A few weeks ago, I got to see our theatre department’s really wonderful production of Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical, a pop-rock show updating one of Shakespeare’s most quizzical romantic comedies. Composers and librettists rarely attempt a direct musical adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, especially while using the original text for all the spoken dialogue. But collaborators Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers do just that with their 2013 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical, mixing the original Shakespearean verse with a pop-rock score. (In truth, musical theatre is no stranger to the Shakespeare inspired show. Consider this list from Playbill, which goes so far as to include The Lion King as a loose adaptation of Hamlet—Timon and Pumba are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I suppose?)
The musical, which premiered in July 2013 during The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series, follows the basic story of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but sets the show at a college reunion hosted by a resort. Now that the performance rights for the show are available through Music Theatre International (MTI), you can probably expect to see this show pop up in upcoming theatre seasons. In so many ways, it’s the perfect show for college-age, pop-voice performers: the music is catchy, the comedy is quirky, and no single cast member is set up to steal the show.
Most musicals use songs to move the plot forward or to let a single character soliloquize about the inner-workings of his or her mind. What’s interesting about this show is that the music itself seems more interested in reading between the lines of the Shakespearean text—a kind of Shakespearean midrash. The effect is sort of fascinating, especially if you happen to know the story of Love’s Labour’s Lost already. One moment, you are listening to the players speak Shakespeare’s own lines to one another; the next, the modern lyrics in the songs act as interpretations of the verse itself, reading between the lines for a contemporary audience.
(This act of translation, coincidentally, is relevant to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to commission “updated” versions of Shakespeare’s plays, but that’s fodder for another post.)
This “musical translation” happens all throughout the show, and the fact that the setting is a “five year college reunion” (do these exist?) makes all the anxieties of young romance, fleeting affections, and the practical uses of scholarship seem all the more urgent. These are the most pressing themes in Shakespeare’s original Love’s Labour’s Lost; to see those anxieties acted out by post-college twenty-somethings in our own century illuminates the play’s resilience. And you know what? The catchy tunes really make that message stick.
I loved how this played out in the cynical Berowne’s conversion moment, in which he decides to forego his sardonic grumbling and pursue Rosaline wholeheartedly. The original text reads this way:
BEROWNE: And I, forsooth, in love! I, that have been love’s whip,
A very beadle to a humorous sigh,
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable,
A domineering pedant o’er the boy,
Than whom no mortal so magnificent!
This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
This Signor Junior, giant dwarf, Dan Cupid,
Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
Th’anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents,
Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,
Sole imperator and great general
Of trotting partitors—O my little heart! (3.1.169-81)
Here Berowne says what he has been (a shameless critic of love who domineers over Cupid himself), and then, in the midst of his coarse jibes at the “wimpled, whining, purblind boy” (i.e., Cupid), he slowly realizes that maybe he identifies more with Cupid than he ever thought possible (“O my little heart!”). He finds himself in love. Now he, too, is “th’anointed sovereign of sighs and groans.” And, at this point, all his cynicism melts away when faced with the prospect of falling gloriously in love.
Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical gets this moment right, I think. In the song “Change of Heart,” Berowne goes a step further than simply lamenting his cynicism like he does in the original play; instead, he muses on where that cynicism came from in the first place.
Am I man or just an also-ran with a good degree?
Am I man or just an infantilized boy in an expensive t-shirt?
When I began to think I was better than Armado and his cliché love songs,
No, I would never sigh or swoon, or ever be a lovelorn fool,
I am too aware of irony, that’s what we learn in school,
But now I see the life I try to buttress with that learning,
There’s a trophy wife and a soul-killing job all to justify your earnings,
What I really learned in college to care too much what people say,
To use my words to mock or hide behind and never give myself away,
But I look at her and I wonder why we try to live sequestered,
Did I think my heart would listen to my mind and be un-pestered by love.
He locates his cynicism in his education, in his college experience, and in the “soul-killing” life that purportedly waits for him once he finally grows up. Despite this, he seems to recognize that his education was never meant to paralyze his feelings, even though that’s the effect it seemed to have. The irony, of course, is that his education is what allows him to reflect on “what he really learned in college,” to the extent that he can acknowledge “why we try to live sequestered” within our own little bubbles of cynicism. His education gives him the ability to articulate a rich cycle of self-knowledge: from happy ignorance, to dark disillusionment, and finally to mature appreciation of delight. (Oh, how I love this, Shakespeare geek that I am.)
Of course, this is a contemporary musical, so Friedman and Timbers take some massive liberties with the characters themselves, especially women like Rosaline and Jaquenetta. Amazingly, Armado and Moth are pretty intact in terms of their comedic presence—Armado is a foreign-exchange student turned nightclub singer and Moth is his trusty, keytar-playing and cat-loving assistant. I’ll admit, though, I don’t get Moth’s “I Love Cats” song in the musical, and yet it actually fits with the original Moth’s role as a sarcastic little imp who sings nonsense songs just for kicks.
You’ll be happy to know, too, that Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical maintains Armado’s final lines, which take on a whole new meaning in the post-college context of this show: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Real life is hard after the safe and youthful joys of college. “You that way, we this way.”
If you’re curious about the show and want to know more, there is some excellent footage here.