It’s Me! Will Shakespeare! Come ‘Measure’ My New Musical!

"Desperate Measures"? You could have knocked me over with the feather that I still write with.

The cast of The York Theatre Company production of "Desperate Measures." Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It’s hard being a legend. First, you’re always having to top yourself. One flop and people say “Wow, the old boy’s losing it.” And that’s what they were saying when I was 30. Now that I’m 454 years old, you can imagine what they’ll say if my next show isn’t good.

That’s why I was a little nervous when Peter Kellogg and David Friedman approached me about making a musical out of my play, Measure for Measure.

To tell you the truth, Measure has never been one of my success stories. Scholars always claim my plays were written by someone else — Christopher Marlowe, say, or The Earl of Oxford. Measure for Measure is one play I wouldn’t mind them getting credit for.

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I’ve also done musicals before. In fact, I’ve worked with a lot of greats. I did West Side Story with Steve, Lenny and Arthur; The Boys From Syracuse with Dick and Larry; Kiss Me, Kate with Cole. Then there’s The Lion King, which is pretty much stolen from Hamlet, though Disney refused to put my name in the credits, much less give me royalties. And let’s not forget those long, boring operas, like Otello. What’s with that? Hello, his name is Othhhhhello. I begged Giuseppe to put the “h” back in. He said it doesn’t sing.

I never thought anyone would try to make a musical out of Measure for Measure. It’s called a “problem play” for a reason, and the problem was I could never make it funny. Acting duke tells nun she must sleep with him to save her brother’s life, then cuts his head off anyway? Hilarious.

I was going through a rough patch when I was writing it. Anne Hathaway — my wife, not the Oscar-winner for Les Miz — was asking for a divorce, and I’d just realized the person playing a woman opposite me in our last three plays was really a man. Totally screwed me up.

So when these two guys showed up at my door, asking to turn Measure into a six-person Western musical, I literally laughed in their faces. “Lord, that fools these mortals be,” I said out loud. (I’m always quoting myself. I can’t help it. I wrote so many good quotes.)

But what could I do? I couldn’t stop them. The copyright ran out 360 years ago. So I wished them good luck and promptly forgot about it.

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Then I got the news that they were actually putting up this Measure for Measure musical, now called Desperate Measures, at The York Theatre Company in New York City. You could have knocked me over with the feather I still write with. “OMG,” thought I, “the critics are going to destroy it, and I’m going to take a whopping share of the blame.”

I didn’t attend auditions or rehearsals. Figured there was nothing I could do to fix things, short of burning down the theater. When I showed up for opening night, I was surprised on several accounts. They used my image on the front of the program, wearing a cowboy hat and a sheriff’s badge. I looked completely ridiculous, though I guess that was the point.

Then they seated in the back row behind a very large woman wearing a hat. “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve into a dew,” indeed.

But the biggest surprise was the show was funny. Falstaff belly-laugh funny. It was my same old plot, at least for the first act, but people were really digging it.

Critics liked it too. The New York Times called it “a hoot,” “a delight” and “wonderful.” Peter Filichia — Giuseppe’s cousin, they tell me — called it “The funniest, most tuneful, non-stop, slam-bang best musical of the season.”

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The show was picked up by producers Pat Addiss and Mary Cossette, extended three times at The York, and now re-opens at New World Stages on May 30. Imagine that: my problem play, Measure for Measure, is finally a hit. It only took 413 years. This is why I’m looking forward to seeing it again. It’s directed by Bill Castellino, and five original cast members are returning: Gary Marachek, Loren Molina, Conor Ryan, Peter Saide and Nick Wyman. And we have a wonderful new Susanna, Sarah Parnicky. You know my phrase, “O she doth teach the torches to burn bright”? This Sarah is a torch teacher, big-time.

Nobody’s talking about the old boy losing it now. Happy Birthday to me.

This post is sponsored by The Globe Theatre in 17th century London.