In the same way that Carl Sagan brought his love of science to the masses, Kenneth Branagh popularizes Shakespeare through his films of the Bard;s work -- e.g., Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet. So it's not surprising that in his latest effort, Love's Labour's Lost, Branagh has gone to great lengths to make a less-than-well-known, 400-year old play as accessible to contemporary audiences as possible.
Director/actor Branagh has turned Love's Labour's Lost into a peculiar hybrid of the original play and a lush Hollywood musical circa 1939, complete with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Jerome Kern. As if that wasn't brash enough, Branagh has cast the film with actors who, for the most part, are not known as singers or dancers. The film opened to mixed reviews and, indeed, it's an endeavor about which many questions might be asked. So we asked them of Branagh himself in a recent interview.
The first thing we wanted to know was, what prompted him to undertake a project as chancy as this? "It took a long time to convince myself that it might work," admitted Branagh. "The play doesn't get done much, and musicals don't seem to have worked on film, so you spend a lot of time asking yourself if it will work.
"I've been in the play," Branagh continued. "It plays more winningly than it reads. It's tough to read, because it's very dense. In the theater, it's an audience-pleaser. They like it and find it silly and charming, and they go with the change of tone at the end, which makes it quite poignant. I like the fact that the evening can contain both of those things: silliness, and then something quite heartbreaking and thought provoking. I knew that I liked musicals, and I love entertainment that is superficially about one thing and surprises you with what else it does."
Of course, using great old songs to make a film musical has been done before; the most recent example is Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, a modest critical and commercial success. Branagh says he was most impressed by that film's final sequence: "A glamorous city [Paris] at night. Moonlight. Lush orchestrations. Woody's in a tux, Goldie Hawn is in a beautiful gown, and she flies! All of these things were at their most extreme in terms of musical film, most romantic, glamourized, and heightened. The audience seemed to feel at ease with that, even more than the earlier part of the film. It encouraged me to feel that this is a world people are happy to return to."
Having essentially played Woody (complete with his speech patterns) in Celebrity, Branagh discussed his movie musical project with Allen, and "he told me that he encouraged no preparation in terms of vocal stuff." Branagh didn't quite want to go that route, even though he was also hiring mostly non-singers and non-dancers. In addition to himself, the cast of Love's Labour's Lost includes Alicia Silverstone, Timothy Spall, Matthew Lillard, Natascha McElhone, and -- for your musical comedy pleasure -- Nathan Lane. "Despite mixed abilities in our group," Branagh explained, "we did try very hard to make everybody have singing and dancing coaching in advance of rehearsals. I told everyone, 'Look, character informing the singing and dancing is the most important thing, but I also want you to try and do it your very best. I'm going to buy whatever roughness and raw edges come out as long as your character and your whole being is absolutely behind it. I think that that will end up being charming.'"
Branagh was well aware, in advance of the opening, that he'd taken a crazy gamble on this movie. "It's a strange balance," he admitted. "I'm not apologizing for it, but I'm suggesting that the Mickey and Judy, we-can-put-the-show-on quality is what we wanted. If we take a few hits, that's fine by me, because I think our primary responsibility is to the Shakespeare play."