Shrek the Musical: What I Learned Playing it for the Second Time

In almost 8 years of playing in orchestra pits, this summer marks the first time I’ve ever repeated a show. Here’s what I learned playing Shrek the Musical for the second time:

Always give it everything you’ve got and play your best, even when you’re bored.

Just because you have played the show a bunch of times before doesn’t mean the audience has seen it before. In fact, the vast, vast majority of the audience probably hasn’t seen it at all. For this reason, you need to play every show like it’s opening night — with the same excitement, attention, and energy.

This lesson has a bit of a caveat to it, meaning that I didn’t just learn this lesson now. You see, I’ve known this through my whole career since it is something that comes up a lot when you’re doing longer runs, and can sometimes be a struggle. When you love what you do, it shouldn’t be too much of a struggle, of course, but I’m sure you can imagine that doing the same thing night after night can become a little taxing. The reason I bring it up now as something I learned is because I’ve been thinking about it more, but in a slightly different context. This time around, it wasn’t about keeping it fresh because of a long run, but keeping it fresh after a run that you weren’t super stoked about and then a year and a half break.

I have a new appreciation for Shrek the Musical.

The first time I played this show, I really didn’t enjoy it. While we had a killer band and some talented young actors in the cast, I just didn’t get it. There were moments that were funny and some great songs, but having no idea what was going on onstage, being crammed into a relatively small pit (made even smaller by the stage extension), the fact that the show felt like it was 45 minutes too long, and the generic, mediocre pop tunes in the score made for a pretty bored PJ. Don’t get me wrong — I am always stoked and grateful to get to play music (especially to get paid for it), but I just wasn’t feeling Shrek back then.

Shrek the Musical Guitar Rig

PJ’s guitar rig for Shrek the Musical. (Right side)

Cut to last week and I found myself actually enjoying the tunes in rehearsal. I thought to myself, “Well, ok, the music is actually pretty fun, but I wonder if I’ll still be bored once we start running the show.” A buddy in the band told me that the Broadway version of Shrek the Musical was filmed and is living on Netflix currently. Over the course of a few nights, I watched the show in its entirety and ended up really digging it! Being able to see what’s going on, understanding all of the sight-gags, knowing which character is which saying certain lines — all of this really made a difference. I think a big takeaway/lesson here is that doing a little research (even when it doesn’t directly affect your part or playing) can go a long way to your enjoyment of what you’re doing. It was nice to just sit back and watch what was happening. I suppose, in a way, that it helps you see what the big picture is and what role you play in that. I think actors do this a lot with plays and musicals, and musicians will do this with the music they’re playing, but I’ve never thought to do it as a musician in a musical. In other words, I never thought to explore the book (the dialogue and the plot) if I was having trouble understanding or trouble enjoying the music. This leads me to my next point.

Every book is important, even the Guitar 2 book.

The first time I played Shrek the Musical, I played the Guitar 1 book. Even with how boring I thought the show was at the time, there were some pretty rad moments in the Guitar 1 book. When I was contracted to play Shrek for the second time, I was hoping to play the Guitar 1 book again. For one thing, I figured I would remember most of it pretty well and it would be easy to jump back in. Not that I was looking for an easy way out, I just thought it would be fun to play the same thing again and see if I came up with anything different … see how my playing and interpretation has changed over a year and a half. The second reason I wanted that book again was because I remembered the Guitar 2 book being really, really boring. Ha!

Shrek the Musical Guitar Rig

PJ’s guitar rig for Shrek the Musical. (Left side)

Well, it turned out that I was assigned the Guitar 2 book. To make a long story short, it seemed that my buddy playing the Guitar 1 book had already spent some time learning it and had just played the Guitar 2 book for All Shook Up (AWESOME show, but TERRIBLY boring Guitar 2 book!), so I didn’t have the heart to ask him to trade. I decided to look at it as a learning experience because it would be interesting to see what the “other guy” played.

With years of producing, arranging, engineering, and mixing tracks under my belt, I know that every little part is important to an arrangement. These songs were all orchestrated this way because the composer/arranger/orchestrator had a specific idea in their head. Sometimes as a musician, we forget this when we’re playing a part that’s a little boring. While the Guitar 2 book for Shrek the Musical isn’t a total drag like I thought (there are some pretty cool moments in it), it isn’t nearly as fun as the Guitar 1 book. What we as pit musicians need to do, however, is remember that we are there to serve the music and the show. We’re not there as soloists; it’s not our private recital or a band we put together. Again, this is something I’ve always known being a pit musician, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about extra hard during the run of this show.

It has turned out to be more fun than I thought because I’m really, truly listening to all the other instruments around me and working hard to blend and self-mix. And, while this book may not be the most fun for the guitar-player-PJ, it’s totally tickling the arranger-PJ to be seriously inside the music and see/be a part of how it all fits together in the big picture.

Was this really about what I learned?

After writing this, I’m realizing that it’s not really about new things I learned playing Shrek the Musical, but it’s more about stuff that we all know as musicians, yet probably forget from time to time. If you’re struggling with a show or getting bored with your playing, keep these things in mind and always look for the fun. You can always find something new and fun in the music, even if it’s the 10th or 100th time you’ve played it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *