What makes Shakespeare musicals ‘American’

West Side Story - Shakespeare musicals
Poster for the original Broadway production of West Side Story, 1957. Library of Congress.

Irene Dash, adjunct professor of English, Hunter College, City University of New York

While Shakespeare musicals borrowed plots, characters, and situations from England’s best-known poet, they remained essentially “American.” For George Balanchine, choreographer of The Boys From Syracuse, the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers epitomized his ideal of “American.” Balanchine, as ballet master of the Metropolitan Opera, not only introduced ballet into his choreography but also integrated it with tap.

In one dance, for example, the two forms were combined as two dancers, one on point in ballet, the other in tap shoes seem to be vying for the attention of the male character. Hanya Holm, who designed the dances for Kiss Me, Kate, also broke from her training—in her case German Expressionist dance—and found freedom of movement and expression to epitomize American dance. She believed that “anyone can dance,” and brought a sense of the democratization of dance to her choreography.

A different kind of reference to “American” appears in a review of Jerome Robbins’ early dancing in a Russian ballet. Edwin Denby, the dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune in 1943, described Robbins’s way of moving as American. While praising Robbins’s skill as a dancer Denby noted that “where everyone else dances with a particular vivacity, he moves with an American deliberateness. The difference,” he observed, “is as striking as it used to be in peacetime abroad, when a stray American youth appeared in a bustling French street, and the slow rhythm of his walk gave the effect of a sovereign unconcern.” For Denby, the man who was later to choreograph and direct the first Shakespeare tragedy adapted into a musical—West Side Story (1957)—walked and moved with an American unconcern. In that musical, the tragic conflict between two warring street gangs leads to the death of the Romeo character. One gang is Puerto Rican, the other claims to be “American.” Ironically it is the young Puerto Rican women who sing “I like to be in America, /OK by me in America,” comparing America to life on the island of Puerto Rico, with its “tropical diseases,” “hurricanes blowing, and population growing.”1

Yet another expression of the meaning of “American” appeared in the preface to the adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971), by John Guare and Mel Shapiro. They stressed the importance of the megalopolis that forces races, colors, and cultures to come in constant contact with each other and ultimately to celebrate each other. The varied accents of the performers reinforce this emphasis on human variety, while the preface helps explain the introduction of some Spanish outbursts in the text, the use of calypso rhythms, and even the reference to other countries: “We wanted this English play set in Renaissance Italy adapted from a Spanish source to stand as a metaphor for life in New York City in the 1970s.”2

But then the authors clarify their intention—to capture the essence of American life. They explain the importance of multi-cultural casting—the actual appearance of the actors, the sounds of their voices, and the assumption that the native sounds in their speech would not be overridden by a uniform English accent.  No longer is it merely the language, or the songs, or the beat of the music, but casting too must help produce an American musical.

For the original production, we cast a Puerto Rican for Proteus and Speed, a Cuban for Julia, Valentine and Silvia and the Duke and occasionally Lucetta were played by Blacks, Launce was originally done in Yiddish, then went country western in a cast change, Eglamour was Chinese, Thurio was an Irishman, Lucetta a Russian-Danish girl. The chorus was every color under the sun.3

Guare and Shapiro advised future producers of their musical to “look around their city and say who lives here and get them upon this stage,” because, they concluded, “In the megalopolis of the 70’s, it’s so easy not to be noticed, but no longer can anyone be ignored.”4

Joseph Papp, the producer of Two Gentlemen of Verona and founder of Shakespeare in the Park and New York’s Public Theater, implicitly agreed with Guare and Shapiro.   Papp had begun producing Shakespeare outdoors in the East River Amphitheater in New York in 1956, then sought a location in Central Park; for him, American meant bringing free Shakespeare to the people of the city, especially those unfamiliar with live stage productions.  Papp therefore jettisoned the idea that his actors mimic—or learn—English pronunciation. They could speak in their own voices and accents, as in Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Raul Julia spoke in the lilting tones of his native Puerto Rico.  His brilliantly-performed Proteus conveyed all the nuances of Shakespeare’s instant lover without worrying about his accent.

The great popularity of these plays in America (abroad, too, from the time of the first invasion of Kiss Me, Kate overseas) established their place in American culture. Their songs were widely sung.  Hailed by the middle class for its exuberance, Kate also reflected the optimism of contemporary American life in those early post-World-War II years. Audiences in country after country welcomed the American musical—not as a version of a Shakespeare play but as a wonderfully new form of entertainment.

Bella Spewack documents Kiss Me Kate’s overseas triumph in her voluminous correspondence with Cole Porter, mentioning contracts in Italy and France, performances in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, a live TV presentation in Japan, and a production in Israel. By 1961, she delightedly records a moment in Brussels:

EMBRASSEZ MOI, KATERINE opens at le theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels on June 15. Yes, my love, in French with Belgian opera stars, [and] soloist dancers from the Sadler Wells Ballet.

“Your orchestra numbers 55!” she observes with pride to Porter. “Ours will be the first American musical to play the opera house in English or French,” and “it will mark KATE’S thirteenth language!”5

Excerpted from Irene G. Dash, “Shakespeare and the American Musical,” Shakespeare in American Life exhibition catalog. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2007.

  1. Act 1, scene 5 in the printed edition. All references to Shakespeare’s plays are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
  2. John Guare and Mel Shapiro, adapters, Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare. Lyrics by John Guare, Music by Galt MacDermot. Produced by Joseph Papp, Delacorte Theatre, New York, July 28, 1971. Typescript.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The Cole Porter Letters. Box E. Letter from Bella Spewack, 30 May 1961. The Bella and Sam Spewack Collection. Columbia University Rare Book Library.

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