“One movie cannot contain him.”
– Roger Ebert, 2001 review of Shrek
As I type this, there are men in America who dress up and perform as Shrek every night for a living.
Soliders fight overseas for these Shreks. These Shreks are taxed by their government accordingly for their Shrek-related activities. These Shreks are our fathers, our brothers, our tour guides at local museums when productions of Shrek aren’t happening. They are us, if we were Shrek.
As I type this, there is also an editor who would allow an adult writer to see Shrek: The Musical five times in a row at Wheelock Family Theatre in a mentally taxing endurance activity we’ll call #shrekweek — an action that makes it hard for me to look in the mirror. That is, until I put on my Shrek ears, which are hilarious.
So how has Shrek, a film intended as a sucker-punch to Disney fairytale juggernauts and loaded with early-aughts topical references, somehow followed us all the way into 2015?
Let’s go on a disturbing journey together.
Day 1: There’s No Fourth Wall To Break in Shrek, For It Is a Mirror
Maybe seven isn’t too early for irony after all. “Shrek” is postmodernism for towheads, pastiche for the potty-trained.
– David Denby’s review for Shrek 3 in 2007, The New Yorker
Attended with: No one
Stayed Through: Entire show
A cursory Google search could have prevented #shrekweek from happening, as this is not my first time harassing local productions of Shrek: The Musical. Fortunately this fate was avoided, and last Sunday’s matinee performance was effectively Day One.
Wheelock’s production is a good one that executes the material well. Shrek himself (Christopher Chew) is impressive and consistent in the title role, Shonna Cirone brings the same biting sarcasm Sutton Foster did in her role as Fiona, Mark Linehan steals the show in the physically taxing role of Farquaad, and Maurice Parent wins over every kid in the audience with his Donkey. The ensemble, which includes everything from eighth graders to professionals, are versatile and energetic, and the puppetry used for the Dragon is masterful.
But this doesn’t resolve Shrek: The Musical’s biggest issue: the fact that it even exists. Stay with me.
Bring yourself back to the spring of 2001, when a pre-9/11 world was enamored with all things ogre. Back when the phrases “Eddie Murphy” and “box office hit” could be used accurately in the same sentence. Shrek has always been positioned as a franchise that gets it, though a quick look at the storyline might indicate otherwise. Part of the point was that Shrek, Donkey and the other residents of Duloc didn’t burst into song like other kiddie movies.
Fortunately, he doesn’t break into song to explain his aching psyche, though he might as well.
–Elvis Mitchell, 2001 review of Shrek for NYT
Yet here I sit, the dawn of my five-day stint, watching Shrek and Fiona engage in an onstage fart-off while singing about their childhoods. A baby cries somewhere in the mezzanine. Here I sit, listening to Shrek belt, “What a fool to think she might love me / I opened my heart and let her walk through!” in a tune that sounds suspiciously like a Bon Jovi B-side. Here I sit, listening to one of many career Shreks sing in a voice so unflinchingly earnest that I roll my eyes back into my head in the hopes that they will get stuck there permanently, I wonder how I’m going to make it through the next verse, let alone four more shows. That’s #shrekweek in a nutshell.
Via Boston Globe
Shrek: The Musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008 when the franchise was already three movies deep, is not good.
It takes everything palatable about its source material and overcooks it into a heavy, dry loaf of something you eat to be polite — it’s not like you’re going to get your money back, so you might as well. And being as loaded as it is with throwaway Hollywood references, isn’t aging well. STM has since stopped touring and now resides in the retirement home of Broadway musicals, on the stages of regional and community theaters.
STM’s weakness is the presence of the M — while the music itself isn’t bad, it’s clumsily shoehorned into a story that took pride in not including it. When brought to the stage, the public domain fairytale Shrek jokes that took movie audiences by storm are delivered with a ham fist, a quality that Wheelock has exasperated by sliding in references to the Green Monster and Big Papi, after which the actors mug at the parents in a desperate attempt to connect. See? Shrek and Donkey are like us because their childhoods were awful and they know who the Red Sox are. Worth the price of admission yet?
That said, I know every word to every song and wept at all the correct weeping moments and some incorrect ones, too.
After the show ends, I venture out to the “Shrek red carpet,” but am too shy and enamored to take anything except pictures without permission.
Takeaway: Anyone can see this show once.
Day 2: The Volatility of Farquaadpolitiks
“He’s a walking embodiment of overcompensation.”
– John Lithgow on Lord Farquaad, 2001
Attended with: A complete stranger
Stayed through: “Build A Wall”
After a day off from STM, I arrived with my date, a complete stranger named Gabe. I am excited but nervous. What if my very strong opinions on Shrek are very different from his?
I spend most of this particular performance staving off a migraine that I would later discover directly corresponds to the presence of Shrek onstage, and take several pages of obsessive notes about Farquaadpolitiks. This was a day of closer examination, after the giddy sheen of my very first STM had worn off and been replaced with a fresh hunger for meaning.
