“God, I hate Shakespeare!”: Shakespearean/Contemporary Musical Theatre for Shakespeare Lovers and Haters

“God, I hate Shakespeare! That’s right, I said it!”
“I do! I hate Shakespeare!”
“I just don’t get it.”

Does this sound like a familiar conversation? Though these lines are borrowed from the musical Something Rotten!, this may be exactly how you feel about all the Shakespeare plays everyone else seems to love (and even understand)!

However, in many ways, the process is the same whether you’re approaching a new piece of sheet music or a new Shakespeare play. Shakespeare may be hard to understand, but all the clues are in the text. It’s your job as an actor to unlock it. In the same way, whenever you sit down to analyze any piece of music, you begin with what the composer has given you. Like Shakespeare, it is all on the page – in the music and in the lyrics. On analyzing music, veteran new musical theatre actress Victoria Huston-Elem says, “I’ve done readings at NYU with very difficult music. But it’s informative music. There’s a reason that it’s written that way… It’s our job as an actor to look at the music and say, okay, this is a weird note that I’m having trouble finding, but what is the purpose of it? What about it is intriguing?”

Shakespeare can be hard, and so can singing a new piece of music. Here are some great contemporary songs that bridge that gap. Dig in and discover!

1. “The Lady Must Be Mad” by Peter Mills from Illyria

This is a great song for tenors from Peter Mills’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night!

Watch this video on YouTube.

2. “Patience” by Peter Mills from Illyria

In discussing accessibility in their musical adaptation of Twelfth Night, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel state, “As we set out, our goal was to remain as truthful as possible to Shakespeare’s original text—and to merely ‘translate’ it into the medium of musical theater.”

Watch this video on YouTube.

3. “Sonnet 29” by Georgia Stitt

Borrowing language directly from Shakespeare, Georgia Stitt sets Sonnet 29 to music, bringing new meaning to this heartbreaking sonnet about love and loss.

Watch this video on YouTube.

4. “Sigh No More, Ladies” by Will Reynolds from The Greenwood Tree

Will Reynolds also sets Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 to music in his song cycle The Greenwood Tree, a contemporary telling of the stories embedded within the sonnets. This song is also featured on Nikki Renee Daniels’ solo album, Home.


Watch this video on YouTube.

5. “Rise” by Kerrigan-Lowdermilk from Republic

In Republic, Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk reimagine Shakespeare’s Henry IV in 1970s Belfast. This song, sung by Hal, is their interpretation of Hal’s famous “I know you all…” monologue.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Shakespeare fans and haters alike, what are your favorite Shakespeare-inspired musical theatre songs to perform?

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