William Shakespeare’s 39 plays—give or take, depending on who you ask—are performed constantly around the world thanks to his truly unparalleled way with words and dramatic storytelling. In U.S. high schools alone, The Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the second most-produced play of 2017. Broadway writers have also frequently turned to Shakespeare for source material, and with good reason; the works of Shakespeare are filled with high drama and big laughs—and they’re not protected by copyright.
Here, we take a look at 12 musicals based on the work of Shakespeare.
We have to begin with the quintessential Shakespeare musical: West Side Story, a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was director-choreographer Jerome Robbins who first had the idea to update Shakespeare’s tragic tale of star-crossed lovers doomed by their feuding families in 14th-century Italy to a then-modern day scenario of two rival gangs on New York City’s Upper West Side. Robbins teamed with book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to create the show, which premiered on Broadway in 1957.
Though West Side Story is not a direct adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the two share several plot points, such as a balcony scene between the lovers (a fire escape in West Side Story) and the Romeo figure, Tony, murdering a close family member of his love. Also of note, Tony’s famous “Something’s Coming” replaces Romeo’s monologue about Rosamond, but mimics the feeling of him being lost to emotion and on the brink of change. The musical takes a departure, however, in adapting Romeo and Juliet’s famously-tragic ending, which sees both its title characters killed. In West Side Story, Tony (the Romeo-modeled character) is murdered, but his love, Maria, lives on with the trauma of the experience.
West Side Story went on to be adapted into a wildly successful and Oscar-winning film in 1961, and has become a staple of high school English teachers as a tool for covering Romeo and Juliet.
2. All Shook Up
Book writer Joe DiPietro looked to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when selecting a plot that could link together songs made famous by Elvis Presley in this jukebox musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2005. This comedic story of love, mistaken identity, and long-lost siblings has proven fertile ground for adaptation; we will encounter it again on this list. All Shook Up took a cue from Presley’s legacy in moving the action to the American Midwest in the 1950s, turning Shakespeare’s Viola—who disguises herself as Cesario in the original—into Natalie the car mechanic, who disguises herself as Ed so that the Elvis-like Chad will pay more attention to her.
All Shook Up was ultimately short-lived on Broadway, running for just 213 performances, but has gone on to enjoy U.S. and U.K. tours, as well as a number of regional productions. Cheyenne Jackson played his first starring role on Broadway creating the role of Chad.
This Shakespeare musical adaptation gets meta. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew’s tempestuous lovers Petruchio and Katherina become Fred and Lilli, two actors leading the company of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew—and play Petruchio and Katharine in it—but also share an offstage relationship similar to that of their Shrew characters. The idea was reportedly inspired by Kiss Me, Kate producer Arnold Saint-Subber’s experience watching the on- and off-stage relationship of husband and wife acting team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during a 1935 production of The Taming of the Shrew. Saint-Subber brought on Samuel and Bella Spewack to adapt the story into a musical, with Cole Porter providing the songs. Kiss Me, Kate became a classic of the genre almost immediately after it premiered in 1948.
The show won the first-ever Best Musical Tony Award in 1949, and has been popular on Broadway and around the world ever since. A 1999 revival starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, and a new production is posed to open on Broadway in spring 2019 starring Will Chase and Kelli O’Hara.
4. Rockabye Hamlet
Shakespeare’s classic story of the Danish prince avenging his father’s death got the rock-musical treatment with Cliff Jones’ Rockabye Hamlet. The musical started in 1973 as a Canadian radio broadcast under the title Kronborg: 1582, taking its name from the castle where Hamlet takes place. In February 1976, a revised version (now named Rockabye Hamlet) opened on Broadway with a cast that included Larry Marshall in the title role and Meat Loaf as the Priest. Rockabye Hamlet famously lasted seven performances after its opening night, but the show has periodically emerged in new productions over the years, usually with more revisions and even more new titles. The show played Los Angeles for 18 months in 1981 as Somethin’ Rockin’ in Denmark, was revived in Astoria, New York, as Rockabye Hamlet in 2014, and reverted to the earliest title Kronborg: 1582 for a 2017 concert production at The Charlottetown Festival in Canada.
5. Two Gentlemen of Verona
It isn’t difficult to figure out which of Shakespeare’s plays this musical is based on, because they share a title. Following the wild success of Hair at the Public Theatre Off-Broadway and later on the Main Stem, Hair composer Galt MacDermot teamed up with playwrights John Guare and Mel Shapiro to musicalize Shakespeare’s story of two lifelong friends who leave their rural home in Verona for the “big city” of Milan, finding love along the way. The musical version of Two Gentlemen was a fairly straight adaptation of the Shakespeare, leaving the locations and character names intact, though MacDermot and Guare’s score gave the production a timely 1970s vibe.
The show premiered in 1971 at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series. The new musical was so well-received that it quickly moved to Broadway the same year. The cast was led by Raúl Juliá as Proteus, and the ensemble featured then-unknown names Stockard Channing in her Broadway debut and Jeff Goldblum. Two Gentlemen of Verona went on to win Best Musical at the 1972 Tony Awards, over both Grease and Follies. The show is not seen today with much frequency, though the Public Theater did bring it back to the Delacorte in 2005.
