Book Talk

The Bard Scores on Broadway

shakespeareSHAKESPEARE'S Cleopatra calls music the "moody food of us that trade in love." Broadway is famous for trading in love and that moody food, and creators of Broadway musicals have, not surprisingly, naturally turned for inspiration to the Bard, whose plays feast on the subject of love. The word occurs nearly 2,000 times in his plays.

Broadway's affinity for Shakespeare is richly explored by Irene Dash in her new study, Shakespeare and the American Musical (Indiana University Press), which focuses on five musicals based on his plays that premiered between 1938 and 1971.

By the end, she has made a convincing case for seeing Bard-inspired works as vital in the development of the 20th century's "organic" or integra

ted musical in which song, dance and multimedia drive the plot.

It is no coincidence that Dash -- who taught at Hunter College for 30 years and is now emerita -- is particularly attentive to how Shakespeare's female characters fare on Broadway. Her previous books are Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays and Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays.

Served up first is "The Boys from Syracuse," an adaptation of Shakespeare's shortest and zaniest play, "The Comedy of Errors" (identical-twin suitors with identical-twin servants). Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart brought in the legendary George Abbott to write the book. It was Abbott who enticed George Balanchine to create dances for the show, notably the first of several memorable "dream" ballets on Broadway. His credit as "choreographer" was a Broadway first.

Dash is quick to admit that the "complexity and intensity" of Shakespeare's probing of society's ideas about women's rights and the relationship of husband and wife don't survive in the musical, though she admires how the famous song "Falling in Love with Love" probes the blinding effects of love -- a theme Shakespeare would return to often. But Dash hates it when the "Boys" team replaced Shakespeare's "insight" into a spurned wife with "Sing for Your Supper," a "sexist song" advising compliance with male fantasy: "You musn't be upset. Men are like that."

Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate," Dash points out, is inspired by the scriptwriter Bella Spewack's conceit of making the action surround a Baltimore tryout for a Broadw

ay production of "The Taming of the Shrew." This gave Spewack, who Dash says "hated the idea of male domination," the opening to update Shakespeare's hilarious battle of the sexes: The two actors playing Petruchio and Kate are ex-husband and wife but still nurse an attraction. Dash makes a point of giving Bella sole credit for the script (not Bella and Sam Spewack, as usually credited).

She also gives the German emigre Hanya Holm, the show's choreographer, special credit for bringing a strong populist aesthetic to bear. Her "Too Darn Hot" dance occasioned mixed-race casting for the first time.

"West Side Story" (1957) gets the longest chapter, in which Dash makes much of its eight-year gestation and the centrality of dance in the show -- not surprisingly, since the idea of a musical "Romeo and Juliet" was hatched by City Ballet's Jerome Robbins. Leonard Bernstein called Robbins' idea "noble" because he viewed the play as "an out and out plea for racial tolerance."

Because all four on the creative team -- Bernstein, Robbins, Arthur Laurents for book, Stephen Sondheim for lyrics -- were Jewish, the first idea was to make the feud between Lower East Side Jews and Little Italy Catholics. Did you know the early working title was "Tonio and Dorrie"? Then in 1955, a chance meeting of Bernstein and Laurents in Los Angeles and a local newspaper story about gang warfare caused the light to go on. Soon the feud was between an "American" Jets gang and Puerto Rican Sharks. The rest was Broadway history. In 1957, just a few years after Brown v. Board of Education, the "plea for racial tolerance" was all the more resonant. When Doc in the musical tells the gang, "You make this world lousy!" a gang member responds, "That's the way we found it." Dash says the creators' vivid focus on the two lovers and the rumbles is the secret of its success. She also applauds how Robbins' dances capture the effect of all Shakespeare's over-the-top blank verse. In "West Side Story," Dash says, "hyperbole becomes the bodily language of the dancers."

Next comes Dash's one excursion off- Broadway and into territory that is funkier, louder (i.e. amplified), multimedia (slide projection and a cyclorama): "This Is Your Own Thing" (1968), which makes a triple somersault dive from the springboard of "Twelfth Night." You can tell where this show is headed from its prominent song "I'm Me (I'm Not Afraid)," the cultural contexts of unisex clothes/hair and the sexual revolution (Stonewall came just a year later). The rock musical had arrived, and within a year the supreme example of the genre, "Hair," took it from there. Shakespeare has to duck in the hands of composer Hal Hester, lyricist Danny Apolinar and director Donald Driver. All the comic characters vanish (no Malvolio, no Sir Toby!), Duke Orsino becomes the manager of a rock band named Apocalypse (one of its four members drafted and off to Vietnam), and Countess Olivia owns a d

isco (her big number "Let It Be" got upstaged by the Beatles two years later). Dash is a little miffed by the "pedestrian" development of Shakespeare's probing female leads Viola and Olivia but acknowledges the creators were eager to focus on more earnest matters: the Vietnam War, cross-dressing, gender issues, homosexuality. Thus, the Orsino character in "Your Own Thing" is perplexed that he likes the Viola-disguised-as-Cesario and so reads up in '60s-era psychology books on latent homosexuality. Dash calls this creative "misreading" of Shakespeare, of which there are countless examples throughout her book.

Wanting a repeat of "Hair" a la Shakespeare, Joe Papp was the driving force behind the musical version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," which p

remiered in 1971 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. He put together playwright John Guare, director Mel Shapiro and composer Galt McDermot and sicced them on the runt of Shakespeare's comic litter (some think it was his first play). Thus it's hard to complain about how Papp's team nestled this play in the era of the Kent State murders, the Pentagon papers, antiwar activism, and Roe v. Wade (one of the heroines gets pregnant and a debate ensues). Ming Cho Lee came up with a superb three-tiered scaffold set, and Raul Julia's Proteus proved the breakout role of his career. Dash notes how Papp's famously aggressive multiethnic casting aided the production, which toured openair venues in all the outer boroughs. She also observes how successfully the musical employs the ballad style of rock songs. With all five musicals, Dash is able to find the nubs of genuine sympathy between original play and musical that allow her to say (as she does of "Two Gentlemen"): "Shakespeare is a true partner in this musical." She earns the right to sum up, in her Coda, that the '30s to the '70s "marked a golden age of the American musical and of Shakespeare's vital place in its development." Except for the stoniest Shakespeare purists, all's well that ends well.


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