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Shrek the Musical

The most beloved swamp-dwelling ogre of all time makes his Broadway debut.

Daniel Breaker on Fatherhood, Donkey-hood (in Shrek) and His Strange New Movie

Daniel Breaker on Fatherhood, Donkey-hood (in Shrek) and His Strange New Movie
Daniel Breaker in "Shrek"

Never seen the movies...maybe on my last show I will crack open a beer and watch the Shrek oeuvre.

Like any actor in a big bright beautiful Broadway production, Daniel Breaker is happy to talk about his show, Shrek the Musical, in which he plays the pesky, parfait-loving Donkey: “It’s an intimate two- and three-person journey and a big expansive fairytale. I don’t know any other show that goes back and forth between those worlds.” He compliments castmate Brian d’Arcy James, who stars as the gaseous green ogre (and Donkey BFF) Shrek. “My job is to try to make Brian laugh on stage,” he says proudly. “He got me, like, once—I vaguely remember. One day he burped in my face.” He’ll wax on about his breakout show, 2008’s Passing Strange, which earned him a Tony nomination and was preserved on film by Spike Lee (it will get a limited theatrical and nationwide video-on-demand release August 21): “It tells a story so specifically that has never been told, of black middle-class teen angst.” But there’s one topic on which Breaker could expound at length: his wife, Ruined director Kate Whoriskey, who’ll soon succeed Bartlett Sher as the artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Fresh from his first visit to Seattle, Breaker welcomed to his dressing room at the Broadway Theatre to talk donkey business—and, of course, brag on his bride.

So, you and your family will be relocating to Seattle in the next year. What did you think of it?
I grew up in Germany for a little while, and all my German friends said that Seattle, weather and energy-wise, is a lot like West Germany. It’s true. As soon as I landed, I was like, “Oh, this is familiar.” The weather was gorgeous, the food is lovely and the people are very laid-back and generous.

As a stage actor, are you at all hesitant to move so far from Manhattan?
Honestly, I was dying for a little break from New York. To step out of the city so that I could come back and fall in love with it again.

How did you two and Kate meet? Was it on Fabulation, the Lynn Nottage play?
Yes, but we didn’t date then. When the show opened, Kate and Lynn Nottage went to Uganda to do research for Ruined and I was really missing her! When she came back, I completely pursued her. She kept saying, “I don’t date actors.” I was like one step away from playing a mandolin under her window.

And you’ve done a few shows together.
Yes, The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre [in D.C.], Life Is a Dream and The Caucasian Chalk Circle at South Coast Rep. When people hear that [we’re] husband-wife/actor-director, they think there are a lot of complications. But our ways of working are very complementary. I look forward to working with my wife. I love her mind.

Do you take your work home?
Not really. Sometimes we’ll discuss ideas or politics and how that can apply, but we’re not usually talking about a script. I’d rather talk about, like, how many peas did my son eat today.

And you shouldn’t be talking about work—you’re newlyweds!
We had our one-year anniversary back in April. I really wanted to get married. I was the guy who was like, “I want marriage! I want a baby! Let’s do it! Let’s go!” [Laughs.] We got married at an insane time: We had opened Passing Strange, that next Monday we recorded the album and the next Monday I got married.

Well, you had an off day, so why not?
Rehearsal dinner was Sunday after the show and then I went back to work on Tuesday. That Tuesday after I got married was my worst show. I was like, I don’t want to do a eulogy at the end of this show! I feel too good!

Did you have a New York wedding?
We got married at this church called Middle Church down in our neighborhood in the East Village, which is this wonderful hippie liberal church. It’s sort of a bigot’s nightmare—adopted kids and same-sex marriages and interracial relationships. I called in my favors from all my Juilliard friends. I was like, “I need a jazz trio.” “I need a string quartet.” “I need a photographer.” And then we had our reception in Brooklyn Heights at a place called Noodle Pudding, which is funny for an Italian restaurant.

When was your son, Rory, born?
September 3 [2008]. And that has been magnificent. It’s been exhausting and life-changing.

Is it true that when you got the call about Shrek you were covered in baby vomit?
I was covered in all fluids baby. We were up in Boston visiting Kate’s family and Rory had just peed on me and spit up. He was like, “Here, this is for you. Thanks for being Dad.” We got the call and I was like, “No, they’re not really calling me for this job; that’s ridiculous.”

Had you auditioned?
Ages ago. So I worked with the director [Jason Moore] and learned some songs over the course of a week. At the same time, I was doing a workshop of Othello with John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is, like, two worlds that should not collide. Guy killing his wife; Shrek the Musical! [Laughs.] At the end of the week I met Brian and he read with me; Jeffrey Katzenberg was there and the whole entourage from DreamWorks and [producer] Sam Mendes and the whole design team, which was completely stressful, and by the time I got home I got a call saying, “Hey, do you want to do this?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” They said, “All right, we’ll see you on Tuesday.”

Was it a logistical parenting nightmare?
The same day that I started rehearsal was the day that [Kate] started rehearsals for the Chicago run of Ruined. We had to hire a fulltime nanny who went out to Chicago, and my mom went out there. I never got a chance to go out. It was Rory’s first Halloween and Obama got elected, and I wasn’t there for those two fun moments.

Did he dress up?
He dressed up as a tired baby, cause I think she was in tech at that time. This year I’ve got all kinds of ideas. Maybe a little donkey. I could just steal a costume. Maybe put him in the baby bear costume—they’ll allow that, right? [Laughs.]

