The Musical’s The Thing

No comments

By BILL BERRY, Producing Artistic Director, and ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate


Well, no. But—despite what Something Rotten! implies—neither did his rivals. Still, there are striking similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and our modern musicals.

Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s legacy is everywhere—in our language, our notions about “genius,” even our conception of what it is to be human. So of course we’ll find his ghost still haunting our theaters, telling us how to write, mount, and see plays. Shakespeare’s scripts include well over a hundred songs, making them function, at moments, as actual musicals. Some of the music survives, and over the years Shakespeare’s lyrics have been reset thousands of times by popular and classical composers.

Lorenzo says in The Merchant of Venice:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils…
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

 The origin of music is lost in prehistory, but its first element was probably rhythm. Our ancestors chanted their stories to the beating of drums; the regular rhythm marked storytelling as ritual, and was a powerful aid to memory.

Shakespeare writes mostly in unrhymed verse with a regular rhythm—a ten-beat line with five accents. He uses his artistic authority to stray at times from the pattern, but the audience, consciously or not, will internalize the underlying “beat” and be drawn into the storytelling just as our long-ago ancestors were.

To BE or NOT to BE, THAT is the QUEST-ion.

Or the line quoted earlier:

The MAN that HATH no MU-sic IN him-SELF…

The dialogue in our modern musicals is usually in unmetered prose—
Walk tall! We always walk tall! We’re Jets!

—saving rhythm for the songs:

WHEN you’re a JET, you’re a JET all the WAY!

Music can help support heightened language. When Ariel, the island spirit in The Tempest, lures Ferdinand away, the spell is cast with a song filled with weird allusions to Ferdinand’s drowned father:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes…

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, the rebellious Billy Bigelow uses a more vernacular expression when he sings his inner thoughts:

The tide’s creepin’ up on the beach like a thief,
Afraid to be caught stealin’ the land.

Stephen Sondheim (sometimes called the “Shakespeare of Musical Theater”) is a master of imagery. Listen to Sweeney Todd, the demon barber, singing to his gleaming razors, condensing a world of beauty, revenge, and madness into just a few words:

Friends! You shall drip rubies.
You’ll soon drip precious rubies…

Shakespeare began his writing career as a poet and was no stranger to the attractions of rhyme. The playwrights who preceded him wrote dialogue mostly in rhymed verse, and Shakespeare’s early plays followed their example. But soon he showed a preference for unrhymed “blank” verse.

As he matured, Shakespeare used rhymes only when they served his dramatic purpose. When Romeo is talking to his friends, rhymes are few. But when he talks about or to Juliet, they come in abundance, expressing his newly awakened poetic nature. She does the same, and soon they are completing each other’s rhymes. Shakespeare’s songs, however, retain their rhymes, as do songs in our musicals.


In folk songs, rhymes are a memory aid. In the theater, where the singer competes with instruments, they help the listener make out imperfectly heard words. Did she say “wind” or “wand” or “wound”? If the preceding line ended in “fond” or “beyond,” it’s probably “wand.” Further, rhyming words and lines often carry the most important ideas, the ones that the writer wants to be sure “land” for the audience.

Characters in Shakespeare’s early plays found obstacles to personal fulfillment in outside circumstances: social, familial, political. But as his writing matured he placed those obstacles within the characters themselves—they had to come to grips not with what they are but who they are.

Shakespeare dramatized these internal emotional journeys through images and metaphors, in exactly the way musicals use the heightened language of song to bring characters face-to-face with themselves.

Shakespeare’s characters sometimes drop the pretense of existing in a separate theatrical world and address the audience directly, sharing their thoughts and intentions in soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time. (Macbeth)

Rodgers and Hammerstein made the musical soliloquy their trademark. Think again of Billy in Carousel:

My boy Bill, he’ll be tall and as tough as a tree.

Or Nellie and Emile’s “Twin Soliloquies” in South Pacific:

Wonder how I’d feel, living on a hillside
Looking on an ocean, beautiful and still.

These moments where the characters share their thoughts and emotions directly with the audience allow for a deeper understanding and awareness; the audience can empathize and grapple with the journey of the characters in the story being told.



Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights were expected to openly borrow their plots from the existing stock of stories, histories, and romances.

In today’s musical theater, plots are still often chosen from familiar books, plays, and popular movies.

So we’ve come full circle. Many of our musicals are based directly on Shakespeare’s works. West Side Story rewrites the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet. Kiss Me, Kate draws both its main plot and its show-within-a-show from The Taming of the Shrew. Rodgers and Hart musicalized Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors as The Boys from Syracuse. Two Gentlemen of Verona, a rock musical, won the Tony in 1971. There have been several Twelfth Nights. And if you look closely at The Lion King, you’ll find the bones of Hamlet.

Something Rotten! presents a hilarious alt-history version of the invention of the musical. Along the way, it reflects much that is true about the customs and techniques that link modern musical shows with Shakespeare’s plays. Just don’t cite it in your Master’s thesis, okay?

Something Rotten! is at The 5th Avenue Theatre from September 12 to October 1. To find out more and purchase tickets, click here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s