Making Shakespeare Sing Anew With Debut of Love's Labour's Lost Musical

By Matt Wolf
11 Aug 2013

Colin Donnell
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.

Daniel Breaker, Kimiko Glenn and Patti Murin
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.

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Maria Thayer, Patti Murin, Audrey Lynn Weston, Daniel Breaker, and Kimiko Glenn
Photo by Joan Marcus