What A Song and Dance

Guardian (UK), March 26 2000
by Jay Rayner

Kenneth Branagh has made the Bard more accessible, with a helping hand from the masters of the Hollywood musical

In 1929, United Artists released a film version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, which has long been regarded as boasting one of the worst credit lines in movie history. After mentioning the involvement of some obscure chap called William Shakespeare, it announced: 'With additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.'

In his latest film, Love's Labour's Lost, Kenneth Branagh does not go so far as to give a screenwriting credit to the movie's co-writers, but it's fair to say that they are rather more deserving of recognition than Mr Taylor. 'With additional dialogue by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Gershwin' does have a certain ring to it.

Resetting the romantic geometry of Love's Labour's Lost in the Oxbridge of the Thirties, and replacing sections of the ornate text with musical numbers like 'Cheek to Cheek' and 'I Get a Kick Out of You' is a classic Branagh gambit. Not only does it lay down an obvious challenge to those who regard Shakespeare's words as inviolable, but it also raises more complex questions about whether it is possible, in this more cynical age, to make a film musical that does not just give the nod to Hollywood's great all-singing all-dancing productions, but lovingly embraces them.

For his part, Branagh makes no excuses; the approach arose solely from the text. 'When I played Love's Labour's Lost in the theatre, it always reminded me of the silly, charming mood that you get with those old Hollywood musicals,' he says. 'And the text constantly refers to song and dance.' But, he says, the language of the play - one of the least performed Shakespeares - can be so dense that it excludes as many as it draws in. He concluded that lyricists like Porter and Ira Gershwin could give Will a helping hand.

'It was a strangely organic process of cutting the play first and then scanning the text for references,' Branagh says. 'I was always looking for songs that moved the plot on. You try to find the dramatic impulse.'

And so, when one amorous courtier describes how: 'When love speaks, the voice of all the gods make heaven drowsy with the harmony', his next words are the first lines from Irving Berlin's 'Cheek to Cheek': 'Heaven, I'm in heaven...' It could be desperately cheesy and many may still find it so, but those who hold an affection for Hollywood musicals will surely get the idea. You do not so much have to suspend your disbelief as chuck it away altogether.

If the film succeeds, it is because it makes not a single compromise. True, some of the actors, including Alicia Silverstone, Richard Briers and Branagh himself, are clearly rather less than accomplished musical performers, but their contributions are carefully tailored to their talents. In any case, there are more seasoned song and dance men like Nathan Lane and Adrian Lester on hand to deliver the goods.

There are top hats. There are tails. There are kick lines. There is even a rendition of 'No Business Like Showbusiness'. OK, it isn't exactly Metro Goldwyn Meyer and Arthur Freed, but it is more than just a casual stab at hommage.

The job of arranging the songs fell to Oscar-nominated composer Pat Doyle, who has worked with Branagh on all his other Shakespeare films.

'As a music student, I played piano in bars and I was required to play these songs,' he says. 'So I knew them very well. I also adore the work of Irving Berlin. What I was intrigued to see was how they would sit with Shakespeare. Eventually, I came to see them almost as arias, there to heighten the action.'

Initially, Branagh toyed with the idea of commissioning brand new songs in the style of Porter and Berlin. 'I'm glad that didn't happen,' Doyle says. 'That would have been a bit risky, a bit cheeky. It would have needed serious courage.'

Eventually, not only did they plump for a set of 10 cast-iron standards, but the lush arrangements were, if not exactly conventional, then at least true to the age in which they were first written and performed. 'Our first instinct was to be slightly restrained and use a smaller ensemble rather than a symphonic orchestra and that, by its nature, would have given a more contemporary feel to the music,' Doyle says. 'But then we realised it needed bigness to match the scale of the image. I think my job was to make the narrative accessible through the musical numbers and to put these songs on the plinth they deserve.'

Only one arrangement, 'Let's Face the Music and Dance', which is used in a mass courtship scene, veers away from the traditional into a more modern bump and grind of jungle drums and brass. 'It was always the drama that dictated what would go on in the music,' Doyle says. 'The moment we saw the choreography for "Let's Face the Music", we could see that was the way it had to go.'

As to the question over the continuing viability of the film musical, that, to all intents and purposes, remains unanswered. It is such an idiosyncratic work, such an original piece, that it tells us little or nothing about the genre. All that can be said is that, of all the Shakespeare movie adaptations set in Thirties Britain and using the songs of Gershwin and Porter, this is undoubtedly one of the best.

Love's Labour's Lost opens on Friday

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