an in-house theatrical production arm that adapts their popular animated films into, hopefully, popular Broadway shows," Cox says. "And as the first well-funded outing — and really high-profile outing — it is something that people have their eye on and want to see whether it sells or not."

Like Disney, which enlisted artists from off-Broadway, the ballet and opera to adapt its 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 Damaschke says they also felt free to explore the characters more deeply and create new situations for them.

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

Facing A Harsh Climate

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 more than $100 during an economic downturn, even a branded entertainment like Shrek is high risk.

Disney has had its flops and currently is offering a special family discount for show tickets, says Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News. "The Disney brand is not a sure-fire thing at the box office," he says. "The family shows are going to take a brutal hit in this economy because it's so expensive. ... 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."

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," and appealing to teens and college students with a Facebook-style Web site called Shrekster.com.

While the producers hope for a storybook ending, the critics — who can sometimes be ogres – will weigh in with their opinions.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.