In the1948 Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, gloriously revived in London in 2001/2002, two stage gangsters offer a typically hilarious Cole Porter list song that offers a variety of ways in which women can be wowed and wooed by quoting from Shakespeare. Amongst their variously crude and rude suggestions they sing:

  • "If she says your behaviour is heinous,
    Kick her right in the Coriolanus"

  • "When your baby is pleading for pleasure,
    Let her sample your Measure for Measure"

  • "Better mention The Merchant of Venice,
    When her sweet pound o' flesh you would menace"

    Kiss Me, Kate, of course, is itself based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, taking its title from Petruchio's last command in the play and using the device of a play-within-a-play as it goes backstage during the Baltimore out-of-town try-out of a musical version of the comedy, in which the offstage relationship of the two stars mirrors the one they're playing in the Shakespeare.

    While it's a model of Shakespearean inspiration, the first Broadway musical to be inspired by Shakespeare had come ten years earlier, when Rodgers and Hart turned The Comedy of Errors into The Boys from Syracuse. This piece was partly inspired by the fact that Hart's actor-brother Teddy was forever being confused with another comic actor, Jimmy Savo.... both of whom then starred in the original 1938 production of the show as the two Dromio's.

    A second Broadway musical adaptation of The Comedy of Errors in 1981, entitled Oh, Brother!, was a fast flop. Now London is about to witness not one but two new theatrical versions of the same story: The Bomb-itty of Errors, a four-man hip-hop adaptation from New York (now in preview before opening at the New Ambasssadors on 7 May 2003), and a re-mixed hip-hop/R'n'B/garage version of the original Rodgers and Hart musical, re-titled Da Boyz (now in preview before opening at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, also on 7 May).

    Arguably the most famous Shakespeare-inspired musical, however, remains Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim's now immortal 1957 West Side Story, which re-locates Romeo and Juliet to the racially conflicted streets of 1950s New York. Originally titled East Side Story, it was going to chart the star-crossed romance between a Jewish boy and an Italian Catholic girl on the lower East side, but by the time they came to write it, that seemed dated. Instead, it became about a native-born American boy of Polish descent falling in love with a newly arrived Puerto Rican girl, set against the background of the city's Hell's Kitchen West side.

    Less fruitfully, Romeo and Juliet provided the inspiration for another, now forgotten Broadway musical, 1970's Sensations, as well as this past year's distinctly unsensational Romeo and Juliet - The Musical, adapted from the Paris hit Romeo et Juliette, that briefly came to London's Piccadilly Theatre, spawning some of the worst reviews in recent years.

    Also originating on this side of the pond, Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet made a raucous combination of The Tempest and the 1957 sci-fi schlock Forbidden Planet and set it to a string of 1950s pop hits. The highly successful result won the 1990 Olivier for Best Musical, beating off competition from Miss Saigon and Buddy, and has been touring and making occasional returns to the West End ever since.

    Shakespeare's most popular comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, has frequently gone the musical route, becoming Swinging on a Dream and Babes in the Wood, seen in New York in 1939 and 1964 respectively, while Howard Goodall and Charles Hart's The Dreaming, premiered by the National Youth Music Theatre two years ago, was one of the best London musicals to be seen that year.

    Twelfth Night has also had a number of musical treatments: Love and Let Love (1968), Your Own Thing (1968), Music Is (1976) and Play On! (1997, featuring the songs of Duke Ellington). Even Hamlet has become Rockabye Hamlet (1976).

    But it's not just Shakespeare's more obvious plays that have provided lyric theatre fodder. Marina Blue is a rock musical based on Pericles, while The Tale of Cymbeline was a version of Cymbeline that played a brief August summer outdoor season in 1971 at New York's Delacorte Theatre in Central Park with a cast that included Christopher Walken and Sam Waterston! Music was by Galt MacDermott, the composer of Hair and another, more long-running adaptation of Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, that opened later that same year on Broadway and even retained some of the Bard's own words.


    The Bomb-itty of Errors is at the West End's New Ambassadors Theatre and Da Boyz is at Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Both open on 7 May 2003, following previews from 28 April. The Bomb-itty of Errors is booking to 7 July while Da Boyz is finishes its season on 31 May 2003.

    Can you think of any Shakespeare musicals that we've left out? If so, please post them
    - or any other thoughts on the matter - on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum!