10 Musicals Based on Shakespeare

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Shakespeare Musicals

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare. Getty

I recently heard someone dismiss West Side Story as merely a ripoff of Romeo and Juliet. Once I was able to successfully retrieve my jaw from the floor, I was able to muster a reply. Never mind that, in some significant ways, West Side Story is an improvement upon Romeo and Juliet. (More on this to follow.) More to the point, Romeo and Juliet was itself a "ripoff," based as it was on an Italian tale that had appeared in various forms, dating back to antiquity, long before Shakespeare got his hand on the story. There are even elements of R&J in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In point of fact, Shakespeare borrowed almost all of his plots from other sources. But it's not the plots that make Shakespeare's works great, but rather the quality of his language and the richness of his characterizations. 

My point here is that everything has been done before. What really matters is execution. Some literary theorists posit that there are only really seven basic plots in all of literature. The rest is all variations on the themes. This, of course, applies to musical theater as well. (See "Musicals That Have the Same Plot") What follows here is a selection of musicals that have taken Shakespeare as inspiration. As you'll no doubt note, there's a fairly wide range in the quality of execution here. 

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The Boys From Syracuse

The Boys From Syracuse
The Boys From Syracuse. Logo

The Boys From Syracuse was the show that started the Shakespeare plunder process, i.e. the first Broadway musical based on a Shakespeare play. In this case, it was The Comedy of Errors, which was itself based on a much earlier play The Menaechmi, or the Twin Brothersby Plautus. Very little actual Shakespearean dialogue remained in George Abbott's book. One line, in fact, upon which utterance, performer Jimmy Savo to pop his head out from behind the proscenium and exclaim, "Shakespeare!" The Comedy of Errors also served as inspiration for such varied fare as Oh, Brother!Da Boyz, and The Bomb-itty of Errors.  

03
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Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me Kate
Kiss Me Kate. Logo

When approached to provide the score for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, the great Cole Porter wasn't interested, at least not at first. Writing a period show would mean restricting his musical style, and he dearly loved creating songs in the jazzy 1940s idiom. Someone had the bright idea to make The Taming of the Shrew the show within the show, freeing Porter up to write a score that was half period, half modern. Suddenly Porter was on board, and Kiss Me, Kate was born. Kiss Me, Kate remains one of Porters most performed shows, after Anything Goes

04
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West Side Story

West Side Story
West Side Story. Logo

Sort of the mother of all Shakespeare adaptations, or at least the most renown, West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary context. The original idea was to pit the Irish against the Jews and call it East Side Story. But by the time librettist Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins got around to creating the show, the idea of replacing the Capulets and Montagues with "American" versus Puerto Rican gangs was much more of the moment. Laurents would later claim that West Side Story had improved upon Shakespeare. In the Bard's version, the final tragedy is the result of miscommunication and bad luck. In West Side Story, the denouement arises from hatred and prejudice, which is more central to the message of the piece. Laurents may have been painfully immodest, but he has a point. 

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Two Gentlemen of Verona

Two Gentlemen of Verona
Two Gentlemen of Verona. Logo

Two Gentlemen of Verona is based on the Shakespeare play of the same name, and although it was reasonably well-received when it appeared, it is now virtually forgotten except with Sondheim fans. No, Sondheim didn't have anything to do with the show, but Two Gentlemen is infamous among Sondheimians for beating out Follies for the Best Musical Tony Award. Follies has gone on to become one of Sondheim's most beloved shows, mostly due to its ravishing score, whereas Two Gentlemen of Verona has pretty much disappeared. 

06
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Return to the Forbidden Planet

Return to the Forbidden Planet
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One of the most unlikely of Shakespeare adaptations, Return to the Forbidden Planet is based partly on The Tempest and partly on the 1950s science-fiction movie, Forbidden Planet. The campy show was a hit in London, and even won the Olivier Award for Best Musical, beating out Miss Saigon for the honor. The show fared far less well in New York, only running for six months Off-Broadway. A jukebox musical in the truest sense of the term, Return interpolated songs from a variety of groups and singers. The songs include numerous '50s and '60s era hits, including "A Teenager in Love," "Johnny B. Goode," and "Great Balls of Fire." 

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The Lion King

The Lion King
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Not so much adapted from Shakespeare as inspired by, The Lion King shares many similarities with Hamlet in particular. In both pieces, the uncle murders the father, the father reappears as a ghost, and the prince exacts revenge on the uncle. Of course, the body count at the end of The Lion King is considerably lower than that of Hamlet, and the prince (spoiler alert) lives at the end. Back in the 1970s, there was a considerably less successful musical version called Rockabye Hamlet. The show featured such tacky song titles as "He Got It in The Ear" and "The Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Boogie," and featured a number in which Ophelia commits suicide by strangling herself with a microphone cord. The show closed after 7 performances. 

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All Shook Up

All Shook Up
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The tag line for the musical All Shook Up read: "The story is all-new. The hits are all Elvis." Um, not quite. The songs were certainly all Elvis Presley hits, but the story would be vaguely familiar with anyone who has seen Twelfth NightThe play has actually served as inspiration for a long line of musicals, none of them particularly memorable, including Love and Let LoveMusic IsYour Own ThingIllyria, and Play On. Your Own Thing was the most successful of these, running Off-Broadway for just over 900 performances, but today the show remains a curiosity at best. 

09
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Lone Star Love

Lone Star Love
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At first, Lone Star Love was called The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas. It should therefore be no surprise that the show is based on the Bard's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Lone Star Love was supposed to come to Broadway in 2007, and in fact even secured the Belasco Theater for its Main Stem bow. However, during the show's out-of-town tryout in Seattle, there were rumblings of creative differences between the staff and the star, Randy Quaid. Quaid was later fined and banned for life -- that's for life -- by Actors' Equity for his alleged abusive behavior. 

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Love's Labour's Lost

Love's Labour's Lost
Love's Labour's Lost. Logo

A king and his cronies decide to take their studies seriously and vow to swear off women for the duration. Then a princess shows up with her ladies in waiting and romantic havoc ensues. Director/librettist Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman took Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost and turned it into a musical by the same name. In fact, they may have hewn a bit too close to the original, at least for my taste. There were far too many characters and incidents for Timbers and Friedman to adequately develop musically, and the results were rushed and spotty. (Read my review.) But I do find that some of the songs on the cast recording are beginning to grow on me.

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These Paper Bullets

These Paper Bullets
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These Paper Bullets is a breezy sendup of Shakespeare's Much Ado About NothingBullets updates the action to 1960s London and casts the various lovers and attendants with -- believe it or not -- a fictionalized version of The Beatles and their coterie. Or a credible simulation thereof. The songs are by Billy Joe Armstrong, who very nicely captures the '60s guitar-band idiom. The show goes on a bit longer than is wise, but overall the results are winning and fresh. 

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The Donkey Show

The Donkey Show
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The Donkey Show isn't so much a musical as it is a collection of Disco-era tunes surrounded by a lot of immersive staging, all based on the events and characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The show was created by Diane Paulus and her husband, Randy Weiner, and ran for 6 years Off-Broadway. Paulus brought it with her to the ART, installing it as a semi-permanent fixture at one of the theater's venues, newly dubbed Oberon in honor of Shakespeare's famed king of the fairies. Other musical adaptation of Midsummer have included Another Midsummer Night and Swingin' the Dream, the latter a long-forgotten 1939 flop that nonetheless featured Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabely, Butterfly McQueen, and Dorothy Dandridge,