Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s randy, animated antic on the foolhardiness of abstinence, has never, in its 400-plus years of existence, been set to music. (Unless, that is, you count Kenneth Branagh’s movie version, which liberally doused the proceedings with Berlin, Porter, Kern, et al.) Now, at last, an original stage musical is surfacing, in Central Park at the Delacorte as part of The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park. Oskar Eustis, The Public’s Lion King, assigned his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson creators—director/book writer Alex Timbers, 34, and songwriter Michael Friedman, 37—the task of giving the Bard his due in 90 minutes (or, sometimes, slightly more). Their Love’s Labour’s Lost, which opens Aug. 12, boasts some 20 to 26 songs—twice the Bloody Bloody load.
A banner flying between the trees and gingerbread edifices on stage welcomes the class of 2008 back for a five-year college reunion, but the costumes and lingo are suitably 16th century. Among the alums in attendance is the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker), who, to give his court some intellectual heft, opts for three years of celibacy and scrupulous study, expecting his three chief noblemen—Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham) and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe)—to sheepishly follow suit. Should they require diversion, there’s always the court jester, Costard (Charlie Pollock), or conversations with an eccentric Spaniard, Don Armado (Caesar Samayoa). This is not nearly enough, given the arrival of the princess of France and her handmaidens, who park themselves outside the city gates and wait. For a happy ending, after much mismatching and mating, Shakespeare surprises them all with a cold shower.
“I probably never spent so long casting a show before,” said Mr. Timbers. “It was really about finding the most perfect mix.” There was, he insisted, no casting pun in letting Patti Murin lead the opposition partygoers as the princess. (Broadway’s Lysistrata Jones, she is now getting payback for that sex strike.)
A late-arriving flourish to the proceedings is comedienne Rachel Dratch as the academician Holofernia (originally a male role). “Theater is not her main focus right now, so for us it’s a real coup to get her,” beamed Mr. Timbers. “She is lovely to work with and has so many great ideas, of course, because she’s a comedic genius, but she’s also a really good collaborator. ”
This is Mr. Timbers’s first time playing Central Park—he grew up next to it, and has come to Delacorte shows most of his life—and he was cautious about what show to lead with. He and Mr. Friedman didn’t linger long on the canon before finding Love’s Labour’s Lost. “It was something we both had an affection for and a history with,” he said. “I played Don Armado when I was a Yale undergraduate, and Michael created music for a play version up at the Huntington.
“Also, it felt like a very different challenge from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, because it’s a show about love. It’s a very emotional, earnest show. The idea of getting to approach that as a work after Andrew Jackson was really exciting to us.”
Musically, Love’s Labour’s Lost is light-years away from the emo rock score of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Overall, he said, the Shakespeare musical has “an all-pop score. I was inspired by music from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and Kicking and Screaming and other movies about reunions. I listened to all those soundtracks. I wouldn’t say anything’s directly inspired, but the flavor is there.”
His songs are distributed democratically among the cast. When played by overqualified performers (Rebecca Naomi Jones as Jaquenetta, Kevin Del Aguila as Dull), characters with little to say end up with much to sing. “It was fun,” Mr. Friedman said, “but, at the same time, you don’t want to get into that rut of, ‘Oh God, is every single person in this play going to get a song?’ But I think we’ve been able to mess that up so we have the solo numbers and group stuff and surprises in the last 20 minutes.”
One of the things he likes about Love’s Labour’s Lost is how many roles there are for women. “That wealth of the back-and-forth of the men and women I find to be a lot of fun. Then, of course, I love that insane richness of the language and the fact that, for a musical, people keep walking on stage and saying things like, ‘I must sing a poem to my love.’ Shakespeare has been a fantastic collaborator for me. The best thing about him is that whenever you need a new lyric or you need a really good turn of phrase, he always has one ready for you.”
Shakespeare’s downside? “Iambic pentameter is famously annoying to set to music.”
At the moment, Messrs. Friedman and Timbers have carefully divided allegiances. Even as they get Love’s Labour’s Lost into its final stretch of previews, each of them is in rehearsals for his next effort. “There’s not a day off until mid-October,” said Mr. Timbers.
Mr. Friedman’s opens first: Sept. 15 at Playwrights Horizons. Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which advertises itself as “an ode to live theater, and to the resilience of Bart Simpson through the ages,” is a three-act play that Mr. Friedman is slow to show up for. “The first act is just a play, and by the third act, there’s music throughout,” he explained. “Because there are choruses and solos, it’s more like a pageant play. There are probably 12 songs, and the style is all over the map—from ancient chants to pop. It’s a moving, funny play about how culture becomes myth.”
Mr. Timbers hasn’t left the Bard barge, applying himself to marrying Romeo and Juliet to the incendiary songs of the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley for a rock musical called The Last Goodbye. Conceived and adapted by Michael Kimmel, the production has started rehearsals in New York and plans to shift operations to San Diego on Aug. 26 for an Old Globe world premiere on Oct. 6.
And still hanging on—albeit Off Broadway—is Peter and the Starcatcher, his Peter Pan retelling, which took in five Tonys in 2012. “I’m surprised how well these things play Off Broadway,” he said. “There’s a separate company in rehearsal right now that’s about to go to Denver and start a national tour, so there’ll be two companies.”
Here Lies Love, his David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical on Imelda Marcos, was laid to rest July 28 at The Public after four extensions, and now the search is on to find a suitable space in which to resurrect it. Despite the money and the Off Broadway awards it raked in, that’s no easy undertaking. The Public’s LuEsther Hall is a tough act to follow.
Broadway (and, with it, Tony consideration for the score) probably won’t be in the cards. “I think a lot of us would dream of this as something that would run for a while as opposed to a shorter life in a bigger venue,” Mr. Timbers said. “There are not a lot of places where this would make sense, and it’s a busy season coming up—a lot of musicals. What’s been thrilling is there’ve been offers outside of New York.”
Complicating the situation is the desire to keep the musical’s immersive experience, in which audiences are manipulated around the room as if caught up in the revolution. “That’s the feeling we want—moving and dancing and being cast as a participant in this historical event. ”