NMT Goes Shakespeare: 10 Shakespeare Musicals That Need To Happen

It’s a good time for Shakespeare adaptations.

Correction: It’s always been a good time for Shakespeare adaptations. West Side Story! Ten Things I Hate About You! Both the movie and the short-lived ABC Family television series! (Shut up, I loved the short-lived ABC Family television series.) Many of Shakespeare’s plays themselves were adaptations and retellings and glorified historical fanfiction, and I’m always fascinated to see how these well-worn tales can be reinvented time and time again in new and different contexts to illuminate age-old truths about human nature.

More to the point, the past few years in particular have been awesome if you’re a Shakespeare nerd who’s also into new musical theatre. Last summer, the Public Theater gave us a musicalized Love’s Labour’s Lost; this spring saw a reading of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s Republic, based on Henry IV; Sammy Buck and Daniel S. Acquisto presented a concert of Like You Like It, taking As You Like It into an eighties teen movie, in preparation for the forthcoming album release; and of course we’re all blessed enough to be living in the age of Peter Mills, who gave us another As You Like It in Honor and a stunning reimagining of Twelfth Night in Illyria.

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(Go ahead and swoon. I’ll wait.)

Awesome, right? But of course, I’m greedy and spoiled and can never get enough of anything I love. Here are some more of my dream Shakespeare/NMT pairings:


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Wait for it because it gets better: Titus Andronicus. In the style of Quentin Tarantino. As composed by Joe Iconis. I know, right? You’re welcome. A lot of people write off Shakespeare’s bloodiest play as being nothing more than “a poetic atrocity” (thanks for that, Harold Bloom) of shock horror and gratuitous body-part-slicing-off, and it’s easy to forget that at the heart of it all, it’s really just a story about two parents who love their children so much they go mad for them, will stop at nothing to avenge them. And while Joe Iconis may be best known for playing his violently rocking music with his patented brand of manic energy, he also creates bizarrely human characters like no other, whose tragic hearts will manage to win you over even while doing some pretty questionable stuff — like, you know, spying on that naked Korean girl through the window.


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I’ll admit the main reason for this assignment was so I could crack jokes about Barely Legal, their annual YouTube competition for college performers. (Get on that while you can, guys.) But the titular lovers of Romeo and Juliet also happen to speak with a lush lyricism that would be perfectly suited for Carner’s hyper-intelligent wordplay and Gregor’s gorgeous, evocative melodies. And since they specialize in making “the sad things funny and the romantic things more romantic,” who better to bring this iconic tale of teenage infatuation gone tragic? I mean, except maybe Jeff Buckley.


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Ben Bonnema knows a thing or two — or an entire song cycle — about loving exactly the wrong people. But even in the face of the worst kinds of heartache, his characters always retain their scathing wit and intelligence, saving themselves from the dreaded drudges of self-pity. Kind of like Viola, who finds herself shipwrecked and thinking everyone she’s ever known and loved is dead, and ends up falling in love with a guy who’s in love with a girl who’s in love with her because she’s dressed up like a guy — but still manages to keep all her shit together.


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You guys, I hate Sam Salmond. You don’t understand what he does to my heart. He’s so deft at turning from gut-busting to gut-wrenching on a dime, listening to his music is like endless emotional whiplash of the most glorious kind and I’m tired of it. It’s exhausting and dehydrating. Imagine Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech coming from him, and then come sit by me and let’s cry and hate him together.


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Tragic family misunderstandings leading to, undoubtedly, at least three showstopping power ballads that tear at your heart and become everybody’s favorite cabaret closing staples within the next five years? Who else could this be? I love the characters in King Lear. I love the way they talk, I love the way they think, I love the way they mess up their own lives beyond repair but try to repair them anyway. And I love imagining how they’d fit into the world of Jonathan Reid Gealt’s beautifully flawed, articulate, inextinguishable characters.


