You can’t better Shakespeare. It’s a testament to the quality of the Bard’s writing that almost all of his plays are still regularly performed today, 400 years after they were written. His legacy is a collection of timeless stories and sonnets, the consistent quality of which has rarely (if ever) been surpassed by a playwright or poet.
But this hasn’t stopped people trying to rewrite Shakespeare. Many have attempted to re-interpret the work of the most prolific playwright of all time. The results have been varied, with some re-workings being criticised as trite and corny, whilst others have been labelled almost blasphemous. Many have questioned why anyone would want to take something so perfectly formed and re-hash it.
But, there have been successes; those rare pieces that have become classics in their own right. Most notably, Shakespeare’s plays have spawned some wonderful musicals, ballets and operas. Why? I believe the grandiose, heightened emotion of Shakespeare is ideally suited to these mediums. The skill of the composers, lyricists, directors and choreographers has been in taking Shakespeare as a starting point and letting their own artistry fly from there. They are not overly reverential and nor should they be. They have not attempted to re-write or outdo Shakespeare. Rather they have used a different form of art to communicate stories influenced by his work. They have taken the next logical step; when interpreted well by a master-actor, Shakespeare sings, so why not set it to music?
West Side Story
Perhaps the best musical ever written and the most famous Shakespeare-to-show adaptation, West Side Story borrows its premise from Romeo and Juliet. Instead of two warring families in the heart of Verona, we are presented with rival gangs on the streets of New York.
Romeo becomes Tony, a senior member of the Jets, an all-American street gang, and Juliet becomes Maria, the sister of Bernardo, who is the leader of a group of immigrant Puerto-Ricans called the Sharks.
Leonard Bernstein’s flawless score is, at times, visceral and discordant, giving life to the noise, sordidness, and toughness of a tenement life; America, the Jet Song, A Boy Like That, Gee Officer Krupke, the Dance at the Gym and Cool all offer insights into the cruelty of a life on the streets of New York City in the 1950s. In contrast, the love story is told through melodies that are lyrical and soaring; Maria, One Hand One Heart, I Feel Pretty and Tonight all pour out with genuine emotion. At times the two worlds collide to bring us the genius of classics such as Something’s Coming, Somewhere and the Tonight Quartet.
The original Broadway production of West Side Story is notable for marking the début of revered lyricist Stephen Sondheim. It also boasted dynamic and angular choreography by Jerome Robbins, which he recreated for the Academy Award winning movie version starring Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood.
Several operas have been inspired by Shakespeare’s work. One of the most famous is Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. It is based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was famously written due to popular demand. Falstaff is one of the most enduring characters from the history play Henry IV. His buffoonery proved so popular at the time of writing, that there were calls from the public for Shakespeare to give Falstaff another outing. The result was an entire play based around the antics of the character; The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Verdi’s other operatic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work include Otello and Macbetto. Along with Falstaff they have become staples of opera companies the world over.
Kiss Me Kate is probably Cole Porter’s finest work. It tells the story of a group of travelling actors touring a production of The Taming of the Shrew.
Their off-stage stories mirror the action in the play within a play. The actors playing Petruchio and Katherine have a tempestuous on/off relationship much like the characters they are portraying. When the star-name Lilli Vanessi sings I Hate Men in character as Katherine, we are unsure whether the song portrays her own sentiments or those of Shakespeare’s leading lady. This device is used to great effect throughout. For example, when Bianca laments that she can’t make a choice between Tom, Dick or Harry, we are already aware that the actress playing the role is somewhat of a hopeless flirt and easily seduced.
The strength of Kiss Me Kate is most definitely its music, as occasionally the plot becomes somewhat unbelievable and bizarre. However, because of the strength of Cole Porter classics like So In Love, Wunderbar, Too Darn Hot, Always True to You Darling in My Fashion and Why Can’t You Behave?, audiences tend to focus less on story and more on the timeless music.
Composers the world over have been influenced and inspired by Shakespeare; Sergei Prokofiev created a beautiful score for Romeo and Juliet as a ballet.
The melodrama and tragedy of the plot lends itself perfectly to being expressed through the demonstrative art-form of dance.
One of the most famous productions of the ballet was by the American Ballet Theatre at the Lincoln Center in New York city.
The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final play. Bizarrely its story was used as the basis for the 1956 science-fiction movie The Forbidden Planet. However instead of an island (the setting for The Tempest), the action takes place on a distant planet.
The musical Return to the Forbidden Planet pays homage to the original film but uses famous Rock’n’Roll songs to tell its own story of Doctor Prospero, his daughter Miranda and the space-bound hero Captain Tempest.
Unlike the film, the show directly borrows some of Shakespeare’s lines; you can spend the entire evening playing ‘spot the quote’.
The musical originated as a short piece of late-night entertainment in a tent belonging to the Bubble, a theatre company that toured London’s parks. It was developed into a full-length show in the 1980s and went on to play London’s West End and win the prestigious Olivier Award in 1990.
It’s really a frothy piece of fun, but a great way of introducing Shakespeare to children.