Irene G. Dash explores the influence of Shakespeare on American musical theater through analyses of five important productions from 1938 through 1971The Boys from Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors), Kiss Me, Kate (Taming of the Shrew), West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), Your Own Thing (Twelfth Night), and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Dash argues that adaptations of Shakespeare were instrumental in the alteration of the musical theater formula from the stock plots and song forms of the 1930s musical comedy to the more organic "integrated musical," where songs and dance sequences were used to advance the plot rather than break the action. In bringing together these well-known works, Dash offers a fresh look at the development of American musical theater and a new understanding of Shakespeare in the modern American context.
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About the Author
Irene G. Dash is the author of Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays and Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. Her most recent published work appears in the Folger Shakespeare Library's edited volume Shakespeare in American Life. She taught English and Shakespeare for 30 years at Hunter College, CUNY.
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Shakespeare and the American Musical
By Irene G. Dash
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2010 Irene G. Dash
All rights reserved.
A Bold Adventure
The Boys from Syracuse and The Comedy of Errors
Responding to the blast of a trumpet, two characters tap-dance sedately to center stage. Adorned with Greek comic and tragic masks, they brusquely announce,
This is a drama of Ancient Greece. It is a story of mistaken identity. If it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for us. (1.1, p. 1)
The American adaptors of The Comedy of Errors thus proclaim their aim: to upstage Shakespeare and offer a populist version of The Comedy of Errors. They go beyond the confusion of identities that lies at the heart of Shakespeare's play by placing that confusion within the context of 1938. This was a time when Hitler was striding through Europe and Stalin was triumphing in the east. Two dictators with different ideologies but similar techniques seemed to be dominating the world. At home, the Depression was taking its toll on American feminism. Although earlier women had won the right to vote, in 1938 jobs were still scarce and many women stayed home. As a result, many traditional attitudes toward women prevail in The Boys from Syracuse. And yet the adaptors also develop women characters only sketched in by Shakespeare. Their outspoken lines and songs reveal another side of the twentieth century. This Shakespeare romp excels as an example of the new organic American musical comedy even as it explores gender relationships and captures echoes of the ominous sounds heard in Europe.
When the tap-dancers part the stage curtains to reveal the public square of the city of Ephesus, people are yelling. "Be quiet," shouts the Sergeant of Police from his perch on the sill of an open window in the rear. Through the window, two old men — Aegean and the Duke — can be seen arguing inside the courthouse. Music underlies the scene. Rodgers and Hart have employed the new form of the organic musical. Through song, the Sergeant reports the courthouse conversation to the crowd below and guides the plot forward. A bass clarinet imitates the movement of the Duke's mouth, capturing the officious tone of his inquiry, and when the aged Aegean responds, a plaintive E-flat clarinet pleads as his voice. The Sergeant translates the sounds for the crowd.
Sergeant: "He says No!"
Crowd: "Hurrah, Hurroo!" (1.1, p. 2)
Dressed mockingly like a Nazi storm trooper — his arms widespread, his waist belted, and wearing a helmet — the Sergeant reports musically on the exchange as the two men debate the fate of Aegean, the old Syracusan who has unwittingly landed on hostile shores. Thus begins The Boys from Syracuse.
Far less raucously, Shakespeare's early play, The Comedy of Errors, opens with an old man, Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, being haled before the duke of Ephesus as an enemy of his city. Syracusans are forbidden to enter Ephesus, but Egeon, unaware of the edict, has come to the city in search of his son, Antipholus, and the youth's servant, Dromio. When commanded by the Duke to tell why he came to Ephesus, Egeon presents a long explanation of his woes. He tells how in a distant land his wife gave birth to twins long ago. At the same time a poor woman also gave birth to twins. Egeon and his wife bought the twins as servants for their sons, then headed home to Syracuse. Their ship went down when a storm overtook them at sea. Although they survived, each parent then taking one of the pair of twins, further misfortune befell them when they were separated in that storm. He and his wife never saw one another again.
