by Alix Cohen
In an October 2017 review, I called this musical, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, rollicking, literate fun; its libretto and lyrics witty yet plainspoken, its music a seamless combination of Broadway-like numbers and hoe-downs. (It’s a Western!)
After a sold-out run at The York Theatre, the show will wink and whirl its way onstage at New World Stages with all but one of the same contributors. (Previews begin May 30.) I wondered at the recipe for the successful salad of style and spoke with Lyricist/Librettist Peter Kellogg and Composer David Friedman.
Apparently, everything starts with Kellogg who delivers a full script and lyrics to Friedman before the two collaborate. “You kind of come to an emotional point and write a song.” (This is their fifth musical.) Though he’d read all Shakespeare’s plays in school, reinterpreting the Bard had never been an ambition. Why then Measure for Measure? Very few attempts had been made to musicalize it and the tale “worked perfectly as a western.” Responding, the writer also makes reference to Moliere (comparison is easy) whom he loved growing up. Uh huh. Ultimately the muse is difficult to pin down.
In optimum pairing, the wordsmith wants people to laugh, the composer to touch people’s hearts. I like to write tunes that stick to the ribs,” Friedman says. “If Peter was in control, it might be a little sterile. If I was in control, you might throw up from emotion.”
“I remember saying that a particular song was supposed to be funny while David countered with, but it has to be real. I said, yes, it has to be real funny.” (Kellogg)
Despite humorous treatment, serious subjects of justice and misogyny remain. A prime example of the approach is Angels in America which tackles some of the most important issues of our time, yet keeps us laughing. Execution of this multi-layer technique requires a skilled practitioner.
The partners insist on eventually agreeing. They argue but not in “a bad way.” In the end, trust is paramount. Like a married couple who resolve never to go to bed mad, the two plug away, mostly by computer, in homes an hour away from one another, committed to figuring things out. It’s all about the work. “The basis of a great collaboration is the stupid idea, being able to take the risk. Peter’s the brave one. Then we talk about where it takes us, how is it moving us…” (Friedman)
Dialogue for Desperate Measures, now seemingly effortless, conversational verse, was prose when presented at the 2006 NYMF (New York Musical Festival.) “There was just something missing,” Kellogg reflects, “Rhyming couplets gave it a mythic quality. Having a rhyme land with a joke makes it funnier as does western dialect. I use words that don’t normally rhyme and are often not very poetic.”
“Sometimes the audience laughs a line ahead because they know what’s coming,” Friedman adds. By the time it was presented at Norwich’s The Spirit of Broadway in 2016, the new format prevailed.
I ask Kellogg whether he writes lyrics to dummy rhythms, in fact, he uses made up tunes. Spontaneously singing (rather well – he once aspired to be a vocalist), he tells me that when trying the number on his young son, Dylan, the boy said, “Daddy, that’s Jurassic Park.” Friedman emits one of his infectiously hearty laughs. It’s clear the pair appreciate one another.
Then, the composer sings his version. “Sometimes I ask him what he hears. His lyrics have form, each verse has the same number of syllables, it’s easy to set them.” (Friedman) “When I end up singing David’s melodies instead of mine,” Kellogg says, “ because they’re much better, we know.”
The partners usually spend 3-4 months working on the book. Friedman doesn’t begin composing until there’s a good working draft. “You really don’t want to write an opening number until you know how a musical ends…so we talk about it and it comes very quickly.”
“Everything is country style except emotional numbers, which are “David Friedman”songs. I write melodies the way people speak.” A voice goes up and down in pitch depending on emphasis. “Music is in service of the plot, you’re not falling out of the piece to suddenly have a country song. “ (Friedman)
I ask whether he listens to music of the period or style in which a musical is set. “I think it was Rodgers or Hammerstein who said, when beginning a period piece, write first and do the research later. I listen to what I need to.
Working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame (animated Disney film), I asked Alan Menken whether he wanted vocals authentic to 1483. He said, OH YES! I did that and he said, ech! that’s awful. Then I brought him something from around 1789 and he thought it was beautiful. My woo-woo philosophy is, I don’t write, it’s all written, I just have to get it… Sometimes David Hancock Turner’s arrangements make a song country.”
Staging will accommodate the new space. Having had only 10 days to put the piece together at The York, the collaborators have lots they want to do. Director Bill Castellino returns. “Sometimes a director has a very different vision. Bill shares ours, he’s open. We’re very good at sitting there and not saying anything until we need to, but then it’s important to be heard. Nobody minds if I go up to an actor and say I meant it to be sung like this or that, but as a writer (i.e. Kellogg), you have to go through the director, who translates.” (Friedman)
“Peter doesn’t like to sit in the audience and sense something doesn’t work. One night he sent me an email that said he was humiliated 12 particular lines were even IN the play and he was thinking of cutting them. I wrote, yes, the first one was so disgusting, I could hardly sit there. The second one I kinda liked, but maybe that was because all the pain medication I took before was kicking in…” (Here’s that laugh again)
“We had a line in the second scene that should’ve been really funny. I wanted to cut it. David said, let the actor play with it. Sometimes it’s vice versa.” (Kellogg) “Alfred Lunt was once doing a scene with Lyn Fontanne and wasn’t getting a laugh where it should’ve risen. He asked her why. She said, tonight, why don’t you try saying, may I have a cup of tea, instead of may I have a laugh?” Castellino, who’s adept at farce, keeps his actors from bringing attention to humor when it arrives, allowing wit to emerge naturally.
The team feels Desperate Measures is just the right size, that every actor is essential. (They were front and center during casting.) They want it to go all over the world giving companies the chance to work with language and music. Advertising is a dilemma, however. “Our producers are wary of calling it country and western because a lot of people don’t like the genre or Shakespearean because that sounds hoity-toity and it’s nothing like Shakespeare. People are always surprised.” (Friedman)
In the end, who can resist cowboys and nuns? This is FUN!
As the new production is in rehearsal, these images are from The York Theater production.
Production Images: Carol Rosegg
Candid Images: Lauren Molina