The Bard meets Broadway in Branagh's Ambitious New Musical

Hollywood Reporter, March 21 2000
by Ray Bennett

To be or not to be Hamlet hardly gave him pause. Taking on Laurence Olivier in "Henry V" barely caused a blink.

But trying to match up to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in his all-singing, all-dancing version of Shakespeare's "Loves Labours Lost" had Kenneth Branagh quaking in his patent-leather, toe-tapping shoes.

"We are not fit to wear their garments," he confesses.

Branagh persevered, however, and his ode to the musicals of the '30s, wrapped around one of Shakespeare's lightest conceits is set to open in London next week and the United States in the summer.

Jaws dropped when he first suggested blending the Broadway hits of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and others with the Bard of Avon. But he says that the British film company Intermedia, which is producing a series of Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations, decided to just hum along.

"They took the longer view that we were going to do three or four of these movies and they thought it could be exciting," Branagh says. "They decided they would live with the title, which is a mouthful to say, and the genre."

Branagh's love of Hollywood musicals dates back to seeing Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" and Astaire's "Top Hat" on television as a kid. "I was awed by both of them," he says.

And he insists it's not a far cry from Shakespeare's comedies to the musicals of the '30s. "The silliness, the daftness, the youthful energy, they're all there," he says. "'Loves Labours Lost' is really just boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl. Shakespeare always uses music regularly as part of the romance when words are no longer enough."

Branagh also points to similarities in Shakespeare's writing and the best lyricists. "We needed the economy and the delicious word play that all these classic songs have," he says. "The lightness of touch is so much in keeping with the play. Shakespeare is delightful in using puns that are apparently superficial but make his points in a very delicate way. The songs we used are also very amusing and light. With their detail and lightness of touch, they resonate with everyone who's ever fallen in love."

Branagh has reduced the text of "Loves Labours Lost" to maybe a quarter of its original length for the film.

After Air Edel's Maggie Rodford labored long to negotiate the song rights, however, he didn't dare touch the songs. "We were much more respectful of Cole Porter than we were of Shakespeare," Branagh says.

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