Even worse, seven years ago, his one remaining son, Antipholus, along with his servant, Dromio, having long heard tales of the lost half of the family, left home in search of them. They never returned. Searching for them, Egeon has wandered the neighboring lands, without success, until finally landing in Ephesus. Moved, but unwilling to alter his original edict — the death sentence — the Duke allows Egeon a day to raise a thousand marks, the price of freedom for a Syracusan trespasser. So Shakespeare begins his comedy.
Having given the exposition, the dramatist then introduces the two sets of twins, who, unbeknownst to one another, happen to be in Ephesus at this moment. The two Syracusans, master and servant, wanderers and strangers, are searching for their long-lost brothers. As it turns out, the other pair, unaware that they have brothers, reside in Ephesus and bear the same names as their Syracusan brothers. Antipholus of Ephesus is a wealthy man, haughty, self-centered, and vain, who flaunts his status. Nonetheless, he is married and highly respected. His servant, Dromio, seems to mimic his boss but yet appears less independent than does Dromio of Syracuse. Antipholus of Syracuse is more introspective than his twin and is aware of his loneliness. And yet, physically, the pairs of brothers exactly resemble one another. That resemblance leads to the servants not recognizing their own masters and even Antipholus's wife not recognizing her husband — mistaken identity carried to an extreme, thus The Comedy of Errors.
Shakespeare fashions this story, derived from Plautus's The Menaechmi, into a Renaissance entertainment, complete with jugglers, magic, and hexing by a schoolmaster. Since the pairs of brothers have the same names, texts of the play identify them by their cities of origin — "S" and "E" for Syracuse and Ephesus. Onstage, of course, their speech, their responses to the environment — familiar or hostile — and their places in society all reveal their identities to the audience, even while those around them mistake one for the other because of their complete physical resemblance.
After Egeon's opening narrative, Shakespeare shifts his focus to the wanderers from Syracuse: Dromio S. and Antipholus S. In the second scene, they meet a "merchant of Ephesus," a friend of Antipholus S. who, by prearrangement, is returning the traveler's gold, having long held it in safekeeping. The merchant warns them that they should pretend to be from Epidamnum, as this is a hostile environment for Syracusans. That gold, immediately passed from Antipholus S. to his Dromio with instructions to take it to the Centaur — the inn where they are staying — is soon disputed in the first of many instances of mistaken identity. Dromio S. departs with it for the inn; Dromio E. shortly enters with a message for Antipholus E. from his wife.
In the brief interim, Shakespeare provides a portrait of Antipholus S. through a soliloquy. Invited to accompany him on a stroll through town, the merchant refused, saying as he left, "I leave you to your own content." But content eludes the wanderer. Alone onstage, he muses, "He that commends me to mine own content, / Commends me to the thing I cannot get" (1.2.33-34). In soliloquy, he compares himself to a drop of water "that in the ocean seeks another drop" (36). Wistful, thoughtful, and somewhat depressed, having searched for his and Dromio's twins for seven years, Antipholus S. realizes that his search is fruitless despite his persistence.
When Dromio E. enters, the servant and the man he believes to be his master speak at cross purposes. "Where have you left the money that I gave you?" asks Antipholus S. (1.2.54). "O — sixpence that I had a' We'n'sday last," Dromio E. replies mournfully (55), explaining where it was spent. His present mission has nothing to do with gold; he was sent to bring his master home to supper. "To me, sir? Why, you gave no gold to me" (71). He then asserts, "My charge was but to fetch you ... home ... to dinner" (74-75). The master becomes furious at his seeming slave's response and begins to beat him. Fleeing Antipholus S.'s fury, Dromio E. returns home to report to his mistress, Adriana, and her sister, Luciana, that his master has gone mad, having denied both home and wife.
Insulted by her husband's response, Adriana storms into town looking for him. Her unmarried sister, Luciana, accompanies her, drumming in the lesson that a husband's role is one of master. "O, know he is the bridle of your will" (2.1.13). But Adriana rejects such a premise. "There's none but asses will be bridled so," she swiftly replies (14). Both are expressing a Renaissance concept of marriage. According to Lawrence Stone, the eminent historian, on the one hand, women were the property of their fathers or husbands, but on the other, the concept that a good marriage was a union with "goodly consent of them both" had also won acceptance. Shakespeare exploits both conventions in this comedy, assigning the sisters opposite viewpoints and then creating a real problem for them when they, especially the unmarried Luciana, discover that marriage isn't quite that simple.
