Originally published on CastAlbums.org.
When composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and director/librettist Alex Timbers‘s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost debuted at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park in the summer of 2013, it was met with something of a split response. Fans praised the production’s no-holds-barred approach to comedy and catchy, contemporary score performed by a stellar cast including Colin Donnell, Patti Murin, Daniel Breaker, Bryce Pinkham, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Rachel Dratch. Detractors found the humor sophomoric and the dramaturgy questionable. Ironically, the sophomoric humor and questionable dramaturgy (which allowed for more non-sequitors than your average episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) were two of the things I liked best about the show, which I saw twice during its limited run in Central Park.
Adapted from one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost takes on the question of extended adolescence, particularly among men of means. Shakespeare’s original four nobles who pledge to spend three years in monastic study become in this version the closest contemporary equivalent: privileged Ivy League graduates at their fifth reunion. When four women from their past reconnect at the reunion, the men suddenly question whether forsaking sex and other kinds of fun for three years is really how they want to spend their mid-twenties. Hilarity ensues. There are also subplots involving their friend (Caesar Samayoa), a Spanish Duke in love with a barmaid (Jones), his friend (bandleader Justin Levine) with a peculiar love of his own, and the working class of the town who are just tired of getting wrapped up in the nonsense of the wealthy.
Divorced from the show, the score holds up as a tuneful collection of songs representing quite a bit of genre diversity. Friedman’s lyrics are clever and specific, doing much of the heavy lifting in distinguishing each of the eight main lovers. The disc starts off with strong, pop-influenced introductory numbers for the boys (“Young Men”) and the girls (“Hey Boys”) that establish the central tension of the show in their very names and create a musical vocabulary for these groups of characters that persists throughout the score. While the group number for the leads have a pop inflection, much of the score for the secondary characters sits firmly in musical-comedy territory. You may hear echoes of Man of La Mancha in “Jaquenetta” (sung by Samoya) and of How to Succeed in “Brabant Song” (led by Andrew Durand).
Standouts include Jones’s smoky, nightclub number “Love’s A Gun,” the comedic bluegrass-influenced trio for the working-class characters “Rich People” (Jones with Charlie Pollack and Kevin Del Aguila), and the show-stopping anthem “Tuba Song” (showcasing the entire company, but sadly missing the high school marching band that stormed the stage each night in a brilliant moment of excess). Even some of the lesser songs are elevated by the tremendous talent of the cast: e.g. the King’s Sonnet isn’t particularly memorable, but Breaker croons the heck out of it. And there’s even a bit of inevitable boyband authenticity in the form of “To Be With You,” the 1991 hit by Mr. Big, performed here by the four male leads plus Levine.
The non-sequitor nature of many of the numbers combined with a near total absence of dialog on the album may leave you wondering how this ever cohered into a score. (The answer? Well, they only partially did.) But the good news is that’s okay, because the songs are mostly great, and recording producers Matt Stine and composer/lyricist Friedman have crafted a listening experience akin to the great cast albums of Goddard Lieberson‘s tenure at Columbia, in which most numbers are presented as stand-alone tracks, sometimes with the aid of slightly different arrangements than we heard on stage. (This also saves the listener from spoilers, if a 400-year-old story can in fact be spoiled.) The beautiful 40-page booklet (designed by Robbie Rozelle) includes all the lyrics, a helpful plot synopsis James Shapiro, a Shakespeare professor at Columbia University, three essays that provide a sense of what this all felt like on stage, and nearly two-dozen full-color production photos.