Share This:
June 20, 2013 | Theatre,

Shakespeare in Song


Shakespearean texts have been adapted just about every way imaginable. Disney added some lions to Hamlet and came out with The Lion King; Baz Luhrman found the young Leonardo DiCaprio for his modern, political take on Romeo & Juliet…for better or worse, depending on who you ask. The plays have been twisted into theatrical productions ranging from settings in Nazi Germany to the moon. It seems only natural that musicians should tackle the Bard’s texts for their own tunes.

Shockingly few recorded musical renditions of Shakespeare-inspired works exist. Although references to his texts frequently appear throughout various genres of music, the words themselves are rarely preserved in their entirety for a whole song. Of course, musicals based on Shakespeare’s texts are a common method of adaptation. Consider the popular Broadway hits West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet or Kiss Me, Kate inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.

A less commonly known, albeit more conventionally titled, adaptation is the 1971 funk-rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona with music by composer Galt MacDermot, known for his work on Hair. Although there are virtually no clips online from the original Broadway run of the show (which won the Tony Award for Best Musical), The Public Theater revived the show for 2005’s Shakespeare in the Park featuring, among others, Norm Lewis. Again, few clips are available, but check out this bootleg of the song “Night Letter” to get a feeling for this groovy Shakespearean musical:

Remixing the Bard again this summer with another Shakespeare in the Park production, the Alex Timbers-helmed version of Love’s Labour’s Lost with music from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s Michael Friedman will debut at the Delacorte on July 23. More of a pop/rock adaptation, you can sample this modern take set at a college reunion with some pre-released tracks from The Public:

See the full web page for more tunes if that tickled your fancy, including a sultry new song featuring up-and-coming star Lindsay Mendez.

In 2002, an interesting collaboration surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets was released entitled When Love Speaks. This CD features 53 different Shakespearean sonnets, many read by outstanding actors such as Joseph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw, in addition to sonnets set to music by Annie Lenox, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Bryan Ferry, among others. Rufus Wainwright– who was recently tapped to perform musical renditions of the sonnets for a forum at the 2013 Stratford Festival in Toronto–  lends his voice to Sonnet #29 from the album:

Also included on When Love Speaks, lyric soprano Barbara Bonney sings “The Willow Song” with text sourced from Desdemona’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene III of Othello, giving an example of a play set to music:

The Brits took a regal stab at musicalizing Shakespeare’s sonnets with a 13-piece Renaissance orchestra featuring songs composed for the Queen’s Jubilee and the 2012 Summer Olympics. With the help of centuries-old instruments and some of England’s best vocal performers, the collection, simply titled Shakespeare: The Sonnets, shows the range of different sounds possible with this eclectic assortment of instruments. Consider this upbeat, indie-pop inspired tune entitled “Blind Fool Love” from Sonnet 127:

For a more moody, intimate effect, check out this duet of Sonnet 109, “O Never Say That I Was False of Heart”:

Keeping with this tradition of song and poetry, students from Emerson College and Berklee College of Music approached a new, lively project: The Shakespearean Jazz Show. Melding the Bard’s texts from his various plays and sonnets with New Orleans jazz-inspired original compositions, the Jazz Show provides an intimate and cheery interpretation of Shakespeare’s words. Watch this recording of “Mariana” from Measure for Measure performed at last summer’s New Orleans Shakespeare Festival and get a feel for them:

ArtsEmerson is excited to be welcoming The Shakespearean Jazz Show back to the Paramount Mainstage for a one-night-only engagement on July 18 after their spirited performance to a full house at the first-annual The Next Thing (TNT) Festival this past February. For more information about the performance and tickets, click here. To check out more of The Shakespearean Jazz Show, visit them on their website at

Daniel Jones is a Dramaturgy and Outreach Assistant and a 2012 Emerson graduate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *