As playwright David Lindsay-Abaire tells it, moving from wild farces like Fuddy Meers to the grief- and strife-filled Rabbit Hole (which won him a Pulitzer) was partly about changing it up as a writer. And, whoa, has he changed it up since. In the years that followed, he’s written the book for the short-lived High Fidelity on Broadway, started on a Spider-Man 4 script, and done book and lyrics for the latest kiddie movie turned musical, Shrek, which opened December 14. He spoke with Boris Kachka.
You’ve made some unusual choices. You win a Pulitzer for Rabbit Hole, then you’re off writing Spider-Man 4 and adapting properties like High Fidelity. Have you gone permanently commercial?
Absolutely not. I’m going to do whatever interests me. Look, writing Rabbit Hole came out of an interest in diversifying my portfolio, frankly. I felt I was being pigeonholed as a very specific sort of writer—“He writes those quirky little comedies.” I thought I could do other things, and that thinking has served me well … There are a lot of [more profitable] things I could have done in the past four years. I could have spent a month doctoring a movie and gotten the same amount of money. There are no guarantees for any musical.
As we saw with High Fidelity. What have you learned from it?
I don’t want to work on a musical if I’m not the lyricist. I was always handing over my work to [the lyricists], and they got to do the fun part.
Now you get to write the rhymes. My favorite in Shrek is “granny dress” with “tranny mess.”
Thanks. It was one of the easy ones, actually.
How much work did Shrek take as compared with writing a full play? A lot of the material comes from the movie, after all.
It’s more work than I’ve ever done on anything. If you actually went line by line, you would be surprised how different it is. Other than the [Gingerbread Man] torture scene, I don’t think there is a scene that is word-for-word what it is in the film.
Children’s films brought onstage have been a mixed bag, critically and commercially. Is this something you were worried about?
I know what you’re asking. It is of course all about the execution, and from the very beginning, DreamWorks was incredibly clear: They had no interest in duplicating the movie onstage. A lot of those Disney movies had songs in them already. This was a movie without songs in it.
So, is the Shrek-Fiona fart sequence considered part of the book, the lyrics, or the score?
Boy, that’s tough. That was a true collaboration. Clearly it’s grounded in the source material. We needed to bond those two characters in some way.