Shakespeare, the Musical Muse

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It seems so easy: take a play with engaging characters whose motivations and contradictions are quickly comprehensible. Add a gifted composer and an incredibly talented director who also writes delicious dialogue. Add to this a group of performers, mostly quite young, who are so versatile and likable that we audience members instantly love them and want them to do well. Then add production values that are solid and professional but do not scream “Concept!” Blend well, rehearse for a few weeks, and then—presto!—you have a magical night of musical theater.

Such was the case with Love’s Labour’s Lost, the early Shakespeare play that has been transformed into a musical enchantment presented by the Public Theater as part of its annual summer season at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The show only runs through Sunday but merits another life in an indoor space. It won’t have quite the sense of idyll that a beautiful night in the park provides, but that will be compensated for by the intimacy that a theater can offer.

Shakespeare’s plays, with their gorgeous language, are not always congenial for musical adaptation. The music of the words sometimes overwhelms the music itself. The text also asks the performers to not only sing well but recite the words in meaningful ways. The words also pose challenges for composers whose melodies are forced to conform to (or go against) the meter of the original Shakespearean text.

And yet, the stories and characters in Shakespeare are among the most suitable of all for adapting to musical theater because they are so vivid and, yes, human. To me, the best musical adaptations of Shakespeare plays are the ones that draw from the essences of the characters and the strong points of the dramatic plotting to create a new work. Think of how Romeo and Juliet became a wonderful template for West Side Story, even though Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim did not slavishly imitate the Shakespeare play. I think this worked at least as well as Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

In previous articles I have discussed how successful, or not, were operatic adaptations of The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth and King Lear. Love’s Labour’s Lost has a lot of words and a lot of characters. If you have the time, here is the entire play in audio book form to listen to. It is not the most riveting performance but I think you can tell that Love’s Labour’s Lost  has rich text and wonderful language, but is much too dense to be an opera.

Love’s Labour’s Lost has been used for an opera by Nicolas Nabokov (1903-1978), who was a cousin of the writer Vladimir Nabokov.  The libretto is by the estimable W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, who wrote the words for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The opera Love’s Labour’s Lost had its premiere in Brussels on February 7, 1973. I don’t know the music, but I gleaned from a recent article by my friend and colleague, the dramaturg Cori Ellison, that it was not up to snuff.

The basic outline of the plot is of four entitled young men who, after years of diligent oat-sowing, vow to become contemplative and serious. Of course, the human heart has its own rules and the presence of young women is too much of a distraction. But this is not a mere sex farce. Instead, it is about how what we learn and how we grow comes not only from studying but from the experiences of life. This is serious stuff. There is also a vein of class struggle, even if that concept did not exist in Shakespeare’s time.

The play, like most of Shakespeare, has been adapted for the movies. Kenneth Branagh understood the inherent musicality of Love’s Labour’s Lost by making a film that used American popular songs to evoke the feelings of the characters in the play. A typical example is how the four swains moon over the thought of their inamoratas by singing “I’ve Got a Crush on You."

The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park Production of 'Love's Labour's Lost' - Photo: Joan Marcus

The miracle that happened in Central Park is that the creators of this musical, like the best opera composers and librettists, knew how to identify the timeless truths in the play and make them work. Set in 2008 in what seems more like Vermont than the play’s original setting of Navarre, the young men and women—entitled and working-class—struggle to become not only the people they think they are supposed to be but the people they want to be.

The music and lyrics are by Michael Friedman. They boldly cover a wide range of styles, from Broadway to boy bands and girl groups. The score is clever without being self-conscious. You can hear six of the songs here. The music is perfectly served by the director, Alex Timbers, who also adapted Shakespeare’s play. Friedman and Timbers showed precocious talent a few years ago with their musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Timbers also co-directed the inventive Peter and the Starcatcher, which you can see off-Broadway. But it was his amazing production earlier this season at the Public of Here Lies Love (music by David Byrne) that marked him out to me as perhaps the most exciting thing to happen to stage direction in a long time. To say to you that Here Lies Love is about Imelda Marcos would only begin to express the depth and originality of how the show was staged. It was the best production of musical theater I have seen since Robert Carsen’s take on Falstaff, which comes to the Metropolitan Opera on December 6. I think Timbers has the gifts to direct opera, though I will have to think about which work he should consider first. But he understands where the story resides in a work and finds inventive ways to tell it without making the evening about the production and a concept. This is why I think Timbers can direct opera. 

Opera composers, especially Verdi, went straight to the essence of Shakespearean comedy and drama, often—with the help of strong librettists—cutting and refashioning the stories so that they are viable as operas rather than as text set to music. This is part of the success of this Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Many of the Bard’s plays have inspired operas and works of musical theater, but I think it is fair to say that the best of these did not use the full texts from the play. Rather, they took some of the characters and situations from the plays while discarding others. Probably the most famous example is how Shakespeare’s Othello became Verdi’s Otello. The composer and Arrigo Boito, his librettist, discarded the entire first act of the play and referred to what had transpired in a few lines of text and music. They focused on three characters—Othello, Desdemona and Iago—and used Cassio as a device by which Iago could create raging jealousy in Othello. In the last act, Iago’s wife Emilia makes a brief but essential appearance as she recounts what has transpired and reveals her husband as the guilty one.  

How did the compelling Othello become the shatteringly dramatic Otello? The answer goes to the heart of what makes opera the best art form of all. It picks up at the place where words have reached the summit of their expressive power and takes us even further because of the music. To get what I mean, watch this eight-minute clip of Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo in the scene where the Moor kills his wife. There is the action, of course, and the words in Italian that you may or may not understand. Yet, what is unmistakably clear is the dramatic narrative and what the characters feel. This is entirely because of the music. 

If you watch this scene by primarily listening to the music, it is much more powerful than looking at the acting and trying to comprehend the words. This is what makes opera opera. Shakespeare may have inspired Boito to create his superb libretto that Verdi used for his musical setting. But I am absolutely certain that it was Shakespeare, more than Boito, who inspired the music that Verdi wrote. That is why I call Shakespeare a musical muse--the best composers turn his words into melody that is more narrative than any words can hope to be.

The Public Theater will present a new adaptation of The Tempest for three nights only (September 6-8) at the Delacorte Theater. It was conceived and will be directed by Lear deBessonet with music, lyric and books by Todd Almond. You also should see Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which makes a welcome return at the Metropolitan Opera for six performances between October 11 and 31.