Skip to content


Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

By Peter Filichia

I’d hate to let the month go by without acknowledging the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

No one can be 100% certain that we should have celebrated it on April 23, but that’s the date that academics accept as the most likely. Because no one knows for sure, it’s possible that I don’t have to use the word “belated.” Maybe The Bard was born this week, after all. Happy birthday, Will!

Whatever the case, there’s still time to celebrate the Bard’s birthday in musical theater fashion. You can feel Shakespeare’s influence in everything from entire scores to little snippets of songs.

Oscar Hammerstein II certainly wouldn’t have thought to call his 1953 musical Me and Juliet had there never been a Romeo and Juliet. It’s probably Shakespeare’s play that’s most represented in musicals, because musical theater is no stranger to romance. Thus Romeo and Juliet are mentioned in passing in “Oh Fabulous One” in Lady in the Dark and in “Gimme Gimme” in Thoroughly Modern Millie, but they’re given much more sway in two other shows.

Ella Peterson, the stalwart of the Susanswerphone telephone answering service in Bells Are Ringing, concentrates on them in “Is It a Crime?” (It’s a song you don’t know if you’ve only seen the truncated 1960 movie version.) “When I think of what I could have done for Romeo and Juliet!” Ella gushes, before she does indeed think up a scenario: “Hello, Veronaphone. Oh, yes, Mr. Romeo. Juliet Capulet called.” And because Ella believes that she would have delivered the vital message that Romeo never got, she firmly maintains that “Those two kids would be alive today!”

A song in How Now, Dow Jones suggests that Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have even needed Ella. Here a doctor tells the unmarried Kate that she’s pregnant. “Oh, doctor” she moans. “I’ll die!” Doc scoffs at the thought of it in “Shakespeare Lied,” with nifty Carolyn Leigh lyrics and Elmer Bernstein melody: “When Juliet died, Romeo didn’t get up and commit another suicide.” After Kate asks “What did he do?” Doc firmly answers “He got over it.”

And, of course, Romeo and Juliet is also responsible for West Side Story – although you’d never know it from the credits. Bookwriter Arthur Laurents apparently didn’t want to acknowledge that Tony was based on Romeo, Maria on Juliet, Riff on Mercutio, Bernardo on Tybalt and his fire-escape scene on the balcony scene. C’mon, Arthur! It wasn’t enough that public domain laws spared you from giving the Shakespeare estate a dime? Would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if you’d added to the window card and original cast album “Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”?

Perhaps none of Shakespeare’s plays has been adapted into a musical more often than Twelfth Night. Even All Shook Up claims that it’s partly based on Shakespeare’s 1601 hit. But there’s only been one musical version that was a raging success: Your Own Thing, which opened in 1967, played 937 performances and closed as off-Broadway’s fifth-longest-running musical. What’s more, it is one of only three off-Broadway musicals to play downtown exclusively during its initial run and still win The New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Musical.

Is it dated? You bet. But that’s part of the fun of listening to it today. You’ll remark “Weren’t we (or “they”) silly then?” Nothing ages faster than the name of a once-trendy dance, and Exhibit A has to be Your Own Thing’s “Hunca Munca.”

The Boys from Syracuse was Rodgers and Hart (and George Abbott’s) 1938 adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. Its sports such standards as “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” For the latter song, Shakespeare made it easy for Hart by using Dromio as the names of two characters; it rhymes perfectly with Romeo, so Hart used both names in his verse.

By the way, when The Boys from Syracuse debuted, much was made that only one line from Shakespeare’s play had been retained (as dialogue, not as a lyric): “The venom clamours of a jealous woman poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth.” Well, yes, but in “What Can You Do with a Man?” – one of the score’s more jaunty songs – we get another Shakespearean line, albeit slightly paraphrased: Luce’s complaint of her Dromio that “He eats me out of house and home” was originally “He hath eaten me out of house and home” in Henry IV, Part II.

Kean isn’t an adaptation of any Shakespeare play, but it certainly deals with The Bard’s characters that were once superbly played on the London stage by Edmund Kean (1789-1833). He portrayed “Hamlet, Lear and Cymbeline,” as the glorious opening number “Penny Plain, Twopence Colored” tells us.

