By: Tobi Akisanya
Van Gough, Martin Luther King Jr., and Albert Einstein. Why name such names you might ask? All of these individuals were outcast- in one way or another- during their own time. Each of these individuals contributed great thought to our world, thoughts that society once believed belonged on the outskirts. What would our world be without Van Gough’s masterpiece, Starry Night? Or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Or Einstein’s theory of relativity? The world has changed for the better because of these outcasts. Exhibiting such bravery to put ideas out into the world has been the driving force for the world’s greatest movers and shakers. The 2008 Broadway production of Shrek the Musical capitalizes on the fact that unique and different creatures give the world its luster. This show directed by Micheal John Warren follows the main character Shrek as he journeys through life’s misfortune to find the treasures he never knew he needed. Shrek the Musical is a testament to the bravery and determination of marginalized people, told under the landscape of a captivating fairytale universe.
From the start of the musical, Shrek’s parents are clear about what the world will think of him and give him little to no hope for a future outside of the roles society has created for him. As Shrek searches the world as a young boy he is made to feel ugly, disgusting and undesirable by the people around him. Similarly members of marginalized communities are beaten down by the constructs of society, so much so that they lose all hope. The show’s opening song, “Big Bright Beautiful World,” is all about how the world is not big, bright, or beautiful when you ogre or are an outsider. As Shrek grows up throughout the song, he slowly finds a way to make due within the role society has made for him. He recognizes that the world is exclusive yet, he has no desire to change it. He is ok being alone. He insists he does not need other people because he has never had other people. Little does Shrek know that there is a whole gang of people who have been designated as social outcasts just like him. These characters are without a happy ending at the hands of the evil Lord Farquaad. My favorite thing about the introduction to the fairytale creatures in “Story of My Life” is that they are all individualized. They are no monolith. They are all creatures that have had unique circumstances that had led them to their current state. Common fairytale stories and folklore are integrated into the lyrics and dialogue, making it familiar and funny to the audience. At the end of “Story of My Life” Shrek confronts the fairytale creatures’ hope by asking,“haven’t you heard the stories?” This statement suggests that the individuals within stories feel constrained to them. In reality, these creatures find that their truths don’t lie in the stories written for them but in their own experiences. In the beginning Shrek knows nothing other than the story created for him so in turn he rejects everything else. The fairytale creatures want an “ever after,” something Shrek doesn’t feel is attainable given his circumstances. But in order to regain his swamp, Shrek starts his quest out of annoyance but eventually joins the movement for justice himself.
Just like the fairy tale creatures, Fiona has hope that something greater lies ahead for her and her life, most importantly the hope for love. She never lets her circumstances take her eye of the prize that is her future husband, not even for the 8,423 days she is stuck in the tower. “Morning Person” signifies Fiona’s ability to renew her hope every day. Performed by Broadway’s tap dancing queen Sutton Foster, the choreography in “Morning Person” is light and airy and full of the rejuvenation she is feeling. She isn’t perfect and poised, but to me that is what makes her unique. Fiona’s feisty personality challenges Shrek for the better. Shrek is not used to people challenging him. In “I Think I Got You Beat” Shrek expresses that doesn’t believe that anything Fiona has experienced is anything compared to what he has experienced. As they prove each other wrong over the course of the song, their difficult pasts form a connection that will last until they are married at the ending of the show. Our problems inevitably bring us together. Shrek and Finona’s bond serves as evidence to the fact that love and care are results of empathy found in shared experiences.
A journey is nothing without someone to encourage you along the way. Enter Donkey. Donkey is essentially a life coach oozing with self confidence and confidence to share with others. Donkey is the guide, the glue, the comedic relief, and maybe even the best character in the show. His kindness is showcased perfectly in the scene before his first solo, “Don’t Let me Go.” Donkey highlights the importance of sticking together through life’s journey. Before even knowing who Shrek is, he vows to stay by his side as a friend, and companion whether Shrek wants him in his life or not. He sees through Shrek’s hard exterior and gives him the chance he has never had. Again, as Donkey is trying to get through to Shrek during “Who I’d Be” he asks Shrek,”what’s your problem with the world?” Shrek responds by saying, “it isn’t me who has the problem, it’s the whole world that has a problem with me.” For the first time we are able to see the result of Donkey’s attempt to crack Shrek’s tough-guy persona. This song gives Shrek an opportunity to share his hope, fears, and ambitions under the comfort of the moonlit sky. We can be the people we want to be but that begins with the believing that we can, and bad circumstances don’t have to be permanent if we don’t want them to be. When Shrek begins to realize his potential halfway through the show he starts his upward climb towards happiness. For the first time, Shrek is able to smile in the face of his hopes and dreams.
Throughout Shrek the Musical, almost every character is affected negatively by the show’s key oppressor: Lord Farquaad. Lord Farquaad has a huge personality without the stature to match it (oh how I love the irony of Broadway). Farquaad only wants to have people in his life so they can serve him, making him the epitome of a bully and a gaslighter. The environment that Lord Farquaad creates throughout Duloc reminds me of racism and gentrification, a target on the backs of marginalized peoples. He only wants people that fit his vision of perfection inhabiting Duloc when in reality the fairytale creatures add the allure to Duloc in the first place. Throughout the musical number “What’s up, Duloc,” the Duloc dances are like robots. Their dance moves are rigid, lacking the vivaciousness of a happy life. They lack nuance, so Farquaad can stand out instead. They also wear the same colors to ensure that their “fashion is never clashing.” Call and response singing speaks to the fact citizens of Duloc are not allowed to set the tone in their lives, making them victims to Farquaad’s system. It isn’t until “The Ballad of Farquaad” that we learn that Farquaad is exploiting the fairytale creatures because of his own insecurities (sound familiar?). Farquaad wishes the books were about him instead of the fairy tale creatures. Farquadd has problems just like everyone else but instead wants to make everyone else’s life harder because of it. Just like Shrek and Donkey joke, Farquaad truly is compensating for something, and it’s not just his height.
Marginalized communities can only be marginalized for so long before a stand for justice is proposed. As “Freak Flag” suggests, the only way to combat oppression is to challenge the oppressor. By the end of the show the fairytale creatures are done waiting for miracles; they want to create their own. Gingy rightfully exclaims at the beginning of “Freak Flag” that,” It’s time to stop hiding, it’s time to stand up tall, say ‘hey world, I’m different’, and here I am splinters and all.” “Freak Flag” is all about embracing who you are and using individuality to fight your battles. Over the course of one song the fairytale creatures are able to reshape their mindsets and take initiative when they notice that the needs of their community have become dire. They are and are no longer galumphing around in misery as they did in “Story of My Life”. They stand together with hands locked in unification, in order to take down Farquaad by the end of the show.
We as human beings or even fairytale creatures have the agency to take the front seat in our own stories. No matter the obstacle life throws at us, we can rise up, conquer, and bridge divides. We must recognize our flaws and love ourselves in spite of them. After all, “what makes us special makes us strong.”