Arriving at the town square, Adriana rails at Antipholus S.: "Ay, Ay, Antipholus look strange and frown, / Some other mistress hath thy sweet aspects: / I am not Adriana, nor thy wife" (2.2.110-12). And of course she isn't, but her hold on him is so strong and convincing that he almost believes her:
Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious,
And that this body, consecrate to thee,
By ruffian lust should be contaminate?
Wouldst thou not spit at me, and spurn at me? (131-34)
she asks, addressing the wrong man. Contemporary ideas of marriage as a partnership infuse her speech, overwhelming Antipholus S. He wonders, "What, was I married to her in my dream? / Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?" (182-83). His man Dromio S. shivers, "O, for my beads! I cross me for a sinner," certain that they have found themselves in fairyland (188). What is particularly interesting is the acceptance of her role and her dismissal by her husband in the twentieth-century update as compared with Shakespeare's presentation of a woman who insists that they are as one. If she were to transgress, it would affect him.
Centering his play around the Syracusans, Shakespeare does not introduce Antipholus E. until act 3, when the local pair reinforce his theme: the pairs of twins' complete physical resemblance to one another, and the importance of appearance over speech patterns, actions, and emotional expression. The "errors" then multiply. Antipholus E. negotiates with Angelo, the goldsmith, to buy a gold chain for his wife, Adriana, and invites Balthazar, the merchant, to dinner. But the host finds himself locked out of his own home. In this scene, the dramatist develops the character of Antipholus E. as he calls on a list of people — his wife, his sister-in-law, his servants — of whom he demands, "Let Antipholus in." They refuse, ordering the intruders away. The Ephesian bangs at the gate, threatening to break it in, but finally listens to his guest's advice. There must be an error. Later referred to as the "lockout scene," this marks the dramatic center of the comedy.
Shakespeare's complex plot continues to develop. Antipholus E. is arrested for failing to pay for the chain. Antipholus S. attempts to convince Luciana that he is not her brother-in-law: "But if that I am I, then well I know / Your weeping sister is no wife of mine, / Nor to her bed no homage do I owe" (3.1.41-43). Luciana remains unconvinced. Other errors include the Courtesan's insistence that Antipholus S. return her ring to her, since he refuses to give her the gold chain that he had promised her in its place (a promise actually made, of course, by Antipholus E.), and the confusion of Luce, the "greasy kitchen maid," of the two Dromios; she mistakes Dromio S. for her husband, Dromio E., and runs after the Syracusan.
Only after one pair of twins seeks protection in a sanctuary and the abbess comes out to protect them does the end of the tale unfold, as the other pair waits in the town square for the governor to appear. Their incontrovertible resemblance startles Adriana. "Which of you two did dine with me today?" she asks, hoping it was her husband. "I, gentle mistress," offers the Syracusan. "And are you not my husband?" she continues. "No, I say nay to that," the Ephesian swiftly responds (5.1.370-73). Meanwhile, the Dromios, looking at one another, note their uncanny physical similarity. "Methinks you are my glass and not my brother," insists Dromio E., then continues, "I see I am a sweet faced youth" (418-19). As they debate who should enter the house first, they agree to "go hand in hand, not one before another" (426). So ends Shakespeare's comedy, offering a wonderful challenge to its twentieth-century adaptors intent on creating an organic musical with its integration of plot, lyrics, music, and dance.
Fashioning their musical adaptation of this play, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and George Abbott in 1938 created The Boys from Syracuse. For the first time, the new American organic musical, which was to dominate the Broadway theater for a long time, was married to a Shakespeare play. This new musical adaptation picks up theatrical ideas that had first emerged in Show Boat in 1927 and develops them into a single work, integrating music, story, plot line, and dance. The opening number by the Sergeant of Police signals the importance of the new organic form. As the songs and dances told the story or commented on it, Rodgers and Hart were opening new territory.
