William Shakespeare is arguably the most well-known writer of all time and is considered, by some, the greatest writer of English prose to have ever lived. Shakespeare is a household name four hundred years after his death for the timeless stories he has told.
Who doesn’t know the tragic end for star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet? How many of us were required to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing in a high school English course? Most of us in the United States, that’s a given.
Still, if you have somehow made it through your life without ever being exposed directly to a Shakespeare play we would place bets that you have seen one or two inadvertently. This is because hundreds of plays, musicals, operas, ballets, movies and many more story telling mediums have works that were inspired by the original stories of William Shakespeare.
Of course, one of our favorite adaptations of anything involve music. With that in mind we were inspired to introduce you to some works that were inspired by The Bard’s masterpieces. Here we go…
1. The Boys from Syracuse
Our first work is a musical based on A Comedy of Errors, an early play written by Shakespeare. With music written by Richard Rogers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart this musical premiered in New York in 1938 on Broadway. It was revived in 1963 in an Off-Broadway production.
While the theme of the story is centuries old the music included modern music of the age like swing. It was made into a film in 1940 and premiered London’s West End in 1963. Revivals were produced in 1991 in the West End and on Broadway in 2002.
The original performance was choreographed by George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York ballet and premiered at the Alvin Theater on November 23. This premiere was performed after they held performances to test the audience reactions in Connecticut and Boston. The original production gave two hundred and thirty-five performances before closing on June 10, 1939. Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame starred in this first staging.
As a revival Off-Broadway in 1963 The Boys from Syracuse opened on April 15, 1963 and ran for five hundred performances. The plot surrounds identical twins Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse who are torn apart when they are aboard a ship that sinks.
The twins have servants, both named Dromio, are also identical twins who were separated for a long time. When the boys from Syracuse arrive in Ephesus, mistaken identities create, well, a comedy of errors. The wives of the brothers think the other is their husband and confusion erupts. Of course, all ends well.
2. West Side Story
The most obvious Shakespeare influence on our list is a classic tale of star crossed lovers in a different setting than the one from which it originated. Shakespeare introduced us to the characters of Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers who preferred death over life without the other. They were met with opposition from the very beginning simply because their families were in an endless feud.
West Side Story stays with the theme of young love amidst a war between two groups that are not technically families but they might as well be. This Romeo and Juliet inspired musical has gangs as opposing forces that get in the way of the young lovers.
Tony and Maria meet and fall in love even though Tony is a founder of the street gang the Jets and Maria’s brother, Bernardo, heads their enemies the Sharks. The Jets are now led by Riff since Tony no longer is in the gang. Yet Tony is still loyal to them and they are his friends.
After the couple professes their love for each other there is a rumble between the Jets and the Sharks. There is a struggle and Bernardo and Riff have a fight with knives. The result is Riff’s death, which is something Tony cannot handle. Tony picks up a knife and kills Bernardo, the brother of his love Maria.
When Maria hears through the grapevine that Tony has killed her brother she is understandably upset. He finds and tells her his side. Maria realizes that she loves Tony and they couple make arrangements to leave New York together, secretly. But Maria’s cousin, Chino, is out to get Tony for revenge.
Maria, who is supposed to meet Tony at the docks, sends her friend Anita to stall him when she is questioned by the police about her brother’s death. Anita was Bernardo’s girlfriend and is harassed by the Jets when she enters their territory. So she tells Tony that Chino has killed Maria.
The similarities throughout West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet are so similar it seems like the same story. That is, until the end. Unlike Shakespeare, both lovers do not die, but tragedy ensues none-the-less and this musical will break your heart just like Shakespeare did with Romeo and Juliet long before.
3. The Boys Are Coming Home
This next Shakespeare inspired work is the second new musical produced by the American Music Theatre Project of Northwestern University. It is based on Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing and is placed in the year 1945. American soldiers are returning home from World War II and the plot revolves around the ups and down that occur in life after a war.
The music and lyrics were written by Leslie Arden with a book by Berni Stapleton and direction by Garry Griffin. It was given a spot in the National Alliance for Music Theatre Festival of New Works in New York City. When performed there it was given a new title One Step Forward.
The story starts at the end of the second world war and the men returning are weary and war torn. The women who have waited for their men to return are more independent that they have ever been. We meet Ben and Bea, named for the characters in Much Ado About Nothing, who are in love, but neither of them is willing to give up being single for the other.
We also meet Charlie and Helen who are also in love but lies by John create havoc in their relationship and tests their union. John is bitter because of his own failings in love. Then there is Maggie and Brad, who are an interracial couple that need to hide their feelings due to their opposite races. Bea, Helen and their other friend Shirley help them.
4. 10 Things I Hate About You
A film makes number four on our list of Shakespeare inspired works and this one was based on the comedy The Taming of the Shrew. This story is based in a high school in the United States during the late 1990s. It surrounds a new kid, Cameron, who falls for Bianca.
Cameron is told that Bianca is full of herself and that her father will not allow her nor her older sister Kat to date. Kat is ornery and has a bad temper, basically she is a shrew. Still, she has been accepted to Sarah Lawrence College but her father does not want her to go. He prefers it if she would stay near home to go to school.
Bianca wants to day Joey but their father says she can only date after Kat does, knowing full well that with her attitude finding her a date would be near to impossible. This brings us back to Cameron, who asks Bianca out. She tells him of her father’s rule and tells Cameron he should find someone to date Kat first. Bianca’s hopes are if he does find Kat a date then she could date Joey.
The results are that Patrick, the local hooligan, is bribed to take out Kat. When he asks her out she tells him no, and he keeps trying but to no avail. Kat is just not interested in dating Patrick. This is when Bianca starts to tell Patrick what Kat likes and what she doesn’t. He uses this information to break down her walls. Kat agrees to go to a party with Patrick, which now means that Bianca can date too. Their father is not happy about this.
At the party Cameron is left in Bianca’s dust as she fawns over Joey. Soon though, Bianca is made aware of Joey’s shortcomings and she runs to Cameron asking for a ride home. He tells her that she has hurt him by rejecting him for Joey. So Bianca kisses Cameron.
Joey offers Patrick another bribe, to take Kat to prom. His intention is to ask Bianca. Patrick doesn’t want to take Kat but when Joey says he will give him more money Patrick agrees. Yet getting her to go will be difficult because Kat tried to kiss Patrick at the party and he pulled back leaving her hanging and angry with him.
All comes to a head at the prom. Bianca goes with Cameron and, due to his anger for being rejected, Joey tells them of the bribe he has been paying Patrick to take out Kat. Kat is devastated and humiliated and runs out. Joey hits Cameron and Bianca turns around and pummels Joey. This seems to strengthen the relationship between Bianca and Cameron.
But what about Kat? What about the shrew. Well, she and Patrick find that they have fallen in love and everyone lives happily ever after.
For more Shakespeare based Broadway plays, check out Playbill’s article!