Desperate Measures is a musical that’s loosely, and we do mean loosely, based on Measure for Measure. M4M is considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays and the problem is pretty easy to spot: It’s a comedy that isn’t that funny. It’s also a play where the main protagonist is a Duke—disguised as a Friar—who has the power to end the grief, terror, abuse, shame and suffering endured by the other characters any time he wants, but who somehow allows it to go one for five acts, apparently for his own and the audience’s amusement.
So, of course, we—Peter Kellogg, book & lyrics, and David Friedman, music—jumped on the idea as a perfect vehicle for a musical comedy set in the American West. Yee haw. (And you can order the cast album here!)
First Look at Lauren Molina, Conor Ryan, More in Desperate Measures Off-Broadway
1. “The Ballad of Johnny Blood”
PETER: I know. People always say opening numbers are the hardest to write because you’re trying to set up the whole show, create the proper mood, and introduce the main characters. Well, we wrote this song first. And the lyrics never changed. It could also have been called “Johnny Blood’s backstory, or everything you need to know to explain his current predicament.” In fact, I tried that as a lyric, but David felt it didn’t sing. David can be such a downer.
DAVID: That’s me. A real downer. Anyway, the challenge with the opening number was, it tells a story that could be considered pretty grim, but this show is, most of all, funny, and we have to let the audience know that it’s OK to laugh. So I wrote the music with my tongue as firmly in my cheek as possible. We start with a guitar figure that’s an overblown parody of old westerns, an “overly dead seriousness” that gradually telegraphs that this is going to be silly. Bella’s new opening monologue, Bill Castellino’s brilliant direction, and the amazing comedic talents of the cast all help get this point across from the get-go.
2. “The Ballad of Johnny Blood (reprise)
PETER: In the first scene, we find out that Johnny’s gonna hang in three days and, although he killed a man in self-defense, the governor will probably never spare his life. When a drunken priest is thrown into the same cell to sober up, Johnny asks him for words of comfort about the next life, only to have the priest tell him there is no next life and then pass out. That’s when Johnny sings this mournful reprise. At this point, the audience is saying, “What the hell is going on? I thought this was a comedy.” Which means we have them right where we want them.
DAVID: Johnny might, at first glance, appear to be “dumb,” but he turns out to be so much more than that. Conor Ryan, who plays him, has said that he thinks of him as a poet. One of the most important things about comedy is that the characters not only be funny, but that you really care about them. In this short reprise, we get to see that although we’re playing this light throughout much of the play, Johnny really is scared and really has feelings. The purpose of this moment is to get the audience more on board with his plight so we truly care what happens to him, even as we’re laughing with and at him throughout the show.
3. “That’s Just How It Is"
PETER: The sheriff goes to a nearby Franciscan Monastery where Johnny’s sister Susanna is studying to be a nun, and asks her to plead with the governor to spare Johnny’s life. To help convince her, he sings this song which sums up his moral code. It’s the sort of song Gary Cooper would have sung in High Noon to explain his actions… if High Noon were a musical… and Gary Cooper could sing… and we could get the rights.
DAVID: This is one of my favorite songs in the show because it functions on several levels simultaneously. First and foremost, it forwards the plot. At the beginning of the song Susanna is refusing to help her estranged brother, and by the end the sheriff’s plea has convinced her to do so. But equally importantly, this song states one of the biggest themes of the play: “The world can be a tough place and often we are powerless to do anything about it, which makes it all the more important that we act whenever we feel we might make a difference.” Musically, I wrote this “warm” because, first of all, it’s the first country ballad in the show and sets a tone, and also, with the sheriff being a cool, calm, and collected mystery man, I want to give the audience the subliminal sense that there really is something warm and caring in him, even though he doesn’t show it until much later in the play.
4. “Some Day They Will Thank Me”
PETER: It was important to David and me not to have a completely evil, one-dimensional villain. Just like Angelo in M4M, our governor believes that he’s doing the right thing by being tough on crime. And this song is meant to make a good case for his point of view, as well as being funny. Any resemblance here to any politician in office today is purely coincidental.