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I love Ten Things. I love Kiss Me, Kate. But man, do I have a problem with Taming of the Shrew. Someone once told me that when you do Taming right, it’s the most romantic of Shakespeare’s plays, so I guess I’ve never seen it done right — and I’ve seen it a lot. But if anyone were to change my mind on it, I’m sure it would be Rosser and Sohne: their songs are pretty, witty, and most importantly, smart as all hell enough to give both Petruchio and Katherina a run for their respective moneys, allowing her to retain her rapier sting and him to avoid becoming an outright abusive asshole while they fall in love without setting back feminism at least fifty years.


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Speaking of romance, I’ve read arguments that Othello is the most romantic of Shakespeare’s characters and I can see the point, if not, you know, necessarily agree or want that in my actual life. Othello woos with words, painting verbal landscapes of dreams and adventures thrilling enough to win Desdemona before she even meets him, and I, being an extreme literalist, will always appreciate the power that other people have over imagery and poetics. Among the best in the business of vivid storytelling is Ryan Scott Oliver — who would also nail the creeping onset of insanity building throughout, all set to some freakishly seductive music.


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As long as we’re on it, let’s continue with the theme. It took me a while to really understand what it meant when people described Beethoven’s music as being Romantic With A Capital R as opposed to, say, that of Mozart, and I wish my eight-year-old self had had the music of Nikko Benson to help me really understand how something as intangible as sound could be so… I can’t even figure out the right word to finish that sentence, guys. Just listen to the song and you’ll get it. Listen to all his songs and you’ll get what I mean when I say that no matter what he’s writing about, he always manages to infuse his songs with a sense of otherworldly splendor and beauty that will leave you breathless. And since I consider Love’s Labour’s Lost the Bard’s most romantic piece of work (yeah that’s right, come at me), I can’t think of anyone better for the job.


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Confession: I was the biggest wuss when I was a kid. (This will actually surprise no one who knows me.) Television ads for The Craft were enough to send me screaming from the room, and I somehow managed to make it through high school without anyone forcing me to finally sit down and watch it, which probably means I should disown everyone I knew back then because you guys, I heard this song and wept like a small abandoned child and immediately ran to watch the movie and am now forever obsessed and can’t wait for the full musical to roll around in emotionally. Witches obviously made me think of Macbeth, though these witches are pretty different — or are they? If Lowden and Jones want to write a musical version of Macbeth set in a high school, I’d be totally down with that too. Just imagine: Macbeth killing his way to football captain, and then class president, and then valedictorian. And his wit is certainly ruthless enough to take on this antihero, not to mention his psychotically brilliant wife/girlfriend/boyfriend?


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(My second favorite thing about this song is how the NMT page to buy the sheet music has it in the “borderline impossible” key of Telly Leung, because isn’t it everyone’s mission in life to be so awesome you warrant a key of your own? My first favorite thing is, of course, the song itself.)

Okay, so there’s a war on and everything sucks and your entire family’s probably about to die, but who cares when there’s some dude moving in on your girl? For a play that’s named for them, Troilus and Cressida actually take up little of the stage time next to the battling Greek and Trojan forces, but for me the heart of the story has always been these star-crossed lovers who are precious and adorable and think they’ll be together forever until, well, they’re not. Not only is he the first name that always comes to my mind when talking politically tinted, socially commentating fare, but Drew Fornarola also excels in finding the humor and everyday loveliness in the bleakest of situations — take Tiananmen, his rock musical about the ’89 Democracy Movement, which alleviates the scenes of the student protesters’ struggle and strife with moments of teenage love and awkwardness brilliantly. Troilus and Cressida also features some of my favorite Shakespearian dialogue, and Drew Fornarola happens to pen some of the best conversationally-driven lyrics in new musical theatre. Wherever this dream match was made, I hope it’s more politically stable than Troy.

The post NMT Goes Shakespeare: 10 Shakespeare Musicals That Need To Happen appeared first on The NewMusicalTheatre.com Green Room.