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National Tour of 'Shrek the Musical' comes to Hammons Hall

Courtesy Juanita K. Hammons Hall

We talk with Timmy Lewis, who plays Lord Farquaad, about how he was hired for the role, how he chose theater as a career, and how his Farquaad differs from the animated version.

Timmy Lewis, who has had a busy career in TV and off-Broadway, portrays the arrogant, dictatorial Lord Farquaad in the new Broadway touring production of Shrek the Musical, which comes to the Juanita K. Hammons Hall Tuesday through Thursday, March 19-21, all at 7:30 p.m. We talked by phone about his career, how he was cast as Farquaad, and how his interpretation differs from what you saw in the animated version (with John Lithgow voicing the character).

This is Lewis’s first national tour, and he said he didn’t intend to audition for the Farquaad role.

He said, “In this case, we started auditions in August. So I originally sent in a tape for the ensemble [i.e. the chorus]. Then they asked for me to send in another tape for Lord Farquaad himself. And then, from there I did a callback, and then I did a dance callback, and then I did another callback from there, and then I did a work session with the director. And after all of those different rounds, I finally got an offer!”

Not only is this process arduous for the auditioning performers, it must be utterly exhausting for the director and producers. Timmy Lewis thinks Shrek producers received some 4,000 submissions for all the parts in the show! “They definitely had to do quite a lot of combing through to narrow us down,” he said.

How did they decide on Lewis to play Farquaad?

“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that sometimes, a team will not know what they are looking for, for a certain role. I think in this case, they really didn’t know in which direction to take Lord Farquaad. There must have been something that I did, much like everybody else who was cast, that made them go, 'Oh, I think that’s the direction we want to go!' I know the same thing happened with our Fiona — she sent in a tape for the Dragon, and then they were like, ‘Well, wait a minute, what if we saw you for Fiona as well?’ And she even said — she was like, ‘Umm… okay. That’s not really where I would put myself!’ A lot of times, they see something in us that we might not necessarily see… and here we are.”

As auditions only began last August, this is obviously a brand-new touring production of Shrek. (The show premiered on Broadway in December of 2008.)

“The show hasn’t been put on for quite some time. So they are revisiting it.”

As always in stage adaptations of stories from other media, Shrek the Musical isn’t exactly like Shrek the animated film. Much of the music in the movie was “background scoring,” said Lewis, “whereas when you take it into a musical setting, the characters themselves start singing.”

And, he added, there have been changes made from the original Broadway production to now, including several earlier national tours. “They’ve gone through a lot of iterations from the first national tour, to the version that opened in the U.K., to the tour that happened after that.” The current tour production, Lewis said, “is a much more streamlined version. It’s a lot shorter in a lot of ways — they realized there were certain things they didn’t need or didn’t want. And that’s the beautiful thing about theater: it’s continually progressing, it’s continually changing, and nothing is ever really set in stone. Which is such a beautiful thing, because it can continue to adapt to the times, and the people they have for this production versus the original. So it’s been a really great experience in that regard.” Shows like this are continually being “workshopped” in a way, refining and improving them. “We even had a two-week workshop in November to sort of see where the piece was, and where we wanted to take it.”

I asked Timmy Lewis how he got into theater as a career. “I was very lucky in that I had two parents who had met doing theater — they were just doing student-run college productions. My dad was studying history and my mom was studying psychology, so it was definitely much more of a ‘hobby’ for them, just something they loved.” Thus, Timmy and his siblings were always exposed to theater while growing up. “But,” he added, “it was never really a career option until I got to high school. And I saw a couple of friends go off and get their degrees in theater. And I thought, ‘Hey, that could be fun.’ “ I suggested it takes a certain kind of person who is comfortable getting up in front of an audience and performing. “A certain level of insanity, I believe!” joked Lewis.

Lewis considers Lord Farquaad “a very interesting character. It’s so much fun to play the villain, because usually they have such extreme motives. But at the same time, if you boil it down, (they’re) much like anybody. Everybody has their reasons for things, their justification for it. So getting to find that with him has been so fun. In terms of what I bring specifically (to the role), our director really wanted to focus on — he has a flair for a ‘peacock’ nature. Lord Farquaad is a peacock in a lot of ways. And I have a lot of fun being ‘big’, being ridiculous, and just absolutely devouring the stage whenever I can.” Not unlike John Lithgow in the original animated film, who made a meal of the role himself. “Oh, he did,” agreed Lewis. “Big shoes to fill.”

Lewis earlier mentioned adapting the story to the times, to current attitudes. The animated Farquaad was quite short of stature. For this touring production, producers decided that the character's height shouldn’t be used for comedic purposes.

“To use that as a comedic device just doesn’t fit right any more," says Lewis. "So what’s happening in this production, with me specifically, I’m very much — I’m on my feet. Now, I am by no means gigantic — in fact, I’m only five-seven. I’m by no means ‘tall.’ But it definitely is a different take on the character. And being able to find his motivation without having that over-compensation, has been a really interesting exploration for sure.”

Farquaad is certainly a fun role to play, said Timmy Lewis, but the fun must all come from the script as written — there’s no room for improv or ad-libbing (unless something goes wrong onstage and the actors must work their way around it!). “You have some pretty powerful people working on these shows. David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the book for the musical) writes his plays and his musicals, everything down to the comma. Everything is specifically written in a specific way, for you to say it in a certain way. And it’s brilliant. Because, really, he has a Pulitzer Prize after all! He knows what he’s talking about. But at the same time, in the way that you bring yourself to the character — especially with Jeannine Tesori’s music, she is so open to playing with notes, playing with keys, playing with rhythms, finding what works best for us. So within the performance itself, yes, everything has to be pretty specific, no improvisation. But in terms of getting there and finding the character, we had so much freedom to find it ourselves within the material. And that was really a gift.” Having the creators in the room as they were rehearsing was a huge gift as well, said Timmy Lewis. “Having them in the room was absolutely invaluable. It was incredible.”

Tickets for Shrek the Musical at Hammons Hall range from $39 to $75, and as one look at the seating charts at, they are going fast. Tickets can be purchased at the Hammons Hall box office, online, or by phone at 417-836-7678.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.