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Shakespeare & Beyond

What makes Shakespeare musicals 'American'

West Side Story
West Side Story
West Side Story - Shakespeare musicals

Poster for the original Broadway production of West Side Story, 1957. Library of Congress.

Irene Dash, adjunct professor of English, Hunter College, City University of New York

While Shakespeare musicals borrowed plots, characters, and situations from England’s best-known poet, they remained essentially “American.” For George Balanchine, choreographer of The Boys From Syracuse, the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers epitomized his ideal of “American.” Balanchine, as ballet master of the Metropolitan Opera, not only introduced ballet into his choreography but also integrated it with tap.

In one dance, for example, the two forms were combined as two dancers, one on point in ballet, the other in tap shoes seem to be vying for the attention of the male character. Hanya Holm, who designed the dances for Kiss Me, Kate, also broke from her training—in her case German Expressionist dance—and found freedom of movement and expression to epitomize American dance. She believed that “anyone can dance,” and brought a sense of the democratization of dance to her choreography.

A different kind of reference to “American” appears in a review of Jerome Robbins’ early dancing in a Russian ballet. Edwin Denby, the dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune in 1943, described Robbins’s way of moving as American. While praising Robbins’s skill as a dancer Denby noted that “where everyone else dances with a particular vivacity, he moves with an American deliberateness. The difference,” he observed, “is as striking as it used to be in peacetime abroad, when a stray American youth appeared in a bustling French street, and the slow rhythm of his walk gave the effect of a sovereign unconcern.” For Denby, the man who was later to choreograph and direct the first Shakespeare tragedy adapted into a musical—West Side Story (1957)—walked and moved with an American unconcern. In that musical, the tragic conflict between two warring street gangs leads to the death of the Romeo character. One gang is Puerto Rican, the other claims to be “American.” Ironically it is the young Puerto Rican women who sing “I like to be in America, /OK by me in America,” comparing America to life on the island of Puerto Rico, with its “tropical diseases,” “hurricanes blowing, and population growing.”1

Yet another expression of the meaning of “American” appeared in the preface to the adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971), by John Guare and Mel Shapiro. They stressed the importance of the megalopolis that forces races, colors, and cultures to come in constant contact with each other and ultimately to celebrate each other. The varied accents of the performers reinforce this emphasis on human variety, while the preface helps explain the introduction of some Spanish outbursts in the text, the use of calypso rhythms, and even the reference to other countries: “We wanted this English play set in Renaissance Italy adapted from a Spanish source to stand as a metaphor for life in New York City in the 1970s.”2

But then the authors clarify their intention—to capture the essence of American life. They explain the importance of multi-cultural casting—the actual appearance of the actors, the sounds of their voices, and the assumption that the native sounds in their speech would not be overridden by a uniform English accent.  No longer is it merely the language, or the songs, or the beat of the music, but casting too must help produce an American musical.

  1. Act 1, scene 5 in the printed edition. All references to Shakespeare’s plays are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
  2. John Guare and Mel Shapiro, adapters, Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare. Lyrics by John Guare, Music by Galt MacDermot. Produced by Joseph Papp, Delacorte Theatre, New York, July 28, 1971. Typescript.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The Cole Porter Letters. Box E. Letter from Bella Spewack, 30 May 1961. The Bella and Sam Spewack Collection. Columbia University Rare Book Library.