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Shakespeare in Musicals

A bunch of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into musicals; a lot being very successful. Musical adaptations vary from modern-day depictions, all the way to cartoons and to a very (very, very, very) odd comedy sequel. Though I wouldn’t present every adaptation, here are the ones that were successful and/or the ones that intruiged me.

West Side Story was released in film back in 1961, though the Broadway version started running five years prior. It is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is set in Manhattan, in the late 1950’s, and replaces the two families with two gangs; an American gang (Jets), and a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants (Sharks). I found it fascinating how racism was used as a fresh twist.

Both versions were very successful and the original Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, and won two. The film version, on the other hand, was nominated for 11 Oscars- it won 10. Blues, ballet, and skinny jeans.


The Broadway and movie posters.

The famous balcony scene portrayed in the movie;




Probably the next most famous musical production is The Lion King. A Disney Animated film (1994) which was followed by a Broadway production three years later. It is based on Hamlet, with the characters portrayed by animals, and Denmark replaced by the Pride Lands in Africa. I find it successful in adapting a dark and gory work into a show that kids can watch and enjoy.

The film garnered two Academy Awards and a Golden Globe, while the original Broadway production won five Tony Awards.


The posters for the movie and the Broadway show.


One of the movie’s iconic scenes, the birth of Simba (Prince Hamlet)


Could you imagine Rosencratz and Gildenstern as good animal friends? Hakuna Matata.

Now to Shakespeare’s comedies, Kiss Me Kate (1948) is a modern musical production of Taming of the Shrew. Well, it’s a Broadway show about people (a divorced couple being the protagonists) performing/practicing a musical adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. So, it’s a musical play about a musical about a play? I hope I said that right. I like the meta twist. They made a movie in 1951, it was not equally successful.

The original Broadway production won 6 Tony’s, though the movie did not win the Oscar nomination.


The posters for Broadway and film.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971) is a rock musical based on, well, the Two Gentlemen of Verona. The specifics are the same; the characters, the setting (um, well that part was obvious). But instead of verse, we got rock!

The original Broadway show won two Tony awards, but was nominated for nine. No movie was made for this production.


More about mistaken identity, we have the Boys from Syracuse. A musical production (1938) based on Shakespeare’s the Comedy of Errors. The setting is the same, and so are the characters. It was adapted to film in 1940.

The movie was nominated for two Oscars, but won none.


The posters for the Broadway and movie productions.

The funniest, most intriguing musical adaptation of probably anything (ever), is Hamlet 2 (2008). A high school drama teacher makes his students perform a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where time-travel is used by Jesus to prevent the deaths of the characters. Needless to say, it’s a comedy film.



“Rock Me Sexy Jesus”

The video pretty much explains it.
















  1. October 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    It’s always quite a surprise to see how many adaptations of Shakespeare are out there. The good and even the bad adaptations serve as a tribute to keeping the Shakespeare flame alive. Quite a phenomenon really, how people still look back to a bard that had lived many centuries ago.

  2. usedtoliveinstaana
    October 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    It puzzles me how I find “Lion King” the best Shakespeare musicale adaptation. When Shakespeare’s plays turn into musicales, things tend to get crushed under the weight of expectations — characters in musicales always fall flat beside their originals. But since animated features are expected to be child-friendly, there’s more honesty, sincerity to them. They seem to be truer.

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