Shrek the Musical: Keeping a monster show on the road

Staging the box-office busting musical Shrek is a huge logistical challenge, writes Jo Kerrigan

EVERYBODY knows and loves Shrek, the unlikely hero with his loyal steed Donkey. Born in a book written and illustrated by William Steig back in 1990, this tale of a young ogre who leaves home to seek love and fortune has become in turn a bestselling story, an award-winning animation film, and finally an all-singing all-dancing stage musical.

“Any time that you have great characters on a journey, it can make a great musical,” says original director Rob Ashford. Co-director of the Broadway hit, Jason Moore, agrees. “It also makes a good musical because it makes you laugh, makes you feel something and makes you want the characters to win.”

Shrek has broken box-office records wherever it has played. This week it is coming to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin and while excitement is high among theatregoers young and old, it’s nothing to the work that goes on behind the scenes to get this massive touring show on its way and opening on time at each new venue.

Neil White is company manager on Shrek: The Musical and when we spoke he was up to his ears in overseeing the takedown in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. Nevertheless, the feelgood factor that permeates this happy-go-lucky musical extends even to those with the most demanding jobs, it appears, as White is cheerfully unruffled and willing to talk about the logistics of keeping the show on the road while all around his team are working at full speed.

“The entire thing travels in seven 45’ trucks and it takes a good 48 hours to set up. Once the final curtain comes down on Sunday night in Belfast, it’s all hands on deck to strike the lot and get everything — sets, costumes, props — packed into the trucks for the journey to Dublin where we immediately start building.

“It has to be ready to open on Tuesday night no matter what.”

Shrek has an actual cast of 22 but between them, explains White, they play 110 different characters. “So every moment they’re not actually onstage they are changing in the wings. It’s like a Formula One pit stop, absolutely frantic.” Eleven local dressers are co-opted at each new venue to help with the quick changes.

That’s in addition to the company’s own four staff on wardrobe, four on wigs, and four on make-up. (It takes a full two-and-a-half hours to get Shrek himself made up and ready for the stage at every single performance.) “Then there are the stage crew, the fly men, the scene shifters, the prop people — we have nearly 100 people backstage.”

Being company manager, the buck stops at White when anything looks like going wrong on this major piece of staging that often gives two performances a day.

“There is one over-riding rule: the show has to happen, on time, no matter what. You can’t disappoint your audience so of course everybody works overtime to sort it. Yes, I’m the manager, but I am lucky to have a simply great team behind me. And it’s so much fun to work on, this show, that everybody enjoys it. It’s impossible to feel sad or go around with a gloomy face when all that fun is happening. And to hear the excitement building in the auditorium before the curtain goes up — that’s amazing.”

It’s demanding, of course, he admits. “But how many people can wake up in the morning and really look forward to going to work?”

Shrek: The Musical, Bord Gais Theatre, Dublin, Oct 21-Nov 9 01 677 7999; www.Ticketmaster.ie  


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