American Musicals and Shakespeare

A Blog by Jasmine Brown, University of Kent

This blog was born from our collaboration with the University of Kent and attached to our production of The Last 5 Years by Jason Robert Brown

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Shakespeare is known throughout cultures as the greatest playwright, and one that is a solid choice when creating a production. This blog post focuses on how Shakespeare’s plays have been translated to the stage through musicals. It examines how The Last Five Years has Shakespearean influences and how Leeway Productions’ version of The Last Five Years connects with the audience.

In the case of American musicals, there are examples of Shakespeare either influencing or being adapted for different stage purposes. The best-known example is the 1957 musical West Side Story (by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents), which is based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. It retells the star-crossed romance through two teenage gangs fighting for territory while two members from opposing sides fall in love. As West Side Story is a popular musical, it helps Shakespeare’s tale to have a wider reach than performed as a play.

As well as the ever-popular West Side Story, there are other notable examples of musicals being related to Shakespeare’s plays. Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter opening in 1948 is a Broadway musical retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. The songs within this production hark back to Shakespeare’s writing by involving lines from the play, and the story strongly echoes that of Shakespeare’s. This transformation of The Taming of the Shrew is interesting because of the firm connections of Katherine (in Kiss Me, Kate) and Katherina (the Shrew in Shakespeare’s play) –both despise men and have a strong wilful spirit. More recently, it was performed as a concert version at the BBC Proms in 2014.

There are many other examples of Shakespeare’s plays entering the musical sphere; The Boys from Syracuse (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Harts, 1938) is thought to be the first Broadway musical to be based on a play by Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors. The score uses swing music and other contemporary rhythms. This is not the only time musicals use contemporary music in a Shakespearean production. Return to the Forbidden Planet (1989) is a science fiction version of The Tempest. What’s interesting in this case is that this musical features 1950/1960s songs, most notably ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ as sung by Big Joe Turner, ‘Monster Mash’ by Bobby Pickett, and ‘Johnny B Goode’ by Chuck Berry. Containing songs that people likely know potentially makes Shakespeare’s plays more approachable to contemporary audiences. A more recent example is the musical All Shook Up (2005) which builds upon an Elvis Presley repertoire and the story of The Twelfth Night (songs including classics such as ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’). Though this was poorly reviewed by some critics, the idea of bringing together a popular musician with Shakespeare is a good method to widen audiences and make the plays more approachable and enjoyable for new audiences.

A better-known musical is The Lion King, which is a retelling of Hamlet. In both works, the uncle murders the father, the father reappears as a ghost, and the prince takes revenge on the uncle. The Lion King musical is widely known and accessible for all ages; those as young as five know of it through the animated feature. To be exposed to the likes of Shakespeare in non-traditional settings of stage performance is one way forward in teaching Shakespeare and making his plays more approachable to future generations.

In a way, The Last Five Years has Shakespearean elements. Cathy and Jamie are star-crossed in the sense that both characters are trying to be stars in their own discipline. While each is trying to develop his/her career, their relationship takes the brunt of the stress – relationship and career seem incompatible. The narratives of each character follow a different timeline: while Cathy opens with the relationship’s ending, Jamie starts with its beginning. This in media res/ frame story method is often used in Shakespeare (Othello and Hamlet are notable examples). What Leeway Productions does differently to the above examples is that sign language and dance are being used to portray the inner feelings of Cathy and Jamie. Whereas in Shakespeare miscommunication is a running theme in the narratives, in The Last Five Years, this theme is strengthened through the above aesthetic choices. The actors playing Cathy and Jamie not only communicate with each other but also with their corresponding dancers. Even when Cathy and Jamie do not communicate with each other, the dancers portray the characters’ inner turmoil. Much like the musicals discussed in this blog, which use contemporary music to make Shakespeare’s work more personal, Leeway’s production of The Last Five Years creates a powerful connection for the audience, as seeing the characters’ feelings through signs and dance creates a greater impact than just words.

 

Jasmine Brown, University of Kent

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