There are few people brave enough to adapt a Shakespeare play into a musical. And of those few brave enough to, there are even fewer which make for decent adaptations.
Notable examples which worked include as West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet), Kiss Me Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) and The Lion King (based on Hamlet). Less obvious ones include The Reduced Shakespeare Companies Othello: The Rap and the musical-within-a-musical Funny Boy based on Hamlet, an off hand joke from The Producers.
Roger De Bris Oh and Max darling we loved Funny Boy, didn’t we Carmen?
Carmen Ghia Oh worshipped it! Uh… To be or not to be…
Roger De Bris You mean a lot to me!
And there is one other notable musical adaptation but one which is perhaps well known, as it’s not an English language production.
Roméo et Juliette, de la Haine à l’Amour.
Taking the plot of Romeo and Juliet, Gérard Presgurvic adapted it into a musical formatand wrote the lyrics for the original French production. Since its conception, it has since been adapted into many other languages, so popular is this adaptation. These include Italian, German, English, Hungarian and Spanish, amongst others.
I first came across this adaptation while studying for my German A-Levels, and discovered the German translation: Romeo und Julia: Das Musical. This was mainly because I was trying to do anything but revise the set syllabus, including looking up German adaptations of Shakespeare! The fact that I, a native English speaker, can identify the same themes from the text and have it arouse the same emotion in me, despite it being 1) a play turned into a musical, 2) it not being a faithful recreation of the script word for word, and 3) it being a French musical translated into German and me speaking nur ein bisschen Deutsch, speaks volumes for the skillful translation of this production from the original play. Plus, the fact that they’ve made additions to the original text which I actually like says a lot, as this is something I normally hate. Characters’ parts are fleshed out including Benvolio and Lady Capulet, and new characters are even added, notably a personification of Death which served for dramatic effect.
The symmetry of the show is visually stunning: in addition to the haunting Death figure and the Poet, the opening number ‘Verona’ sees the characters mirroring one and other dance/fight moves, and dressed in opposing blue and red. The songs are so expressive, so representative of familiar characters and scenes, that they almost replace the need for monologues, particularly Tybalt’s ‘Ich bin schuldlos’ (I am innocent) and Benvolio’s ‘Wie sag ich ihm’s’ (How do I tell him?). Other highlights include ‘Das Duell’ (The Duel), ‘Herrscher Der Welt’ (Rulers of the World) and ‘Wir sind aus Fleisch und Blut’ (We are Flesh and Blood), which provide somewhat poppy soundtrack to a tragedy, but which oddly works!
True, the English translation which played in London was shortlived. And slated. And a bit rubbish. But that was more because the titles and lyrics didn’t translate well. Somewhat ironic, considering the original source material for the original French musical was English! But if you have some basic understanding of French, German or even Hungarian, I’d recommending watching one of the international versions. The productions are available on YouTube in parts or their entirety.