Tony Award-winning actress Sutton Foster sings the final notes from a verse of “I Think I Got You Beat,” during the first dress rehearsal of Broadway’s Shrek the Music, laughing. “And then,” she struggles to say over her giddy chuckles, “enter: fart machine.”
Brian d’Arcy James, her costar, laughs with her, both of them looking forward to hearing the sound effects the crew has come up with for this outrageous song, in which Shrek and Fiona bond over their traumatic pasts and an exchange of comically forceful flatulence, which the cast expects will send children in the audience into convulsive fits of laughter.
The director, Jason Moore, raises an eyebrow at his stars from his seat in the third row of the Broadway Theatre. “Keep going,” he says.
Sutton Foster says, “Are we skipping the farts?”
“What?” Jason says.
Sutton turns to Brian. A stern, confused look on his big, green face.
Jason rolls his eyes. “You two didn’t prepare?”
“We’ve nailed every note,” Brian says, growing defensive. “Every single note.” He points his plump green finger at Sutton. “She’s been flawless, and I haven’t made a mistake.”
“So continue,” Jason says. “Pass gas as the script specifies.”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking,” Sutton says. “There have got to be a hundred farts for each of us written into this song. Of course those will be part of the backing track. Right?”
“Now I can’t tell if you’re joking,” Jason says. “You two signed contracts to play these lead roles. This is Broadway. We perform live. If you want to put on a costume and dance to a backing track, I’m sure the Chuck E. Cheese in Parsippany would be happy to have you.”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Brian barks. “Where’s the sound designer?”
Jason spins in his seat and points a stern finger at the man at the mixing board. “No,” he shouts. He turns back to his stars. “It’s an Equity thing. It’s against union rules to give scripted lines that belong to actors to the computer.”
“These aren’t lines,” Brian says.
“They’re treated as lines in the script and you have to perform them, live, from your body, with no mechanical help, in order to preserve acting jobs.”
“What if I don’t want this job,” Brian whispers.
“What was that?” Jason shouts. “Say it so the whole class can hear.”
Sutton’s head sinks. She squeezes her eyes shut, crinkles her nose into a mousy pinch. “Did you hear that?”
“Sutton, don’t indulge him,” Brian says.
“She farted?” Jason says.
“Why are you asking me?”
“Yes, I farted,” Sutton says.
“I heard nothing. This is theatre, not a movie. There are no close-ups. You have to project to the back row.”
“This isn’t physically possible,” Brian says. “You’re asking us to pass gas loud enough for seventeen hundred people to hear, hundreds of times in a row, eight shows a week.”
“I’m sorry,” Jason sneers, “is that not your signature at the bottom of this lucrative contract?”
Brian rubs his bald, green head, the thick prosthetics glued on tight.
“I had faith you two would have prepared,” Jason says. “But I always plan ahead.” He mutters into a walkie-talkie and two young stagehands each push out rolling carts holding 20-gallon metal pots. “Stale sardine soup with old beef broth and cauliflower. Eat it in large, gasping bites, swallowing air with every nasty sardine.”
Brian folds his arms, glares at Jason. But he knows no one takes a hunger striker seriously from a man in a bulbous green nose and burlap sack dress.
Sutton thanks the stagehand for handing her a ladle and bowl. She scoops out a small serving and holds a plastic spoon to it. “Theatre is a team sport,” she says, wincing as she swallows the bite. A loud squeal from her cramping stomach screams out towards the rafters.
“Good!” Jason says, applauding. “Come on, Brian, do you really want a reputation as a diva who makes a show all about him? Have some soup. Eat up.”
Sutton turns to him while scraping out her second helping. “It’s not so bad once you get used to the acid.” She coughs.
Brian stands still, weighing the future of his career.
Sutton huffs in mouthfuls of air between bites, swallowing them down, and motions to the cast and crew that she’s about to do something. She leans to one side, lifts the hem of her green dress, and unvalves a full-bodied zipper that sings, taking full advantage of the acoustics of the 1924 Italian Renaissance theatre. The stagehand beside Sutton vomits into her hands.
Jason applauds. “Good, Sutton. Good. Brian? Are you a professional member of this team? Or are you a tempestuous child?”
Sutton smiles at Brian, her lips shining with yellow sardine oil, while she lay on the stage in the fetal position, swallowing more air. “It’s okay,” she tell him as her cramping stomach moans. “It’s our job to respect the integrity of the playwright’s words. We’re in this together.”
Brian knows his career will be ruined by quitting, but it will also be ruined by participating in this grotesque carnival act. He is trapped, suffocating under the green prosthetics.
But Sutton’s can-do spirit is infectious, and he does not want to let her down.
Brian serves himself a sloppy bowl of sardine soup, gags it down, and lifts his leg to birth a deep, flappy groaner that rumbles a package of Twizzlers off the concession stand shelf.
Jason rises to his feet, applauding madly. “Good, Brian. Good. Now ninety-nine more from each of you.”
Sutton and Brian wolf down gallons of soup and air — each bite fouler than the last as the theatre’s atmosphere grows thick and brown. They have accepted their careers will end in this smoldering embarrassment. But they’re being paid handsomely, and they will go down with the repulsive ship together.
Four months later, Sutton and Brian receive Tony Award nominations for Best Actress and Best Actor in a musical. Jason Moore does not receive a nomination for Best Director.
At the end of that evening’s show — Sutton and Brian’s underwear blown-out and burnt like battlefield flags, their stomachs shredded from all that rotten fish — the lead performers approach Jason backstage and thank him for pushing them out of their comfort zone. They tell him he deserved a Tony nomination, that their success is due to his leadership.
Jason shakes his head. “I’m merely a steward of the story and the characters.” He lays down sideways on the dirty floor and curls his knees up into his stomach, huffing in air. “It’s all about maintaining the integrity of live theatre.” He rolls onto his back and pulls both legs into the air, rips off firecracker snaps of tight, hot gas, as Sutton and Brian watch sloppy brown dots stain the seat of his white linen pants like stars in the night sky. “It’s not about awards for me,” he says, standing and jumping up and down to shake the hard pieces of feces down his pant legs. “It’s about dignity.”