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Happy 446th, Will!

by Peter Filichia

This week, we’ll be marking the 446th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare – inarguably the greatest writer the world has ever seen.

And, not last and hardly least, the writer who inspired many musical theater writers.

The first notable attempt was by Rodgers and Hart, who wrote The Boys from Syracuse in 1938. That was a bit before original casts recorded their shows, so more than a decade passed before the show got a full recording. Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, decided to record some old scores with studio casts – and The Boys from Syracuse was one of them.

It is the story of two sets of twins and the resulting chaos that showed up in so many Shakespeares. However, a listener would find even more mistaken identity, for Jack Cassidy wound up playing two different roles, allowing him to sing both the jaunty “Dear Old Syracuse” and the tender “The Shortest Day of the Year.” His fans won’t mind. Portia Nelson’s nifty voice on “Falling in Love with Love” will prove she wasn’t just cast because her first name is the same as that of a famous Shakespearean heroine. Ol’ pro supporting players Bibi Osterwald and Stanley Prager provide the comic relief.

Anyone remember Your Own Thing? It’s one of the umpteen musical versions of Twelfth Night – but easily the most successful of the bunch. In 1968, it called itself “a new rock musical,” and dealt with unisex fashions, which helped the mistaken identity girl-pretends-to-be-a-boy plot. It ran for more than two years off-Broadway, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and got a movie sale.

Alas, the motion picture never came to be, but there’s still that original cast album, which is (to quote a Rocky Horror Show lyric that has nothing to do with Shakespeare) a time warp. How ‘60s is it? It may well be the only CD you’ll have on your shelf with a fuchsia spine.

Take a listen to Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, inspired by the Bard’s The Taming of the Shrew. It contains the musical theater’s greatest celebration of the Bard: “Brush up Your Shakespeare,” which references 13 of his plays and even one of his poems. “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” takes nine lines from the speech that Shakespeare wrote for Kate at the end of the play. Three of Shakespeare’s lines — “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” “Where is the life that late I led?” and “Were thine that special face” – spurred Porter to use them in songs for Petruchio (even though in the original The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca says the last-cited line).

As big a hit as Kiss Me, Kate was, the most successful musical version of a Shakespeare play came in 1957; a revival has now been running on Broadway for more than a year. It is, of course, West Side Story – although poor Shakespeare has never been given credit for inspiring it with his Romeo and Juliet. Sure, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were in their public domain rights not to mention him, but would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if they had thrown him a bone of a credit?

West Side Story’s original cast album has never been out of print since its debut over 52 years ago, but last year’s revival spawned a distinctly different listening experience. First, technology allowed for nine extra minutes of the score to be included. More to the point, the Puerto Rican characters sing in Spanish. “I Feel Pretty” became “Me Siento Hermosa,” “A Boy Like That” turned into “Un Hombre Así,” and “America” became– well, “América.”

During the Washington tryout, “America” reverted to English, all the better for the majority of audience members to get Sondheim’s good jokes. However, Spanish was retained for the other two – at least for a while; during the Broadway run, the songs were returned to English-only. But on the cast album, they remain to remind us of the noble experiment.

Romeo and Juliet show up in some other musicals. Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing believes that if she’d only been around working for Veronaphone to deliver the two Friars’ messages, “Those two kids’d be alive today!” At least Ella remembers their names; Og in Finian’s Rainbow is a quite wonderful and magical character, but he identifies those two kids as “Romeo and Guenevere.”

It’s not quite Richard III that Elliot Garfield is performing in The Goodbye Girl, but “Richard Interred,” a song that reflects Elliot’s angst when he enacts a “gifted” director’s misguided take on the character. Rags offers an interpretation of Hamlet that’s almost as skewered, but it’s more well-meaning: “Hard to Be a Prince” is a Yiddish-flavored version of the not-so-great Dane’s story, reflecting how Second Avenue often played fast ‘n’ loose with classics.

Chances are, though, that that Hamlet was better than Max Bialystock’s musical version. Granted, the first-nighters who saw Funny Boy called it “The Worst Show in Town.” (“What he did to Shakespeare, Booth did to Lincoln.”) Still, if Max hadn’t produced this disaster, he’d never have been desperate enough to commit a crime against man, old women, and the Securities and Exchange Commission – and we wouldn’t have had The Producers.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that Henry Higgins would refer to Shakespeare at least once. In “I’m an Ordinary Man,” lyricist Alan Jay Lerner might well have written “You want to talk of Keats and Shakespeare” instead of “You want to talk of Keats and Milton.” Could it be that Lerner was honoring George Bernard Shaw, the author of his source (Pygmalion), who couldn’t STAND Shakespeare?

But other writers have felt differently. Jerry Herman had Mame insist that her bosom buddy Vera Charles tries “to be Peg o’ My Heart when you’re Lady Macbeth.” In Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim had his writers Frank and Charley thrilled that their new Broadway show is “a palpable hit” – a phrase that comes near the end of Hamlet.

Similarly, some musicals manage to get in a Shakespearean reference right under the wire. Julius Caesar and Brutus get mentioned in the final sequence of Assassins. Late in Carousel, Carrie Pipperidge Snow says she found Julius Caesar boring, though her husband, Mr. Snow, seemed to like it (or pretended to). And finally, at the end of A Little Night Music, Frederik sings the lyric “Me as King Lear” as part of “Send in the Clowns.”

So Send in the Shakespeare this week. It’s also a good time to be listening to recordings, because April 20-26 is the annual “Turn off the TV Week.” To fill in the entertainment gap, there are plenty of cast albums – with or without Shakespearean roots.

Peter Filichia writes a column each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia