Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is known as one of his “problem plays.” At least, that’s what Desperate Measures’ Bella Rose, a saloon girl with a taste for adventure, will tell you as she’s introducing the show. The musical comedy, now in performances at New World Stages direct from it sold-out run at The York Theatre, is loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s early 17th-century work. Rather than taking place in Vienna, the musical is set in the Wild West, complete with a handsome cowboy, a mysterious sheriff, an eccentric priest, and a nun on a mission.
Created by Peter Kellogg, who penned the book and lyrics, and David Friedman, who wrote the music, Desperate Measures is the duo’s fifth collaboration together. The musical is written entirely in verse, which is less a nod to the Bard’s original poetry than for comedy. For Kellogg, it was important that the rhyming couplets be both funny and accessible to a wide audience—not just Shakespeare scholars. Friedman, who has penned a country music score infused with pop and contemporary musical theatre sounds, felt similarly about the music. “It’s Jewish country music,” jokes Friedman. “It’s my brand of that [style of music], which makes it accessible.” (It’s also what won over Drama Desk voters, earning the 2018 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics.)
While they have always agreed on certain things, what makes this duo click are their differences. “Peter is the keeper of the funny and the brilliant, and I’m the keeper of the emotion,” says Friedman. “What I’ve learned, from working with him, is that if it doesn’t have heart or a real message, no one thinks it’s funny—so ultimately, it’s the same goal,” Kellogg adds. “It’s a better comedy when it’s based in truth.”
Some of that truth, it turns out, is the way in which the show speaks to the politics of today. Though it’s been 11 years in the making, Desperate Measures draws uncanny parallels to the world in which we’re currently living—namely in its exploration of the abuses of power that take place in this small Western town. Kellogg and Friedman have even added the line “Make Arizona great again,” spoken by the show’s narcissistic governor.
“It’s not a political show… but we want people to not only come and have a laugh, but to be able to mine different aspects of the show,” says Friedman. “These are tough times and humor is a way for people to express their deepest fears and upsets.” If the returning audiences and howls of laughter are anything to go by, Friedman and Kellogg have hit their mark.