Via ChannelSerf, Christopher Sieber in the OBC of Shrek: The Musical in 2008
STM goes into the backgrounds of Shrek, Fiona and Farquaad in egregious detail, and all three of their stories are strikingly similar: Abandoned by their parents, embittered to the world, left to their own devices to make their way in the world. Yet, Lord Farquaad’s circumstance is painted as ridiculous and unsympathetic in “The Ballad of Farquaad” while Shrek and Fiona bond over it in “I Think I Got You Beat.” His father was Grumpy of Snow White fame, his mother was Princess Pea, and he claims he was abandoned, though his father will refute this in a weak one-liner late in the show.
For all intents and purposes, Lord Farquaad is Dreamworks’ failed attempt at satirizing the gay villain archetype. STM gussies Farquaad up even more, throwing in references to the “royal coiffure” and a “coachman named Raoul” to drive the point home. In his first major number, in which his (admittedly great) prop legs are swung around as the actor performs completely on his knees, he makes reference to having a uniform culture free of any quirks, all while being the only unusual one in the kingdom.
Just as in the 2001 film, Farquaad is a diminutive feudal lord who begins to ethnically cleanse the kingdom (a kingless kingdom, as it were) of Duloc by banishing fairytale creatures to Shrek’s swamp, who takes issue. Lord F’s got a major Napoleon complex, but unlike Shrek and Fiona, is never given the opportunity to have his mind changed. Instead, we learn in his first number (“What’s Up Duloc?”) that he’s clearing out the neighborhood, and in his second that we don’t care what happens to him anyway. He’s a gay Hitler in a cute outfit, visually dope and problematic from a story standpoint.
The through-line of the Shrek franchise is to be yourself above all else, but Farquaad is ridiculed so much that he has resorted to genocide before the curtain is even drawn. The broadness of the character makes him easy to ridicule, and ridicule they do – there’s a million short jokes in the musical that sound as if they were ripped directly from your most prejudiced uncle’s mouth after a few glasses of sangria, and Farquaad remains unchanged by the end of the story.
Instead, Dreamworks elects to kill him with a dragon because, I don’t know, we’ve already been watching this musical for two and a half hours so let’s get this shit resolved, right?
There’s the real rub – no one in this movie, musical, franchise, world learns a goddamn thing here. Fiona doesn’t learn to fend for herself because (surprise) she still marries the first guy she meets, Shrek’s character coasts on his own convictions, and Farquaad is brutally murdered in front of everyone and it’s no big deal. Aside from a bevy of inside Hollywood references, Shrek the movies and Shrek: The Musical aren’t that different from the material they’re mocking.
While transcribing my notes that evening, I get the first of the two Shrek-induced nosebleeds of #shrekweek.
Takeaway: I have a huge crush on Lord Farquaad but I googled it and he has a wife and child.
Day 3: Shrek-Related Migraines and the Deterioration of the Human Mind
“That which is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated, but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.”
– Soren Kierkegaard, 1893
Attended with: No one
Stayed Through: “Freak Flag”
Today, the ushers at Wheelock Family Theatre know my name and I have effectively become a Shrek VIP. The staff is impressed if baffled at the scope of #shrekweek.
There’s a phenomenon called “reconstructive reconsumption” that attempts to explain why we go back and rewatch our favorite films and reread books over and over. Conducted by researchers Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney Levy for the Journal of Consumer Research, the duo’s findings indicate that part of rewatching ties into uncovering new information on multiple viewings, “due to the realization that memory has evanesced, that one has forgotten, and thus that one can rediscover.”
This ties into the “second chance” phenomena – that is, watching something multiple times on the off-chance that there was an important component or connection you missed the first time. Third, fourth and fifth chances aren’t out of the question, either, kind of like binge eating or toxic relationships.
Nostalgia plays a factor, too.
“Because the nostalgia associated with past experiences diminishes existential threat, regressive forms of reconsumption may be more common at later stages of life.”
– Russell and Levy, 2012
In an uncertain world, it’s nice to know that the two ogres will always end up in love. This appeals to the same nostalgic feelings that allow us to rewatch the same cartoon for the billionth time – these lessons are embedded into who we are, and it’s like comfort food to reconsume the princess’ rescue, the sidekick’s loyalty. Shrek pretends that it’s taking a new tack on these time-honored archetypes and lessons, but it’s he’s just feeding us the same mush in different packaging. And we love it, because it’s easy to take in.
Via Boston Globe
What is far less studied is the forced repetition of an unappealing activity, like having to play “It’s a Small World” on your oboe until your band instructor is satisfied. This exercise has a far less pleasant outcome, and it stems from receiving the repeated message that this musical wants my money and has nothing to give in exchange except that annoying song I can’t get out of my head.
Between days three and four of #shrekweek I am plagued with insomnia, and find myself walking the streets of Cambridge at 1 a.m. rewinding the three-part harmony section of Fiona-driven ballad “I Know It’s Today” to give myself the opportunity to hum all three parts.
Takeaway: Don’t pinch the bottom of your nose when trying to stem a Shrek-related nosebleed. Instead, scream “THIS IS MY SWAMP!” three times in a mirror and watch the blood stream down your face, you stupid idiot.