DAVID: A big part of the fun of this show for me as a composer is that I get to write in so many styles. The governor, being German, has a completely different mode of speech and pace than anyone else. Writing his music in a totally different style from everyone else’s emphasizes that he is the odd man out in this crowd. So I got to jump out of country and write a patter song in classical style. Lots of changes of mood, stops and starts, and comedic bits that show a panorama of the full-of-himself, childish, power-hungry, and yes, thinks-he’s-doing-the-right-thing, nature of the governor. And to tweak what Peter said: In the hands of the brilliant Nick Wyman, I think any resemblance here to any politician in office today is definitely intentional.
5. “Look in Your Heart”
PETER: Stole this Idea from Anchors Away. In the move, Gene Kelley is a sailor on leave who bumps into Kathryn Grayson. For some reason, he agrees to walk her to a restaurant where she works as a singer. He drops her off and is almost out the door when he suddenly hears her singing. And at the sound of her voice, he falls instantly, completely, and hopelessly in love.
Here, as Susanna breaks into song to beg for her brother’s life, the governor and the sheriff, who up to now has found the novice nun a straitlaced stick-in the mud, are both suddenly and completely smitten with the purity of her voice—though in two different ways.
DAVID: When I write a “period” or “style” piece, I write the songs that are period in the style (in this case, country, or as I like to call it, Jewish country) and the songs that are emotional as more typical “David Friedman” songs, since no matter what we’re like on the outside, deep down inside we all want and need the same basic things…love, understanding, recognition, connection. In this case, the purpose of the song is to melt the heart of the governor, as well as the larger plot purpose, which is to begin the process of melting the heart of the sheriff. So my job was to write as beautiful and touching a melody as I could. It really helped that Susanna is a soprano with a gorgeous voice so I could create a sound unique to the play for her.
6. “Look in Your Heart (reprise)”
PETER: Now we find out just how and why the governor is smitten. Or as he says, since he’s German, “schmitten.”
DAVID: In this case we had to take a beautiful sweet ballad and reprise it as ominous as it comes out of the Governor’s mouth. A big thanks to David Hancock Turner, our music director and orchestrator, who makes this happen with orchestration. And while I’m at it, a big thanks to David and all our musicians for creating an authentic country sound that I certainly don’t have the personal chops to create. It takes a village.
7. “Good to Be Alive”
PETER: The governor has proposed that Susanna sleep with him to save her brother’s life. Needless to say, she turns him down. Nuns aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. When Susanna then visits Johnny in jail to tell him what happened, Johnny is sympathetic to her plight, but can’t help asking her to consider his point of view. The scene manages to be both funny and touching at the same time, which is my favorite kind of scene. The song is one of those moments that work perfectly in the play—Johnny is pleading for his life—yet stands outside the play as well, as a sentiment anyone can feel.
DAVID: After one of the more hilarious scenes in the play, we felt that we needed to musically balance this with a song that really shows Johnny’s heart, his need, and his passion. With Peter’s beautiful, inspiring words, I must admit I did my best to write a standalone country hit. Conor brings down the house with it every night. Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, if you’re reading this (which I’m sure you are), feel free to record it and spread the word.
8. “It Doesn’t Hurt to Try”
PETER: Susanna doesn’t know what to do. But the sheriff does. He suggests Susanna agree to the governor’s proposal and then, under cover of darkness, she switch places with one of the saloon girls, who do this thing for money all the time. Johnny likes the plan. But, of course, he would. It’s his only chance.
DAVID: This song was fun to write because it introduces yet another musical style, the hoe-down. This is the moment in the play where the comedic pace really steps up and the audience gets to ride it through the rest of the evening. The country fiddle, plucking banjo, and stomping rhythm create a real change of pace. We’ve set up the story, hopefully people really care about the characters and what happens to them, and now we’re ready to have some fun!