So how did you prep to play Donkey? Did you watch all the Shrek movies?
No. Never seen the movies. And then I got the job and really didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be lost in trying to re-create Eddie Murphy’s role. Maybe on my last show I will crack open a beer and watch the Shrek oeuvre. The cast from the movie came to see the show. Well, some of them: Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers and John Lithgow. Eddie Murphy has not shown up. [Speaking into the tape recorder] You hear that Eddie?

How long does it take to go from Daniel to Donkey?
Makeup takes about 30 minutes, the costume used to take 15 and now it takes five. It’s a snowsuit. What we have here is ultra-suede that has been beautifully sewn in. I have a first layer, which is the ass ass—it’s got the padding. There are boots and hooves that I hold onto and two sets of ears, stationary and electronic.

How long do you need to charge the electronic ears?
Well, we found out the hard way that you can’t do two shows without plugging them in.

It must be hotter than heck.
My dresser has a little fan and a squeeze bottle and a towel. I feel like a boxer every time I come offstage. I get patted down, put new makeup on, ’cause I sweat like crazy, and then go back out there. But every moment I feel like complaining about my costume I look at Brian d’Arcy James. He’s got it the worst. His costume is 35 pounds! On two-show days he can’t get out of the makeup. It takes him two hours to get into that thing. He stays in his dressing room and watches soccer. At least he has cable.

When you were at Juilliard, did you ever think you’d be clomping around in hooves in a DreamWorks musical?
Juilliard’s mission statement is learn about the classics so you can use that as a springboard to anything that comes your way. I just didn’t think this was going to be the "anything."

Were you one of those kids who always wanted to be an actor?
My parents would probably say that. I’m the youngest of four, but my closest sibling is 10 years older. I had a lot of imagination. I was running around playing little games by myself. But I never thought I was going to be an actor. If anything, it started out as a way of hiding, a way of protecting myself from being plopped into a new environment, having traveled around so much. My dad was in the military. It wasn’t until the middle of high school—I went to a magnet arts high school in Florida—that I got more serious about it and the teacher told me to audition for Juilliard. I said, “What’s Juilliard?” She laughed and said, “Have you seen the movie Fame?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “It’s like Fame.” So I thought, “All right, I’ll be dancing on a taxicab for the next four years.” It’s nothing like Fame. Sorry, Dr. Beger.

What was your first show out of Juilliard?
Daniel Fish directed a Lee Blessing play called Black Sheep at Barrington Stage in Lenox, Massachusetts [in 2002]. I went into it three days after I graduated. That’s where I got my Equity card. And then I got all my chops at the Shakespeare Theatre. I’ve done five shows there [The Silent Woman, The Rivals, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors]. I figured out technique down there.

People think of you as a “musical” guy—I bet they don’t know you played Puck and Ariel and the Dromio of Syracuse.
I actually never thought I’d be doing musicals. That’s a new thing as of Passing Strange. I always sang, but I never felt I was cut out for the Broadway musical.

How did you get involved with Passing Strange? You were with it from the start in 2005.
I was at Sundance Theatre Lab for Tanya Barfield’s play Blue Door, and then I was just sort of thrown this Passing Strange script. They needed a black guy. They said, “You’re going to play this character called Youth.” I thought I had three lines. I didn’t realize that I was playing young Stew, which has, you know, a lot more to it! [Laughs.] And then several workshops, several incarnations, Berkeley, and then the Public Theater and then Broadway and now a movie and maybe we’ll take it to Mars! [Laughs.] Who knows?

Did you ever envision it on Broadway?
That was surreal. We never really thought Passing Strange was a mainstream musical. It was, in fact, the anti-musical. So we didn’t think it was going to Broadway, let alone get seven Tony nominations. But that was such a refreshing year. There was such diversity in that season. Sometimes I’m disappointed with some of the things I see on Broadway. But that year you had new musicals like Passing Strange and In the Heights right next to these classics Gypsy and South Pacific. That’s exactly what it should be.

What was it like working with Spike Lee during those last few shows on Broadway?
Closing weekend was magnificent. We were doing a couple rehearsals in the day, because Spike tweaked a couple things. On Saturday, we had two shows, standing room only. We had about 10 cameras, five on stage, five off stage, some lipstick cameras. And a lot of Passing Strange fans—we call them Strange-heads—and all our loved ones were out there just rocking out. The show was 45 minutes longer because of applause and Stew was just like, “Let’s keep this song going!” It was a thrilling experience. So we did that matinee and we were exhausted and then Spike was like, “Good, but we gotta go further.” We were like, “Are you crazy?” So we did the show that night—that was also insane—and then our closing was the Sunday matinee. We had a small party, and we went back to work 11 AM. Monday and shot close-ups till 3 AM. Tuesday. We were so tired, but it was okay. It was such an event.

Speaking of endings, how long will you be with Shrek?
My contract ends in November, so we’ll see what happens.

When is Kate’s first official day at the Intiman?
She reports to work in April.

I wonder which of you is more excited.
Honestly, I couldn’t be more proud of my wife. I’ve always felt she was magnificent. Her work is visual and political, and sometimes I don’t think that’s allowed in New York, sadly. But with Ruined and all the other journeys she’s going on—she’s doing this obscure Villa-Lobos opera in Paris [Magdalena, at le Théâtre du Châtelet, in May 2010]—I’m happy to just watch her do her thing.

See Daniel Breaker in Shrek the Musical at the Broadway Theatre.

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