Although the 1961 musical was based on plays by Dumas and Sartre, bookwriter Peter Stone came up with an idea not found in their works. Because Kean infuriated the Prince, he now must apologize at Drury Lane to all of London society. He does it, but through a loophole of quoting Shakespeare in a stirring eleven o’clocker called “Apology?” (Yes, the question mark is part of the title).

Hamlet and Lear – if not Cymbeline – show up in musicals, too. Even such a maverick musical as Hair paid homage to Hamlet. “What a Piece of Work Is Man” comes from one of Hamlet’s own speeches, although lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni did mix, match and reassign various quotations to make it their own.

The last sung line of Hair is Hamlet’s last line, too: “The rest is silence.” May we infer that these references stem from Ragni, who in 1964 appeared in the ensemble of the famous Hamlet revival that starred previous Tony-winners Richard Burton and Alfred Drake and future Tony-winners John Cullum, Hume Cronyn, Barnard Hughes and George Rose?

And then there’s “Hard to be a Prince” from Rags. Composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz weren’t just writing a mini-musical of Hamlet. They were inspired to parody the liberty-taking productions of Shakespeare that newly emigrated Jews produced in Yiddish productions on Second Avenue. Could what they did have been any worse than what Max Bialystock did via Funny Boy in The Producers?

As my buddy Meish Goldish says, “One of my favorites is ‘It’s a palpable hit’ from ‘It’s a Hit!’ in Merrily We Roll Along. Very clever how Sondheim adapted the word ‘hit,’ meaning a wound in Hamlet, to meaning a smash success in Merrily.”

The More Things Change Dept.: in The Goodbye Girl, we meet a pretentious off-Broadway director who believes that Richard III was gay. Martin Short thus took on the role of “Richard Interred,” thanks to composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist David Zippel.

George Bernard Shaw had (at the very least) mixed feelings about Shakespeare, so we have to wonder what he would have felt about a line that Alan Jay Lerner inserted into the musical version of his Pygmalion. “The milk of human kindness,” which Henry Higgins claims to have by the quart in every vein, comes from Macbeth. (For that matter, we have to wonder how GBS would have felt about My Fair Lady as a whole? Would he have felt artistically raped, or would he have enjoyed counting all that delicious money?)

Daddy Warbucks tells us that he hails from Hell’s Kitchen, but even there a quotation from Shakespeare could find a home. Hence, when he sings to Annie that “The world was my oyster, but where was the pearl?” he’s quoting a line from The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ “It’s High Time,” the passengers who are liquor-deprived thanks to Prohibition are now safely out at sea and can “give the devil his due.” Wasn’t Leo Robin a smart lyricist? Yes, but Shakespeare got there first with this line he wrote for Henry IV, Part I.

Leave it to Vera and Mame who verbally fence in “Bosom Buddies” to mention Lady Macbeth. A musical version of “The Scottish Play’s” opening scene can be found in “Witches’ Brew” in Hallelujah, Baby!

(By the way: if we call Macbeth “The Scottish Play,” should we be calling Brigadoon “The Scottish musical”?)

King Lear said “Nothing will come of nothing” 360 years before Richard Rodgers paraphrased it as “Nothing comes of nothing” in “Something Good,” one of his new songs for the 1965 The Sound of Music film that was later used in the 1998 Broadway revival. And while we’re on that monarch, let’s not forget that at the conclusion of A Little Night Music in the terrific reprise of “Send in the Clowns” that Frederik feels old enough to identify himself as “Me as King Lear.”

Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate was loosely adapted from The Taming of the Shrew. Would-be husband Petruchio’s “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “Were Thine Thy Special Face” owe their titles (and a line or two) to Shakespeare, while would-be wife Katherine’s “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” quotes twelve lines from the final speech that Shakespeare gave the alleged shrew.

But Porter’s piece de resistance was “Brush up Your Shakespeare,” a rollicking waltz that mentions no fewer than 13 plays. And we all kowtow to Porter for being able to cook up a baker’s dozen of references which will go well with the birthday cake we’d like to give William Shakespeare.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at His books on musicals are available at