These two young New Yorkers were well qualified to transpose Shakespeare into the new musical idiom. Lorenz Hart knew not only this play, but most of Shakespeare's work. His love for the bard dated back to his childhood. The story goes that when he went to camp, his trunk was so heavy his counselor couldn't lift it. No wonder: Shakespeare's Complete Works had replaced his clothes. That summer, Hart earned the nickname "Shakespeare." He carried his love of the plays into adulthood. In 1938, when he and Rodgers were looking for new ideas for a musical, Shakespeare was a natural choice. Eliminating the histories and the tragedies, they settled on a comedy. The specific choice of The Comedy of Errors may also have been due to other factors. Among these was the close resemblance between Hart's brother, Teddy, and the great comic actor Jimmy Savo; the two men eventually played the Dromio twins.
Writing later of their approach to their work, Rodgers recollected their conscious decision not to write their own stories but "stick with what we do best — song writing." He and Hart immediately hit it off because they agreed about how the old forms for musicals should be changed. They were not about to follow the standard methods of Tin Pan Alley, where composers wrote songs on demand that had no particular relevance to the plot. Nor were they adopting the "European" model of operettas. They were striving to do something new, something that they saw as American, something they found in the music of Jerome Kern.
Although different ages, the two men shared similar backgrounds, interests, and enthusiasms, along with the determination to alter the form of the musical. Rodgers's primary concern with the sound of the music complemented Hart's focus on the lyrics. Hart wanted more than rhyming "shush" with "mush" and sought to bring new ideas into the songs as well as to introduce complex patterns of rhyme. He saw the possibilities "inherent in double and triple rhymes, slant rhymes, fragmented rhymes, false rhymes, interior rhymes, feminine rhymes — but most of all witty rhymes." Moreover, he was aware of the multiple literary forms open to him. Schooled at Columbia College, he had tested these forms in some of Columbia's varsity shows.
In fact, it was through work on the varsity shows that he and Rodgers met. Prior to The Boys from Syracuse, the two young men had collaborated on a number of musicals, including the successful A Connecticut Yankee in 1928 and Babes in Arms and On Your Toes in 1936. They had written musical revues and were always on the lookout for new material. Their turn to Shakespeare gave them a broader vision. They wired George Abbott, an important and well-known writer and director, asking him if he would write the script. When Abbott agreed, the three began assembling a team. By July 22, 1938, Jo Mielziner, the famous scenery and lighting designer, headed that team, having signed a contract with Abbott to work on a play to be called Mixed Company. Later renamed The Boys from Syracuse, it opened on Broadway on November 24, 1938, to rave reviews and ran until June 1939, when the new World's Fair skimmed off the show's talents. Performers left Broadway for jobs on the fairgrounds in Queens.
Not only music but dance as well played a major role in the development of this new form. It is difficult for us today to realize how revolutionary this integration of dance with plot was. Until this time, dances, like songs, had been introduced into shows at the behest of the producer. Now, for the first time, dance would grow out of the plot and propel it forward. George Balanchine, trained in the Russian Ballet and brought to the United States in 1933 by Lincoln Kirstein to help found the School of American Ballet, was to choreograph The Boys from Syracuse. He would create dances that were integrated with the plot and helped to advance it. Balanchine hoped to win a new audience for ballet. He believed that "many who might be awed by a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, where [he] was maitre de ballet," could be lured to dance if they were exposed to it in lighter doses. He also showed a new attitude toward the Broadway musical comedy and revue, refusing to discriminate against these popular forms. Rather, he sought to incorporate them. In a 1939 interview, Balanchine spoke of his great admiration for American musical films, particularly those of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, which he had seen in his native Russia. "I can watch them dance again and again," he observed.
Excerpted from Shakespeare and the American Musical by Irene G. Dash. Copyright © 2010 Irene G. Dash. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Shakespeare's Enchantment 1
1 A Bold Adventure: The Boys from Syracuse and The Comedy of Errors 10
2 Double Vision: Kiss Me, Kate and The Taming of the Shrew 49
3 The Challenge of Tragedy: West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet 77
4 Out of the Closet: Your Own Thing and Twelfth Night 122
5 The Persistence of Love: Two Gentlemen of Verona 151
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Informed by a lively and expert understanding of the theatrical medium in question and a thorough and scholarly insight into the Shakespeare plays.