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A look at musicals based on the Bard

0003r_The company of KISS ME, KATE, Photo by Joan Marcus 2019
The company of KISS ME, KATE.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Following a divisive production of “Richard III” earlier this summer, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series has returned with a new 90-minute musical adaptation of the pastoral comedy “As You Like It,” which has an original score by Shaina Taub and features a large and diverse cast comprised of both professional actors and local community members. (For info on scoring free tickets visit publictheater.org.)

To mark the occasion, let’s review some earlier musicals based on or inspired by works of Shakespeare (a good number of which were developed by the Public Theater).

The Boys from Syracuse: This delightful 1938 musical comedy adaptation of “The Comedy of Errors” contains one of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s greatest scores and is rife for a revival – perhaps during a future Shakespeare in the Park season. The cast album of the 1997 City Center Encores! production with the late Rebecca Luker is highly recommended.

Kiss Me, Kate: Cole Porter’s 1948 backstage masterpiece follows a feuding, formerly married leading couple as they rehearse and perform a musical adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The score (including such songs as “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” and “So In Love”) is unbeatable. A 2019 Broadway revival with Kelli O’Hara lacked the excitement of the 1999 production with Brian Stokes Mitchell and the late Marin Mazzie.

West Side Story: Since its Broadway premiere 65 years ago, “West Side Story” (which transplants the plot of “Romeo & Juliet” to Manhattan’s Upper West Side circa 1957 and explores urbanization, youth violence, and xenophobia) has remained one of the most acclaimed and beloved musicals of all time. A film remake directed by Steven Spielberg was released last year to rave reviews but disappointing box office numbers.

Hair: The 1967 hippie musical (first produced by the Public Theater in 1967 and brilliantly revived at Shakespeare in the Park in 2008) draws deeply from “Hamlet” in the indecisiveness of its protagonist and by turning key passages of the play into song (“What a Piece of Work Is Man,” “Eyes Look Your Last”).

Two Gentlemen of Verona: In 1971, Composer Galt MacDermot followed “Hair” with a counterculture rock musical adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s earliest  plays, which debuted at Shakespeare in the Park and then transferred to Broadway. A terrific 2015 Shakespeare in the Park revival starred Rosario Dawson, Norm Lewis, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and an unknown Oscar Isaac.

Something Rotten!:“Shakespeare in Love” met “Spamalot” in this exuberant and old-fashioned 2015 musical comedy which imagined a struggling Elizabethan playwright (Brian d’Arcy James) trying to compete with the ever-popular Shakespeare (Christian Borle), going so far as to seek the aid of a soothsayer to create a loopy musical version of “Hamlet.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost: In 2013, songwriter Michael Friedman (who died in 2017 due to complications from HIV) and director Alex Timbers turned a verbally witty but dense, tiresome and esoteric romance into a youthful, lively and freewheeling rock musical, which premiered at Shakespeare in the Park and ought to be performed more often.

Twelfth Night: Prior to “As You Like It,” Shaina Taub’s bright and upbeat musical version of “Twelfth Night” was also produced at Shakespeare in the Park as part of the pageant-style Public Works series, which celebrates diversity, inclusivity, arts education for all and putting the “public” at the center of the Public Theater.

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