Setting Shakespeare to Music, Sort Of

Posted July 26, 2018 4:58 p.m. EDT

Gone are the days when a recorder and a few desultory “hey nonny nonnys” would suffice for the musical passages in a Shakespeare production. Shaina Taub took an ebullient, slangy approach with her score for the musical “Twelfth Night,” which is playing now at the Delacorte Theater, with Taub in the role of Feste.

As with other shows in the Public Works series, this “Twelfth Night” shifts from the original text to a modern vernacular in Taub’s songs. But, as these examples show, it’s entirely possible to put your own stamp on Shakespeare while still sticking to the original text (more or less).

“Kiss Me, Kate”

Until and unless the line “kick him right in the Coriolanus” shows up in an as yet undiscovered quarto of “The Taming of the Shrew,” Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” score from 1948 is, shall we say, true to Shakespeare in its fashion. But “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” dips in and out of the text, and Porter also took a crack at the monologue that gives contemporary “Taming” directors the most trouble, Kate’s abashed “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.”


The score of “Hair” found room for words from Allen Ginsberg, Abraham Lincoln, the Hare Krishna mantra and a Village Voice personal ad, so why not a bit of “Hamlet”? (The musical’s co-creator Gerome Ragni had previously appeared with Richard Burton in a Broadway revival of the play.) Two bits, actually: In addition to a few snippets in “Flesh Failures,” Galt MacDermot wrote a soaring — if occasionally mis-accented — take on “What a Piece of Work Is Man” for two tenors as they survey the carnage of war. In the score for his 1971 musical “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” MacDermot used more Shakespeare, even including an “Antony and Cleopatra” monologue to comic effect.

“The Frogs”

Stephen Sondheim nearly always sets his own lyrics to music, but “The Frogs” saw the character of Shakespeare give voice to his own “Cymbeline” monologue “Fear No More” in a debate with George Bernard Shaw. In his otherwise comprehensive set of “Frogs” lyrics in the book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim begs off reprinting the monologue “out of sheer self-preservation. Suffice it to say I collaborated with Shakespeare.”

“Oh, Brother!”

Shifting “The Comedy of Errors” to the modern-day Middle East and setting it to music earned “Oh, Brother!” a total of three performances on Broadway in 1981. But we’ll always have “I, to the World,” a jazzy and unmistakably 1980s quartet featuring Joe Morton (“Scandal”) and the much-missed tenor David Carroll.

“Twelfth Night”

While Taub’s adventurous score plays fairly fast and loose with the “Twelfth Night” text, several other composers have toed the line.

Purists can feast on Claire van Kampen’s studiously authentic Globe Theater rendition, which brought shawms and sackbuts to Broadway in 2013, while musical theater buffs can hear the likes of Audra McDonald and Raúl Esparza take on Hem’s indie-pop stylings in the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production.

Or, if you prefer hearing what Tony Award-winning composers do with Feste’s material, take your pick between Jeanine Tesori and Rupert Holmes.