Musical theatre is often cannibalistic, eating up previous plays and recreating them in new and innovative (or sometimes disastrous) ways. Everything from Aristophanes to Eugene O'Neill appears to be up for musical grabs, and the bard is one of the most frequently mined sources. With opera having mined the works of William Shakespeare for centuries (Macbeths, Falstaffs and Othellos abound), it was probably inevitable that musicals would follow suit.
The Shakespeare-inspired musicals often take great liberties with the plays, and very little (if any) of Shakespeare's language tends to make it through onto the stage. This is because the language, whatever you may think of it, is not the reason that the plays attract this interest in adaptation. It's the plots, the wonderful farces and the moving tragedies that provide plenty of emotion and therefore numerous launching-pads for music and dance.
The Boys from Syracuse - Shakespeare!
The first successful musical comedy based on Shakespeare came about in 1938. George Abbott, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart created The Boys From Syracuse for Broadway, based on The Comedy of Errors, mainly because they came across two talented actor-singers who looked startlingly similar1. They remained fairly faithful to the bard's original, though only one line of his text remained, greeted by one of the Dromios2 popping out from the wings and exclaiming 'Shakespeare!'
The songs in The Boys From Syracuse for the most part follow the pattern of 1930s musical comedy by adorning the plot in a mostly ornamental fashion, and include love songs such as 'Falling in Love with Love', comedy numbers such as 'Come With Me', and the show-stopping female trio number, 'Sing For Your Supper' - none of which have much to do with Shakespeare when it comes down to it. However, the show's success did start a trend that would include some of the musical's greatest hits as well as several... others.
The Comedy of Errors has seen various other musical adaptations, none of them as successful or enduring as the first: Oh, Brother! was a 1980s show by Michael Valenti and Donald Driver, and The Bombitty of Errors (hip hop with a live DJ) appeared on Broadway in 1999. The Boys From Syracuse has itself been updated for the 21st Century, with a short-lived hip-hop adaptation called Da Boyz playing London's East End in 2003.
Kiss Me, Kate - I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple
Kiss Me, Kate was a 1948 musical about a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, where backstage events sometimes parallel those on stage. Cole Porter's only truly integrated 'score' (he tended to write a batch of songs more than a cohesive score), much of the show's comedy comes from the libretto by Sam and Bella Spewack. It also includes the classic list song 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare', which includes innovative rhymes for many of the Bard's plays, even Coriolanus3.
The musical within the musical gave Cole Porter licence to indulge his lyrical genius in a whole variety of ways. He came up with more rhymes for Padua - where Petruchio, as he tells us in song, has 'Come To Wive it Wealthily' - than should really be possible, and takes his penchant for rhyming further by pairing girls' names with Italian locations in the comic lament 'Where Is The Life That Late I Led?'. Audiences can often be heard quietly supplying the rhymes to the latter song in sheer delight at the audacity of pairings, which range from the fairly innocuous 'Alice/Palace' and 'Lisa/Pisa' to 'Becky-wecky-oh/Pontevecchio' and 'Momo/duomo'. Also included are 'I Hate Men' for Kate (the shrew herself) and 'I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple' at the resolution of the plot, a setting of a speech from Shakespeare's original play.
Parallels in the world backstage can be seen in the 'taming' of the haughty Lilli Vanessi (who plays Kate) and the incessant romantic appetites of Lois Lane4 (who plays Bianca). The Lois/Bianca parallel is brought out by two songs: 'Tom, Dick or Harry' for Bianca, expressing how she's 'a maid who would marry/and would take double quick/any Tom, Dick or Harry/any Tom, Harry or Dick' and 'Always True To You In My Fashion' for Lois, delighting in her dalliances with various wealthy gentlemen.
West Side Story - Something's Coming
One of the most popular musicals of all time5, widely acknowledged as a classic, West Side Story is a version of Romeo and Juliet from the late 1950s. The work of Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, it brought the story up to date, with the rival families replaced by rival street gangs in New York. The other characters - priests, princes and the like - are replaced by figures such as policemen and drug store owners. In this version, 'Juliet' (Maria) survives, although she does consider shooting herself, and the reconciliation between the two sides of the conflict is suggested in movement rather than spoken or sung.
A later Romeo and Juliet musical with music, by Gerard Presgurvic, has been a great success in Europe since it opened in France on Valentine's Day, 2000. An attempt to launch it on the English-speaking world fizzled out after Don Black's translation was poorly received in London.
Return to the Forbidden Planet, subtitled 'Shakespeare's Forgotten Rock and Roll Masterpiece' is a favourite of UK theatre-goers. Taking its inspiration from the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet and the film's source The Tempest, the show takes Shakespeare's characters into space and gets them singing rock and roll classics such as 'All Shook Up' and 'Great Balls of Fire'. The Tempest is still just about recognisable, too.
Two Gentlemen of Verona was a surprise hit, with the people from Hair adapting one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays into a 1970s success.
One of the biggest ever Disney films, which later became a hit stage musical - The Lion King - is essentially the plot of Hamlet with lions replacing the main characters. Simba is Hamlet, Scar is Claudius (the evil uncle who kills his brother to steal his throne) and Simba's dad (Mufasa) of course appears as a ghost before Simba goes off to avenge his death. Heavily disguised, perhaps, but the basics of the plot are there.
Shakespeare has also been the source for some dismal failures. Jack to a King was an attempt to replicate the success of Return to the Forbidden Planet with a gangland Macbeth. Numerous attempts at Twelfth Night have been made (including Music Is and Play On). And Rockabye Hamlet was just disturbing (for instance, Ophelia strangled herself with a microphone cord).
A Brief Note On Other Playwrights
Of course, Shakespeare isn't the only playwright to have had his plays 'musicalised'. Various plays that most people would never have considered putting music to have been turned into successful musicals:
My Fair Lady is a musical version of Shaw's Pygmalion, which sticks very closely to the original - using much of Shaw's dialogue and changing only the ending - yet manages to make the songs a natural part of the proceedings. Some, such as 'Why Can't the English' and 'The Rain in Spain', spring from the trials and tribulations of language, while others perform the usual musical comedy function of taking over from dialogue when the emotion runs highest.
New Girl in Town was less successful, lasting just over a year on Broadway, but then the very concept of adding music to Eugene O'Neill's plot of Anna Christie is exceedingly bizarre.
Another 'pointless' musicalisation is that of High Spirits, which achieves the bizarre feat of putting music by other people to a Noel Coward play (Blithe Spirit). It too had a relatively short life on Broadway, but has proved popular since, with frequent revivals.
Hello, Dolly! was based on Thornton Wilder's popular farce, The Matchmaker, subsituting music for much of the farcical elements (though combining the two in the 'Motherhood March'), much as Where's Charley? had done for Charley's Aunt.
Chicago, Carousel and Oklahoma! all achieved the task of taking an almost-forgotten play (respectively, Chicago, Liliom and Green Grow the Lilacs), spotting something in it and transforming it into a smash-hit musical.
Rent, Miss Saigon and Aida, all smash hits on Broadway, take things one step further, mining operatic sources (La Boheme, Madame Butterfly and Aida) and creating a new score around much the same story.
The British Library's website has 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed before 1642 available to download.