Saturday 25 July 2009

Shrek the Musical, or what were the 2007 Pulitzer Prize jury smoking?

There are many mysteries in the world of the stage. Why does Ian Bostridge always look like he is going to vomit into the piano when giving lieder recitals? Why does everybody think that Rupert Goold is the best thing since sliced bread? Why has John Berry not yet been fired as Artistic Director at ENO? Shrek the Musical adds another to this impressive list – to wit – How did the man responsible for the dreadful book and lyrics, a gentleman who rejoices in the name of David Lindsay-Abaire, ever get awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama?

Now I must admit that it is some time since I saw the film, but I seem to remember it was quite amusing and in places moving. Lindsay-Abaire's achievement in this show is thus the more extraordinary. He has, by some remarkable process known only to Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights, succeded in the surgical removal of both qualities from this show. The result is to leave some exceedingly talented players struggling for two and a half hours beneath a crushingly leaden script.

What is so depressing about this is that there are some excellent performers wasting away in this show. The stand out is Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona who lights up the stage whenever she enters. She twinkles, she belts, she tap dances. The girl can do anything – whenever she is on stage one is temporarily able to ignore the text and enjoy her expressions and her energy. Brian D'Arcy James as Shrek also tries valiantly, but suffers rather more from the lousy script than Fiona (who also benefits from the show's only decent musical number). Among the supporting cast, Christopher Sieber (as Lord Farquand) unquestionably deserves some kind of reward for physical endurance, since he performs almost the entire show on his knees including some of the most complicated dance routines. The ensemble of fairy tale creatures also do not lack for energy, but sadly are, like everybody else, let down by indifferent musical number after indifferent musical number.

That music is a further poser. Just as it is rather difficult to work out why Lindsay-Abaire ever won a Pulitzer, it is also difficult to remember that the composer of this show, Jeanine Tesori, was also responsible for the fascinating Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre. Almost all of the inventiveness of that show seems to have been drained away here, although perhaps it is simply the case that not even the music of a Gershwin or a Rodgers would be sufficient to salvage this text.

In keeping with the general trend of the modern musical (unless being put on in the blessedly intimate surroundings of the Chocolate Factory), the set goes a bit mad – although again this is possibly an attempt to distract one's attention from the script. While there is not quite so much insane whizzing around as in the dire London Oliver there is frankly more of it than seems really necessary, and by the end I wanted to weep (it was either that or chew a limb off in frustration with the script) imagining what the huge amounts of money thrown at the costumes, set and confetti cannons of this no expenses spared production might have been used for (hiring some script doctors springs immediately to mind.)

All of which brings us back to the opening question. I realise that great playwrights may not necessarily be great lyricists (a point which apparently escaped whichever bright spark in the backroom of this show thought that hiring a Pulitzer winning playwright was a good move), but it does seem to me that great playwrights should be able to write dialogue. Our list of mysteries has grown by one more did David Lindsay-Abaire ever win a Pulitzer Prize?

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