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The Bard On Broadway: 6 Musicals You Didn’t Know Were Based on Shakespeare

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |

'Desperate Measures' and 'Twelfth Night' are just the latest in a lineage of musicals based on the Bard

With West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet) and Kiss Me, Kate (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) slated for revival on Broadway in 2019 – not to mention Off-Broadway’s Drama Desk Award-winning production of Desperate Measures (a reimagining of Measure for Measure) currently running at New World Stages, as well as Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in the Park – it’s clear that the works of William Shakespeare are still often utilized as the jumping-off point for the creation of musical theater. There are, however, some musicals that you may not have realized were inspired by the Bard’s work.  


The cast of 'Desperate Measures,' a wild west-set musical based on Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure' (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The cast of 'Desperate Measures,' a wild west-set musical based on Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure' (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Your Own Thing
A product of the times, Your Own Thing was one of many musical based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar (score) and Donald Driver (book) imagined what this story of love, regret and gender fluidity would look like set against the contemporary world of the turbulent 1960s.Your Own Thing was a popular Off-Broadway offering in 1968, running 933 performances and then touring through the United States and Canada.


Two Gentlemen of Verona 
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s more romantic plays, so it was inevitable that it would be turned into a musical. In 1971, John Guare and Mel Shapiro adapted the play, with Galt MacDermot (Hair) creating a rock score to Guare’s lyrics. The story: Two men from rural Italy venture to the big city of Milan, where they find adventure and love. Two Gentlemen of Verona won the Tony Award for Best Musical. 


The Boys from Syracuse 
Two sets of twins, separated for years by a shipwreck, end up in the same town and confusion ensues as wives, lovers, servants and law enforcement are seeing double. This Rodgers and Hart musical from 1938 is particularly remembered for its sprightly score packed with wit, including such standards as “This Can’t Be Love,” “Falling in Love with Love” and “Sing for Your Supper.” The Boys from Syracuse is based on Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors.


All Shook Up
Who’d have guessed that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could be paired with the music of Elvis Presley, be set in the 1950s, and prove a delightful twist on the Bard’s tale? Joe DiPietro crafted a fun and effective musical in All Shook Up, telling the story of a roustabout who has just been released from prison and who ends up falling in love with a tomboy mechanic. Comedies of errors abound, including mistaken identities and mismatched romantic pairs finding their way (with hysterical absurdity) into the right arms. All Shook Up played on Broadway in 2004.


Rockabye Hamlet 
A musical that remains one of Broadway’s most compelling and notorious flops, Rockabye Hamlet is a rock ‘n roll twist on Shakespeare’s tale of the “Melancholy Dane” who is driven mad while solving the sinister murder of his father. Cliff Jones wrote the book, music, and lyrics and noted director Gower Champion (Hello, Dolly!, Bye Bye Birdie) staged the piece as a rock concert. Rockabye Hamlet opened on Broadway in 1976, where it closed after seven performances.

Play On! 
Twelfth Night way be the most musicalized of Shakespeare’s plays, and the 1997 Play On! is another musical variation on this comedy. In this version, Cheryl West adapts the piece around an array of Duke Ellington standards. Resetting the story in Harlem if the 1940s, songs such as “Take the A Train,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” bring to life the swing and jazz-blues world of the Cotton Club and the talented performers who played its stage.


Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at

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