9. “It’s Getting Hot in Here”
PETER: Susanna insists on accompanying the sheriff to the nearby saloon to meet the woman who’s going to take her place. Bella, the saloon girl, makes a strong first impression with this song, in which she manages to remove an amazing amount of clothing and somehow still have enough left on at the end to ensure the NYPD won’t raid the theatre.
DAVID: Bella, especially as played by the incandescent Lauren Molina, is much more than just a saloon girl. She is, in many ways, the wisest one in the play, having an eye for what’s really going on. She picks up on the Sheriff and Susanna’s attraction long before they do. And most of all, at every moment, Bella is exhorting the world to enjoy life, have fun, and take things lightly. For some reason I love writing strip numbers. I was told by one of my earliest classical music teachers that she was concerned for me because she was noticing a “trashy, nightclub idiom infiltrating my improvisations,” and if I wasn’t “very careful” I might end up “in the pit of a Broadway show.” I guess this number shows I wasn’t very careful.
10. “The Way That You Feel on the Inside”
PETER: Though slightly—OK, more than slightly—taken aback, Susanna presses on with the plan. Meeting with Bella afterwards in her dressing room, she attempts to explain how a nun should act in any situation, especially this one.
DAVID: As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing in several musical styles up to this point, wild west parody, straight-up country ballad, Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, soprano ballad, hoe-down, “trashy nightclub idiom.” In this song, because of the disparate characters who find themselves in the same room (a sheriff, a nun, and a stripper), the challenge was to combine two of the styles. So this song has a prim and proper feel to it combined with a country waltz.
11. “Stop There”
PETER: While Susanna and Bella go into the next room to inspect Bella’s nun outfit—which apparently she has on hand for customers with certain predilections—the sheriff reflects about the nun, realizing with mounting horror that he’s kind of, sort of maybe attracted to her. The sung manages to be both funny and touching—always the goal—especially as sung by Peter Saide.
DAVID: One of the things I love about writing with Peter is that he really finds unusual twists on standard types of songs. In this song, the sheriff goes from being almost disgusted that he might be falling for someone as “difficult” as Susanna, to giving in to the truth that, like it or not, he’s smitten. In the intro, I used lots of slow, twangy sounds and chromatic scales and chords not found in other parts of the show, to express his hesitancy, confusion and annoyance that this is happening. Then, in line with what Peter wrote lyrically, the sheriff sings in short stop-and-start sections as he struggles with his emotions. So you have two short matching phrases where he’s protesting, then a longer phrase where he begins to let go, then a stop. And finally, in the end, he goes full throttle. The note Pete sings at the end never fails to draw hoots and hollers from the audience.
12. “In the Dark”
PETER: In the finale of the first act, we see the sheriff’s plan in action. First Susanna convinces the governor to turn off the light, then Susanna and Bella switch places. Somehow, they manage to keep the governor “in the dark” about what’s happening. Next, while listening at the door outside the governor’s house, the sheriff and the nun have their own “in the dark” moment. Then, on the other side of the stage, we see Johnny and the priest looking up at the night sky and offering their own “dark” thoughts. Finally, everyone starts singing at the same time, and we realize we haven’t heard the whole cast singing together since the opening number, and they sound really good as an ensemble. End of Act I.
DAVID: This number was really fun for me to write because it involves one of my favorite things to do….vocal arranging. In “another life” I was the conductor/vocal arranger for Disney Films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Hunchback of Notre Dame and I always loved creating intricate choral pieces and hearing the sound of a group of wonderful singers harmonizing. I loved figuring this puzzle out, and I especially love when this glorious group of singers burst into the final chorus, sounding like a lot more than just six people.
13. “What a Night!”
PETER: The governor sings this at the beginning of Act II. Not to be confused with Oh what a night! by the Four Seasons, but pretty much the same idea except a lot shorter.
