Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

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I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.

Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”

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Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.

This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include  “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”  which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the  songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”

It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.

Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.

Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?

In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.

Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.

Shakespeare on Broadway, 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

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“Twelfth Night” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular, delightful and charming of romantic comedies. Using the ancient devices of a woman dressed as man who becomes attractive to both another woman and a man and twins who think the other dead, the plot plunges us into the busy household of the Lady Olivia, who has forsworn marriage and the lugubrious household of the Duke Orsino who will not desist in proposing to her.

As a subplot, we have the revenge of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend and source of income Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the servant Maria, and the household fool Feste, along with an extra servant or two, on the puritanical Malvolio who thinks that because he is virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale.

Well, is this not all the stuff of musical comedy? In fact, there are just enough songs Shakespeare wrote into the script that nearly qualify “Twelfth Night” AS a musical comedy. So there little wonder that three musicals have used this play as the basis of their plots. Of them, let us consider the two that lasted more than just a few performances and found their way onto recordings.

“Your Own Thing” opened on January 13, 1968 and enjoyed 933 performances. The score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar is best described as light-rock and the lyrics (by the same team) had nothing to offend the older generation, who were trying to cope with the “Do your own thing” philosophy of their children and grand-children. (Those who had danced the Charleston and Black Bottom to the dismay of THEIR parents might have been more tolerant, but I doubt it.)

Some of the dialogue is from Shakespeare, as are the lyrics to “Come away death” and “She never told her love.” Sebastian and Viola are a rock duo, separated by a sea wreck. Ilyria is New York. Orson manages a rock group. Olivia owns a discotheque. Viola disguised as Charlie gets a spot in Orson’s band. Sebastian, out of the hospital, runs into Orson, who mistakes him for Charlie. And so on. As you can see, it uses “Twelfth Night” as a starting point and then rocks along in its own direction.

Some credibility is given to these errors by the fact that young men’s hair was as longer if not longer than that of most women—as they were in Shakespeare’s time but not in late 19th-century settings that many productions have been given in the past decades.

The music is goofy and pleasant, as you can hear on the RCA Victor CD that is still available.

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The Duke himself

“Play On” did not open on Broadway but became a cult favorite very quickly. I saw it on Public Television and was lucky enough to tape it, because the video is simply not for sale as far as I know. Here the Harlem of the 1940s in the background and the only music heard is that of Duke Ellington.

So when young Vy comes to New York from Mississippi to become a songwriter, she is told by the chorus to “Take the A-Train” up to Harlem. But songwriting is a male profession, so her Uncle Jester suggests she disguises herself as a man and go to the Duke for a kick start. The Duke is in a depression from his breakup with Lady Liv, who sings at the Cotton Club. Add to this Rev, Liv’s secretary, who is in love with her and lets himself gets tricked into a wearing an absurd yellow suit and singing “I’m beginning to see the light”—and you have something very very close to what Shakespeare had in mind.

By the way, “Love and Let Love” is the name of the third musical based on “Twelfth Night” and I would love to hear from anyone who has seen it or has any information about it.

So far we have “Kiss Me Kate” which uses “The Taming of the Shrew” for both the framing device and the musical within the musical, “The Boys from Syracuse” that keeps in “The Comedy of Errors” in a sort of Aegean setting and “Oh, Brother!” that transposes it both in time and place, “Your Own Thing” that updates but does not faithfully follow the “Twelfth Night” sequence of events and “Play On” that more or less does.

This leaves us with two more successful treatments that do indeed stick to the plots of their originals but in different ways. Can you guess what they are?

Shakespeare on Broadway, 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

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Whenever I give a talk that includes the musicals of the 1950s, there is always a laugh when I mention that the original title of “West Side Story” was “East Side Story.” Well, it’s true. In 1949, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents were asked by Jerome Robbins to collaborate on a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet.” But instead of feuding families, there would be feuding religions as a Jewish boy falls in love with a Catholic girl despite the pressures put upon them by their peers.

The idea never came to fruition, but it stuck in Bernstein’s mind. However, for several reasons, he decided to change the religious slant to an ethnic one and moved the action from the East to the West Side of Manhattan. Bernstein explained that the Jewish-Catholic gang problems had died down somewhat, whereas the influx of Puerto Rican families and the culture clashes with the “older” inhabitants were in the news. I personally have always suspected that he made the change because Puerto Rican music provides much better dance sequences than does liturgical music.

Although the playbills and scores show that the lyrics are those of Stephen Sondheim, insiders have always said that some of the songs are entirely the work of Bernstein. But until some evidence is unearthed, one can never tell who wrote what.

On the whole, the Romeo and Juliet story is fairly faithfully handled, what with the rival gangs being the perfect updated version of the Montague and Capulet street brawlers. Even the bawdy humor of the servants that opens up the Shakespeare play is preserved in the mocking “Officer Krupke” sequence.

One of the major elements of the Bernstein creation is the emphasis on dance. So the Capulet ball becomes the dance at the gym; and the now graceful, now dynamic dance numbers nearly compensate for a good deal of the Shakespearean poetry that is lost in this transposition of the action to Manhattan of the 50s.

51Brb1j0CcL._AA160_Passing on to 1971, we have the Joseph Papp production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” This is certainly one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies and not a very well known one at that; so Papp felt he could stick with the plot as given, but set it in a sort of timeless zone in which costumes from all periods could be used. And, of course, set it all to rock music.

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Two Gentlemen in Central Park, 1971

Now in my mind, this is a most serious departure from the “feel” of the original. The Shakespeare play is a spoof on the exaggerated importance of fine speaking and witty remarks. Any good production will positively drip with elegance as the young lovers—Valentine and Proteus (guess which one is the unreliable one from the names alone) and the much sought after Julia and her friend Silvia–go through all the superficialities that high society demanded back then. Somehow—and I might get arguments—rock music simply cannot by its very nature carry that essence.

But who can argue with success? The play ran for 627 performances, but never enjoyed a film version or continuing revivals as did “West Side Story.”

The same problems crop up with filming Shakespeare in updated surroundings. At the very least, “thee” and “thou” ring false when “Twelfth Night” (say) is presented in Victorian dress, not to mention the swords. I cannot bring myself to watch the “Titus” film which is set in a nightmare Rome that includes loud speakers and motorcycles and in which no one can create a credible character in this incredible world.

On the other hand, neither Rodgers nor Hart really expected an audience to believe that 1940s tunes were being sung by characters in the ancient world of Ephesus. Then again, “Comedy of Errors” is particularly devoid of beautifully poetic lines. That is why (for me) “The Boys from Syracuse” succeeds where Papp’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” fails. It is not because the score of “Two Gentlemen” is inferior to that of “The Boys”—which it most certainly is—but that it conflicts with the essence of the play whereas the Rodgers score does not.

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And what would HE think?

What do you think?