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How the Bard inspired a Wild West musical comedy
Though it's categorized as a comedy and ends with multiple weddings, Measure for Measure has long been considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." It's a morally complex tale rife with abuse of power, sexual blackmail and some seriously toxic masculinity as corrupt judge Angelo demands nun Isabella's virginity in exchange for sparing the life of her imprisoned brother Claudio. Productions are often plagued by jarring tonal shifts, and yet playwright and writer Peter Kellogg was sure he could turn the source material into an unabashed crowd-pleaser by reimagining it as a musical comedy set in the Old West.
"It made perfect sense to me," says Kellogg, who created Desperate Measures with composer David Friedman. Although Kellogg admits that the original is "a very strange play," he felt that by leaning into the humorous parts they could go in a lighter direction. Besides, the plot already had many key Western ingredients including a nun, a man sentenced to hang and a brothel. In their rootin'-tootin' tuner, Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) ends up in jail after a fatal bar fight, and his sister Susanna (Sarah Parnicky) begs Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) for mercy, but the perverted politico drives, ahem, a hard bargain. With its hoary humor, rollicking country-tinged songs and original rhyming verse (the Bard has been pretty much banished), Desperate Measures was a big hit at The York Theatre Company last season and has now transferred to Off-Broadway's New World Stages.
The show has been kicking around for a while: It premiered in Texas in 2004 and played the 2006 Musical Theatre Festival, but back then the book was in prose. It wasn't until Kellogg decided to rewrite the script in rhyming iambic pentameter that everything clicked. "It definitely was a surprise the first time we did it at the York, the laughs that it got," he says. "The couplets not only make it funnier, they make it more like a legend. It's like a mock classic, which I think it really works well."
While there are many gleeful gags packed into the two-hour musical, the number "Just for You" encapsulates the show's giddy spirit. It's a toe-tapping love song between Johnny Blood and his saloon sweetie Bella Rose (Lauren Molina) in which they constantly one-up each other. Think "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)" but with naughtier lyrics like, "I slept with another guy, just for you," and, "Shot a man and watched him die, just for you." The number has a slew of reprises, and even serves as the company finale. "They sing 'Just for You' to the audience because we did this for you, so that works great," Kellogg says.
And yet the writer, who earned a Tony nomination for his work on the Broadway musicalization of Anna Karenina, makes it clear that Desperate Measures isn't just winks and wisecracks. "David tends to go for emotion and I tend to go for laughs, but those sensibilities complement each other so we end up with something that's hopefully funny but has heart," he says. "If you see a show that has no depth to it, you get tired of the humor after a while. You have to believe in the reality of the characters."
Indeed, the current off-stage reality of the #MeToo movement has given the show an unexpected new resonance. "All of a sudden the plot of a man in power using his position to get sexual favors from women was topical, so timing is everything," says Kellogg. "You can't plan these things. If you try to be timely, it'll be too late."
To read about a student's experience at Desperate Measures, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Peter Saide, Lauren Molina, Nick Wyman, Connor Ryan and Sarah Parnicky in Desperate Measures. Photos by Carol Rosegg.