DAVID: With Nick Wyman to write for, it was so much fun to take these silly words and give them a really puffed-up presentation. Each line has him in a different mood, triumphant, surprised, self-deprecating—a sign of his ridiculously unraveled psyche. (Again, make your own comparisons to a political figure today.)
14. “About Last Night”
PETER: When Susanna goes to the governor’s office to collect her brother’s pardon, she is horrified to learn that plan of the previous night backfired. The governor has fallen madly in love with her and now won’t agree to pardon Johnny until she marries him. Susanna tries in vain to tell him he’s made a horrible mistake.
DAVID: It was tricky to figure out how to write this because it’s a German martinet singing with a novice nun, he trying to seduce her, she trying to resist. What came to me was a Viennese waltz but with a country feel. It’s fun to watch them vocally spar, as he gets more insistent and she gets more agitated.
15. “Stop There (reprise)”
PETER: The sheriff, thinking his plan of the previous night went well, imagines Susanna will be grateful for his efforts. He is quickly disabused.
DAVID: Reprises are so useful because they continue and progress the arc of the characters, allowing you to recall where they were before and see what’s happening now. I wrote the first part of this dreamy, to allow us to see into the Sheriff’s secret emotional life, and then of course, there’s the abrupt entrance of Susanna, which combines her resistance with her unconsciously getting more on board with the plan. A short time to establish some real shifts. Peter always likes things as short (and funny) as possible. I tend to stretch things out. So this was an opportunity for me to be economical.
16. “Just For You”
PETER: Bella was more than happy to switch places in the dark with Susanna because she loves Johnny and hopes someday to marry him. Here, she visits Johnny in his cell to tell him what she’s done for him. She thinks he’ll be pleased. He’s not.
DAVID: I love this song. Again, it’s one of Peter’s zanily backwards ideas to create this obviously great love on the basis of these two characters sparring and arguing all the time. It’s a credit to Peter’s writing, and in no small part to Lauren Molina and Conor Ryan’s comedic brilliance and heart, that the more we see these two characters sparring, the more we are aware that they adore each other. My contribution to this was to make this moment as up-tempo, high-spirited, and joyous as possible. I look forward to this moment every time I’m at the show. And the number always gets enough of a hand to warrant the reprise, which adds a few more hilarious zingers to the fun.
17. “What Is This Feeling?”
PETER: The sheriff and Susanna, meanwhile, come up with another plan. Susanna will agree to the governor’s proposal of marriage, and then, at the last minute, she and Bella switch places again, this time hidden by wedding veil. Bella likes the plan. Johnny doesn’t. The sheriff also delivers a letter to the priest supposedly written by Friedrich Nietzsche because … well, you really just have to see the play to understand that part. After everyone else has gone, Susanna reflects on her growing feelings for the sheriff.
DAVID: This song was a treat and a challenge to set to music because it’s a most unusual “love” song. The character is having a feeling, and having so cut herself off from her feelings because of past hurts, she doesn't even know what the feeling means. As she starts to discover that this might be love, she’s somewhat intrigued, but mostly horrified. This ruins everything! She’s about to become a nun, and now she’s falling in love? Yuck! The real challenge of this song for the actor is that she has to play her resistance and revulsion and yet, at the same time, we have to know she’s in love. This is where the music helps. As we rehearsed the song, we worked a lot on the idea the she doesn’t have to play the love because the music takes care of it. When it’s played this way, the song is not only confused, touching, resistant and loving, it’s what Peter always wants a song to be…..funny.
18. “What a Day! (reprise)”
PETER: A reprise of “What a Night” that finds the governor looking forward to his impending nuptials. The amazing thing about Nick Wyman’s performance as the governor is that he manages to be scary and intimidating and at the same time a hilarious clown (again, no resemblance to anyone today).
DAVID: The recurring musical joke of the song is what I enjoy the most. Again, the ever-changing mood within each line (very much assisted by the orchestrations which underscore the mood shifts) escalate our understanding of just how nuts the governor really is.
