Now that Mr. Hardly-Looks-450’s birthday is over, the time seems ripe to discuss musicals based on Shakespeare plays.
God, there’s a large quantity. They include two of the greatest musicals ever, Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story, and an infamous and underrated Tony winner, Two Gentlemen of Verona. But also a slew you haven’t heard of, such as two of the better-written productions from The New York Musical Theatre Festival, Like You Like It and About Face (Much Ado About Nothing).
I think writers glom on to the plots of the Bard for all the wrong reasons. One is the belief that fans of the plays will want to see them adapted with songs. But I couldn’t spot any Merry Wives of Windsor fans at Lone Star Love; with all the empty seats, you’d think it would have been easy. Now, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that acquiring rights to adapt works that are under copyright can be very expensive; public domain stuff, naturally, makes for an appealing source. But Shakespearean plots, particularly the comedies, lack the stuff that we expect a good musical’s story to have. There are unlikely coincidences and implausible set-ups, such as the pair of twins who just happen to have servants who are also twin brothers in The Comedy of Errors – the first Shakespeare play to be turned into a musical (The Boys From Syracuse). If a librettist came up with an original plot like that, he’d be laughed off the stage. But knowing that Shakespeare utilized the same odd twists, well, that makes it O.K. somehow.
Truth be told, I toiled for a while on a musical Merry Wives of Windsor set in Soprano-land; an old friend had taken the trouble to translate every line into mafia slang, and thought there might be a musical there. And God knows the women’s revenge on the old knight story engine worked as an opera. But opera, I dare say, has totally different standards for what makes a good plot than contemporary musicals do. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plot-lines, borrowed though they are, work pretty well for plays of his period. Today, when we take in an Elizabethan comedy, we excuse it – we accept a deus ex machina – because that’s how they did things in the reign of Good Queen Bess. And we probably didn’t come to the theatre to enjoy the storyline, anyway. The audience for your show, knowing it’s based on Shakespeare, might excuse you, too. But do we really want to create shows we have to excuse ourselves for?
A frequently bickering married couple named Spewack heard, from a producer, about the frequently bickering married couple who were the biggest stage stars of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Knowing the Lunts had played opposite each other in The Taming of the Shrew, they got together with Cole Porter to make sport of the situation in Kiss Me Kate. Note I said “situation.” Kiss Me Kate is not really an adaptation of its Shakespearean antecedent as much as it is a musicalization of that memory of the warring Lunts. When Petruchio spanks Katherine, in Shrew, we laugh at the idea that Fred is seizing the opportunity to spank his ex-wife. (I think she bonks him over the head with a frying pan, at some point; the violence is even-handed.) The musical being rehearsed in Kiss Me Kate is very much a Cole Porter show, filled with jazz and sexy jokes. “I’m a maid mad to marry any Tom, Dick or Harry. A dick! A dick!” It’s never a serious rendering of Shakespeare as a musical; it’s never even implied that the show’s good enough to make it to Broadway. So, the problems in Shrew’s plot are glossed over: the audience isn’t really following how things work out between Petruchio and Kate; we care about Fred and Lilli. (And also Lois Lane: will she ever find her superman?)
It’s a lot more common for writers to reset Shakespeare in a different time and place. I tried to do that with the aforementioned Merry Wives, and so did NYMF shows, Desperate Measures, Like You Like It and About Face. The mother of us all is West Side Story, one of the few shows to ever successfully make social commentary on a contemporary societal ill. It uses Romeo and Juliet, in a fairly straightforward manner, to shine a light on New Yorkers’ prejudice against recently transplanted Puerto Ricans, and also juvenile delinquency in general. The nurse is now “Doc” and the balcony is now a fire escape. The toughest plot turn to accept is the spreading of the untrue news that Maria is dead. The Jets’ manhandling of Anita shocks us so, that what she blurts out, in desperation, seems perfectly plausible. And motivated. You’re going to need to have justification for every character’s action, and West Side Story is a paradigm everyone should take note of.
My career as a composer has involved setting Shakespeare’s lyrics on many occasions, including that production of The Winter’s Tale when I was a college freshman that led to some key connections. And a critic for a New York daily newspaper singled out my numbers for praise above all else in the Shakespeare-based play, Couplets. The act of finding tunes that illuminate his texts, I think, gives me a different relationship with the Bard than most. By letting certain syllables extend, others soar, amplifying in loudness or highness, etc., I, like an actor, choose what meaning to bring out. You should try it, sometime. When I was a teen, my composition teacher made it an assignment. He even played me his setting of “Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred?” I recently composed to the same verse, realizing, as I played with it, that if I emphasized the words wrong, it might sound as if the singer was looking for some chi-chi bakery.