That Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of the least-performed and most weirdly structured of Shakespeare’s comedies might actually have recommended it to the musical adapters who were looking to fashion a summertime frolic for the Delacorte season. Such a discursive, unknown text, it could be argued, would easily absorb contemporary songs and humor without endangering a beloved tale or rankling the pedants. Indeed, the Public trod this path successfully before, with Two Gentlemen of Verona, first performed in the park in 1971.
But unlike Two Gents, Love’s Labour’s Lost, starting with its miserable punctuation, is a deeply strange (not just a deeply silly) work — one I pedantically would not have thought capable of successful musicalization. It has almost no plot beyond its premise: The king of Navarre and three of his men forswear women and other distractions for three years of high-minded study, but are immediately tested and found inconstant by the Princess of France and her three ladies. Beyond that, the story keeps losing track of its characters and themes, dumping them every so often by the wayside. Meanwhile it amuses itself with pointless wordplay, gorgeous but unintegrated poetry, and what seems like audition material for the far more satisfying Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It. It also has at least four endings, one of which crash-lands into the text from a different kind of play entirely, derailing everything that came before.
But the adapters, not the pedant, were right. Love’s Labour’s Lost turns out to have the makings of a fine rompy musical. Alex Timbers (book and direction) and Michael Friedman (songs) may not have reached that goal quite yet, let alone anything loftier, but by reveling in the original’s almost revue-like nature instead of trying to fix it, and by tailoring the story to a modern setting that suits it well, they have made opportunities out of the play’s liabilities, and a delicious summer evening out of questionable ingredients.
That setting is key: Timbers moves the action from medieval Europe to what looks like Williamstown, Massachusetts, turning Shakespeare’s diplomatic encounter between Spain and France into an over-liquored run-in between college graduates at their five-year reunion. The original’s vague backstory immediately becomes more explicit, if somewhat pat: The four young men and four young women have evidently hooked up in pairs back in school. John Lee Beatty strikes just the right tone to support that reading with his resort inn set, complete with flagged patio, hot tub, and chaises longues, while lighting designer Jeff Croiter paints the scene in bright sitcom colors. Even the park’s trees get gorgeously decked in violet.
In this context, the bromantic guys and the party-girl quartet (with their gay sidekick unsubtly indicated by pink shirt, polka-dot bowtie, and vermilion socks) are somehow both reductions of their Shakespearean models and reasonable expansions of them. The men swear their oath of seriousness by locking up the props of their youth (beer cans, bongs, and batches of condoms); the women, flicking their hair like the chorus of Legally Blonde, complain in upspeak of their desire for meaningful commitment and their daddy issues. This creates a certain amount of ironic distance: The name-checks (TED lectures, Kierkegaard) come fast and furious, and the proffering and then slapping down of clichés is enough to give you whiplash. (“She warms the cockles of my heart,” sings head bro Berowne in a non-love love song; “I don’t know what the fuck that means.”) But if Timbers especially has become the musical theater’s crown prince of easy irony, this time that technique, or tic, sets up something more serious and touching. The young people eventually come to question the value of irony itself.
As the substitutions hit the spot, so too does the musical structure. The placement and thrust of the songs are especially smart, finding in standard musical moments apt analogs for the exploration of themes that Shakespeare either ignores or circumnavigates in long stretches of unanchored verse. The direct-to-the-point establishing number “Young Men” (“Don’t make me be serious already / Don’t make me be thirty already”) could be used as a textbook for a musical-theater workshop. In another song, called “Rich People,” the secondary characters vividly express the latent class antagonisms between nobles and rustics that Shakespeare mines only for comic relief:
All these rich people with all their fancy schools
They make the laws but then they break all the rules
And then they act like snobs
To us poor slobs
Who clean their swimming pools.
If the big points are struck well, what’s less successful is the songwriting itself. Friedman — who in 2007 won an Obie for sustained excellence, and is still only 37 — is expert at hitting the jokes; indeed, his lyrics always seem to be hurtling like mad toward their punch lines, rhythm be damned. And just as he is too smart not to know how many syllables a line can comfortably hold, he must understand the difference between real rhymes and false ones; nevertheless he perversely seems to choose the latter whenever possible. (He even falsifies one rhyme Shakespeare had right.) I can only assume he does this to keep the ear from becoming too passive, but the side effect is that his already rather ditty-like numbers tend to splinter just when they want polish. One song clearly meant to be a showstopper (it includes sequins, tap-dancing, and generous helpings of the “One” vamp from “A Chorus Line”) never quite gets off the ground because of its resistance to the rules of musical lift. And the song that works best as both an expression of character and as genre pastiche turns out to be a ringer: a 1991 rock anthem from a band called Mr. Big.
Perhaps a summer show doesn’t want anything more, and certainly the young and charming cast knows how to put the material across. (Daniel Breaker as the King, Colin Donnell as Berowne, and Rebecca Naomi Jones as the serving wench Jaquenetta are standouts.) It may even be that a certain amount of lowered expectation, however off-putting that may be to the class of 1980, is reassuring for millennials, at least in musicals. (I took two teenagers, who loved it.) But as the show’s surprisingly touching ending makes clear, when out of the tattered hat of irony the creators still manage to pull the rabbit of genuine feeling, everyone has to grow up sometime. Here Friedman does say it well: “Love is learning / And the heart and brain are one.” If maturity doesn’t come from recusing oneself from the world with books, it doesn’t come from excusing oneself with jokes either.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is at the Delacorte through August 18.