19. “Life Takes You By Surprise”
PETER: A moment of reflection by all six characters, mostly because we haven’t had an ensemble number for a while. But also because I love these moments when all the characters pause to reflect, just before the final six plot twists and a madcap dash to the finale.
DAVID: One of the things I like most about this show is that all of the characters make big emotional shifts and learn major lessons in life during the course of it. The pace has been increasingly hilarious and madcap up to this point, and this gives us a chance to sort of put a bubble over the head of each character and find out what they’re feeling. As I said earlier, it's not enough to be funny. We have to care. So I wrote this in a warm slightly country-tinged waltz. The bridge of the song was added later and adds an intensity and urgency to the proceedings, (while giving us a thumbnail recap of what has happened to each character to change their lives), followed by a choral section. I love that the music builds to this because after presenting all the unique issues that each character has, the end brings them all together to emphasize that really, deep down inside, whether we’re a gunslinger, a dance hall girl, a novice nun, a sheriff, a despotic governor or a priest who’s lost his faith, we're all the same inside.
20. “Good to Be Alive (reprise)”
PETER: Just in case “the wed trick” goes awry, the sheriff leaves his key within easy reach for Johnny to break out of prison. This is one of those scenes that make me realize, even after 25 years of trying to write comedy, I don’t always understand what’s funny. And I’m forced to admit the actors and the director sometimes know better than I do. In this case, they took a two-minute scene as written and turned it into five minutes where the audience laughs non-stop. When Johnny finally catches on and breaks out of his cell, he sings this celebratory reprise.
DAVID: For me, this is an example of the value of a reprise, even when used as underscoring. At the beginning of this, Johnny is feeling such despair at the prospect of hanging that he fails to notice that the sheriff has left him a key with which to get out of his cell, and a horse saddled out back with which to make his escape. As the mournful underscoring of “It’s Good to Be Alive” starts, the idea in the writing is that the audience, having previously heard Johnny sing this song of hope and gratitude in Act I, recognizes, most likely subliminally, that the song is about life and joy. This idea gradually penetrates Johnny’s mind, until the “lightbulb” goes off and he realizes that he can escape. The cherry on top is that as Johnny breaks out of jail we get to hear Conor sing his fabulous sustained high G one more time.
21. “It’s a Beautiful Day”
PETER: We had to edit this number a lot for the CD because there was no way to understand what was happening without including a lot of dialogue. Basically, Bella and Susanna are dressed in identical wedding gowns, and manage to fool first the sheriff as to who is who, and then—when the governor insists on seeing Susanna before the ceremony – they fool the governor by pretending to be Susanna looking into a mirror. Idea taken from Lucille Ball who took it from Groucho Marx. Lauren Molina, by the way, could be the next Lucille Ball, she’s that slapstick funny. There should be a TV show called I Love Lauren.
DAVID: We actually wrote a couple of different songs for this spot. We had a song called “Two Brides and One Groom” that was also funny, but it described plot more while this one described emotion. In writing this, at this point I thought it would be important to have it be spirited, the height of the plucking, fiddling, strumming country sound. So it’s very up tempo and fun. This tempo also allows us to see the emotional and character change that Susanna has finally made (sort of like the end of Grease where Sandy finally comes out of her shell. I conducted that show nearly 40 years ago on Broadway so that theme very much lives in me). The cherry on top for me as a composer is to blend these two voices, the soprano and the belter, in harmony, although of course, as Susanna comes out of her shell she becomes beltier and beltier.
PETER: I won’t tell you what happens at the end, but you can probably guess that Johnny didn’t hang by the cheerful up-tempo finale and the fact that Johnny is one of the participants.
DAVID: I love the finale because it gives me a chance to reprise some of the familiar themes the audience has been hearing all night so they go out humming them. And it’s always a joy to see how many people stay, standing and clapping, through the entire exit music that comes right out of the finale. We’ve included it on the CD because they sound so great. Don’t feel compelled to stand if you’re listening at home.