It's been some while since Shakespeare sang at The Public's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. To be sure, various free Shakespeare in the Park productions have folded incidental music into their overall fabric, and the ever-iconic Hair (revived at this address in 2008) quotes liberally from Hamlet. But one has to go back 42 years — to the Delacorte premiere of the John Guare/Galt MacDermot Two Gentlemen of Verona, prior to its Tony-winning Broadway transfer and 2005 Delacorte revival — to find a Shakespeare play transformed into a proper musical.
All the more reason, then, to herald this summer's world premiere of the Alex Timbers/Michael Friedman musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost. A world premiere, the second of The Public's two free Shakespeare in the Park offerings allows a verbally dense and dextrous entry in the canon to let rip anew, in a decidedly American take on a play rife with French names that in this version unfolds in and around an unnamed New England college.
This, you may recall, is the lyrical comedy about enforced chastity, academic pedantry, and an especially prolix plot that deliberately keeps the men from the women until such time, one feels, as the lords in question have had the opportunity to do some growing up.
"I just love the play and I love the structure of the play," said Oskar Eustis, The Public's artistic director, who has been nurturing this project for the better part of three years.
"There's something beautiful," Eustis elaborated, "in the idea of these four boys who are going to attempt to withdraw from the world and through contemplation and study achieve a higher understanding who then learn that in fact the way to grow up and to become a man is to engage with the world." Small wonder, then, that one of the show's defining numbers is the aptly titled "Are You A Man," led by the play's Romeo equivalent, the lovesick Berowne. That part is being played in the Park by Colin Donnell, an alumnus of Broadway's Anything Goes and Jersey Boys, who has been with this current venture across three workshops.
"Michael has written a really beautiful, catchy, rockin' score," Donnell said in tribute to Friedman, the musical's composer, adding of Timbers' book: "Alex has done a really cool job helping Michael along with that and also condensing and transforming the script. It wouldn't be fair to say that Michael just writes the score and Alex just the book since it really is a collaboration between the two of them. What's great as an actor is that they value the input of the people they put in the room with them. Every time we've come back to the piece, there's been a forward momentum."
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
How did the duo behind the genre-bending (and Tony-nominated) Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson end up lending their talents to a stage musical of a play written more or less contemporaneously with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream but considerably less well-known than either? Eustis explains the show's provenance: "What literally happened is that Michael and Alex and I were talking after Bloody Bloody about The Public having this fantastic model in its past — namely Two Gents — that we have never repeated in terms of taking an early Shakespeare comedy and making it contemporary and musicalizing it. So we thought, why not try and do it again?" It helped, of course, that both creators had a prior awareness of — and affinity for — their source. Obie-winner Friedman wrote the music for a 2006 Boston production of this very play, directed by Nicholas Martin, and has seen it twice since then, including The Public's own 2011 Public Lab staging, directed by Karin Coonrod: "Having been intimate with the text is really useful." The twice Tony-nominated Timbers, for his part, played the Spanish braggart Don Armado — the play's ever-mirthful exemplar of bombast — while at Yale and also produced a campus version of the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona , so he was familiar with the template at hand.
"I didn't know musicals could be quite so irreverent and sexy and delightfully weird," Timbers said of Two Gentlemen, which in turn got him thinking about a way into Love's Labour's: "We've got a 90-minute musical with 23 songs, so we need to cut to the bare essentials." The result allows for (presumably very welcome) trims of some of Shakespeare's knottier jokes along with the chance to upgrade the play's women so that they acquire their own weight.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
"The leading females in the play sort of evaporate in the middle," Timbers said of the original text, which brings on the Princess of France and her attendants who pose an immediate challenge to the new moral order posited by the King of Navarre. "And then you have characters like Jaquenetta" — the dairymaid — "who has only a few lines, when in fact she's so intriguing." The result is a greatly expanded role with its own song and a knock-out performer to play her in American Idiot's Rebecca Naomi Jones. (In addition to Jones and Donnell, the cast includes Daniel Breaker, Rachel Dratch, Kimiko Glenn, Patti Murin, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Bryce Pinkham).
As for the modern, immediately recognizable setting — think a liberal arts college like Middlebury or Williams at the time of a five-year reunion — this newly imagined court of Navarre allows for Timbers to couple a preparatory immersion in films like "Metropolitan" and "Kicking & Screaming," all of it, noted the director, "with a pop musical-theatre sound."
At the same time, the Delacorte itself opens the show up to the advantages that come with so singular a space — Belvedere Castle, for instance, standing in as a neo-gothic university and the night sky appropriate to a piece that, said Friedman, "takes place over the course of a single evening, so it begins at night-time and ends hypothetically at dawn." That's not to say that audiences will be going home at sunrise but that Love's Labour's Lost will, with luck, be the American musical theatre's gain. Matt Wolf is London theatre critic of The International Herald Tribune.