Day 4: Shrek’s Cultural Trash Heap and Farting for Love
“He grabs me with his powerful ogre hands and puts me on my hands and knees. I am ready.”
– excerpt from “Shrek is love, Shrek is life”
Attended with: My best friend and fellow Shrek-head
Stayed Through: The whole damn thing
After a long, sleepless night, I approached the fourth day of STM as the happy side of Stockholm syndrome – a prisoner, for sure, but one happy to be where they are. The friend I attended with had jumped into the Shrek-hole with me over a year ago with the ironic devotion reserved for people with no real responsibilities. This love morphed into a genuine reverence for STM and the post-modern trash heap it had emerged from.
“It is a next-level salvaging and reprocessing of that waste expelled by Shrek, the fart you’d fart if all you ate were farts. It’s a byproduct of a byproduct, repackaged and commoditized as a whole new product.”
– John Semley 2013, Shrek and Our Culture of Trash in NOW Toronto
In some ways, trash culture has already experienced its heyday between 2012 and early last year, around the time that videos like “Shrek is love, shrek is life” and my personal favorite “Shrek is piss” were circulating around choice circles of the Internet pretty heavily. As John Semley explains in his iconic Shrek thinkpiece, “Shrek and Our Culture of Trash,” this subculture likely stemmed from the franchise becoming exactly what it was supposed to have been parodying: overwrought, overpriced Hollywood garbage that’s full of piss. The reverence given to Shrek in these videos makes his fans the morons, as well as the execs still hungry enough to stick the funnel back in our mouths and crouch their dirty butts over it…for lack of a better phrase.
Today, we take the Shrek red carpet on with vigor, and Shrek happily obliges our picture request. Farquaad is not on said carpet, which keeps my weird Farquaadian sexual energy at bay for the moment.
The earliest arrival to the unnecessary Shrekification were the absurdist overlords Tim and Eric themselves, who launched a campaign for Shrek the Third in 2007 that mocked the extraneous plugging of the worst film in the franchise.
Even the people who have based their parody of a parody around the Shrek franchise have now grown weary of it. Shrekchan.com, an active place for “Shrek is love, Shrek is life” style memes from 2012 to 2014, has now shut down.
“The Shrek meme is dead, and it’s time to stop trying to keep this going,” the Shrekchan.com administrator explained when the forum shut down last year.
The original Shrek prided itself on its postmodern look at the fantasy world, and Shrek trash, usually animated crudely in MS Paint or with Sims living in the same uncanny valley as many ’00s-era cartoon characters mocks the 2001 feature’s know-it-all, somewhat dated attitude toward the subject matter.
Can you imagine what a Farquaad sex dream is like? Because I don’t have to anymore.
As I sit in the theater on day four, watching Shrek harrumph into the audience for the 12th time that week (he ventures out three times a show, to the kids’ delight and parents’ dismay). On the fourth viewing, I’m looking for an Easter egg wherever possible — Shrek messed up the wording of so-and-so this day, an actor improvised the name of his horse with less success than yesterday.
I prime myself for another Farquaad sex dream this evening, but it does not come. Instead, I play it out silently on the train into work the next morning. As expected, it is dope.
Takeaway: Shrek is piss.
Day 5: Better Out Than In, I Whispered Through Tears
– Mark Linehan on hearing I had seen Shrek: The Musical five times in a row
Attended with: A full heart.
Stayed through: In a way, I am still there even now.
I was late to work on the last day of #shrekweek because I couldn’t get out of bed. Unlike my sleepless Day 3, I had slept for nearly 10 hours the night before and felt I could go another 12. I cancelled on a date for the fifth and final Shrek: The Musical matinee. I wanted to be alone for this one.
It was not the best of the five shows, but it’s a rare experience in life to know with certainty that something that has caused you pain is coming to an end [Editor’s Note: She did this to herself]. It’s the sprint before the finish line, if that picture-perfect moment came with the weight of regret that a local theater company will have after giving you 10 tickets to their production. I watch one last time as Shrek and Fiona fart their way into forced fairytale love, I watch Farquaad get executed, I listen as children laugh nervously at jokes they don’t understand and as adults repress laughter at jokes they should have grown out of years ago.
My eyes are welling up. This is our swamp, I tell myself, and pop another baby Aspirin to keep my Shrek migraines at bay. The previous Sunday was a lightyear away. I am simultaneously compelled to be myself and to banish freaks to a swamp, to fart in unison with my true love and be consumed by a dragon all at once.
Takeaway: These Shreks are worth fighting for. We are the trash in Shrek’s swamp, the sticky collage of cultural detritus that fuels the garbage machine. I am not a child nor a parent, Shrek’s disparate demographics, but it doesn’t take either to determine that the material provided in the movie, not to mention the boiled-down, sequined-up written musical, does not play to the top of anyone’s intelligence, a cardinal sin in storytelling.
So I love to hate Shrek: The Musical and always will, the same way I love to hate family dinners and the fashion choices of my enemies. Sure, it’s the same garbage slop, but dammit it, it’s my garbage slop.
I woke up on Day 6, unable to believe that there was a world in which I would not be seeing Shrek: The Musical every day. It was all ogre.