MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now, some theatrical love and comedy. Every once in a while, writers looking for material to adapt for new musicals turn to Shakespeare. Tonight, a new musical version of "Love's Labours Lost" opens at Free Shakespeare in New York's Central Park. Jeff Lunden has this preview.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: A few years ago, after songwriter Michael Friedman and writer-director Alex Timbers had finished working on "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson," their cheeky historical musical, they decided to look for a new project to work on. Friedman says they wanted their next show to have a completely different feel.
MICHAEL FRIEDMAN: So we started looking at Shakespeare and at a few different Shakespeare plays and then, I think, we came to sort of how amazing would it be to work on a romantic comedy?
LUNDEN: The play the two eventually chose to adapt was "Love's Labours Lost," one of Shakespeare's lesser-known comedies.
FRIEDMAN: And it's full of like ridiculous funny things and then, once in a while, I think, from the Shakespeare, some extremely heartfelt and really moving moments, which is what, I think, drew us to the play as well, the balance of the hilarity and the heart.
DANIEL BREAKER: (Singing) Young men are supposed to have sex. Young men are supposed to have sex and we do drugs and sleep in on Sunday morning. Young men aren't supposed to read philosophy between the ages of 22 and 30. Young men are supposed to be callow and cavalier about things that later they will have to think are really important. Young men, young men, young men.
LUNDEN: The setup for the plot is pretty straightforward says actor, Daniel Breaker.
BREAKER: I play the King of Navarre. He and his buddies have decided to essentially swear off sex, drugs and rock and roll. They've been doing it for some time and now it's time to stop this for three years. The bummer is that four really gorgeous girls come to town right after we decide this.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Hey, boys, yeah, we're following you. Hey, boys, we have things to do. Hey, boys, can a girl talk to you and boys are always (unintelligible).
LUNDEN: Of course, in Shakespeare, the boys and girls are members of the aristocracy. The musical, which uses a great deal of Shakespearean verse in both the scenes and the lyrics, is set at a contemporary college reunion, says Alex Timbers, who adapted the play.
ALEX TIMBERS: It's a play about class, in a way. When we were thinking about what is a prince and a princess today, in American terms that might be, you know, the kids that go to Brown University, right? And so in some ways, it made a lot of sense for us, where to set this and what this is. And then, simultaneously, where is your bar wench and things like that, you know? And that's the girl that works at the one bar in a college town, you know.
LUNDEN: Songwriter Michael Friedman says when he began working on their town gal adaptation, he found the original Shakespeare text was filled with song cues.
FRIEDMAN: Even more than most Shakespeare plays, people constantly are like, I must write a poem to my love, you know. And what's great is so there's so many times when people sort of are standing and delivering in a very musical theater wonderful way.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I will write for you a sonnet and my thoughts will not be free. I will cleave my heart upon it in a cliche minor key 'cause she makes each cliché true. And now my heart is in her hands. My heart's on fire. My heart's an open book. My heart is on my sleeve.
LUNDEN: Alex Timbers says that there was another reason he and Michael Friedman were drawn to this particular play.
ALEX TIMBER: "Love's Labours Lost" has a great trick at the end where in the last, like, sort of ten minutes, it suddenly becomes a Chekhov play and becomes incredibly sad. It doesn't have the danger of a lot of romantic comedies of being perceived just as fluff 'cause it's about growing up. It's about engaging with the world. And these are all life experiences that everyone in the audience will have had.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Love's a gun. The safety's off and in the chamber there's a bullet, but only one.
LUNDEN: Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater which produces Free Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is both excited and a bit jittery about tonight's performance.
OSKAR EUSTIS: We are premiering a major new American musical in the Delacorte that has never been seen by any audience. We didn't do workshops of this. We didn't do out-of-town tryouts. We just said, let's go and put it in the Delacorte. And that spirit of risk-taking is, I hope, the spirit of the show.
LUNDEN: "Love's Labours Lost" plays in Central Park through August 18th. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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