6. The Boys from Syracuse
This Golden Age Rodgers and Hart musical was the first modern musical comedy to be adapted from Shakespeare. Director and book writer George Abbott selected another of Shakespeare’s most frequently adapted works The Comedy of Errors as his inspiration, giving Shakespeare’s setting and characters 1930s Broadway-style jokes and songs. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s score introduced such standards as “Sing for Your Supper” and “Falling in Love with Love,” helping the show become one of Broadway’s hits of 1938.
Like many shows from the 1930s, the show was largely unseen for years until revisals, with new and updated books, hit the stage in the late 1990s. Roundabout Theatre Company revived the show on Broadway in 2002 with a new book by playwright Nicky Silver, with a cast that included Tom Hewitt, Erin Dilly, Lee Wilkof, and Chip Zien.
7. Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It
Recently, The Public Theater has returned to musicalizing Shakespeare for their Shakespeare in the Park series, engaging writer and performer Shaina Taub to supply songs for both plays, director Kwame Kwei-Armah helming Twelfth Night and writer-director Laurie Woolery adapting As You Like It. These versions of Twelfth Night and As You Like It hew closer to the originals than most of the shows on this list, generally using Taub’s songs as jaunty and entertaining punctuations in between Shakespeare’s original text. Both were presented (in 2016 and 2017 respectively) as part of the Public Works series, which places Broadway professionals alongside community “amateur” performers from community centers and outreach programs for some decidedly fun and wilder takes on the Bard.’
Both were received extremely well, so much so that Twelfth Night played a return engagement in 2018. Being relatively new adaptations, it remains to be seen what will happen with them next, but both are being made available for licensing to theatre companies and will undoubtedly start being produced all over the U.S. Just announced, a cast album of Twelfth Night will be released by Concord Music’s Craft Recordings.
8. The Donkey Show
Before she became a Tony winner directing the 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin, Diane Paulus made an early splash in the New York theatre scene co-writing (with husband Randy Weiner) and directing The Donkey Show, an Off-Broadway disco version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Immersive before it was on trend, The Donkey Show was performed in a club, Club El Flamingo. Midsummer’s Oberon, King of the Fairies, became a disco impresario, and his wife Titania a Donna Summer-like disco diva. Nick Bottom, who in Midsummer is an egotistical weaver who is transformed into a donkey, became a pair of disco-dancing twins in The Donkey Show. The show featured a jukebox score of disco hits, including “I Love the Nightlife,” “Ring My Bell,” “We Are Family,” and “Car Wash.”
When it opened Off-Broadway in August 1999, the production was scheduled to play a six-week limited engagement. The Donkey Show went on to run for nearly six years, becoming one of the longest-running Off-Broadway shows in history. The New York production led to productions around the world, and Paulus revived the show at American Repertory Theater in 2009. It now continues to play Saturday nights at A.R.T.
9. The Bomb-itty of Errors
Long before Hamilton, The Bomb-itty of Errors brought rap to musical theatre while updating the story of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Written and performed by Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, GQ, and Erik Weiner, the show began as an NYU senior project in 1998. The following year, The Bomb-itty of Errors opened at Off-Broadway’s Bleecker Street Theatre and became an audience favorite. Bomb-itty updated Shakespeare’s original story to modern times, making the pairs of identical twins separated because of the foster care system. An onstage DJ was on hand to spin beats.
The show enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway, receiving a Drama Desk nomination for Best Lyrics and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. The show was later seen in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, and internationally in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada. Bomb-itty is still produced today by regional theatres across the country.
10. Play On!
Like All Shook Up, Play On! was a jukebox musical that used Twelfth Night as its inspiration. Director Sheldon Epps had the idea of mixing Shakespeare’s story with the music of legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. He recruited book writer Cheryl L. West to transport the story to 1940s Harlem, telling the story of a female musician named Vy who disguises herself as a man so that she can be taken more seriously as a songwriter. The score included such standards as “Take the A Train,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and more.
Play On! premiered on Broadway in March 1997. Though the production was short-lived at only 61 performances, Play On! received three 1997 Tony Award nominations, for the featured performance of André De Shields, leading performance of Tonya Pinkins and Luther Henderson’s orchestrations.
11. The Lion King
Though the movie and resulting stage musical The Lion King is not directly credited as being based on Shakespeare, many have pointed out its clear similarities with Hamlet. Much as Hamlet looks to avenge the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, Simba ultimately has to triumph over his uncle Scar following his murder of Mufasa. Even Timon and Pumbaa have Shakespearean connections to Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Still, the Hamlet connection may be less intentional, as creative team member Lebo M told Playbill in 2017 about the story’s connection to his personal past.
The Lion King has become one of the most successful Broadway musicals in history. The show opened on Broadway in October 1997, becoming a near-instantaneous smash hit that is still running today around the world.
12. Return to the Forbidden Planet
This Off-Broadway musical was adapted by Bob Carlton from the classic 1950s sci-film Forbidden Planet, which was itself somewhat inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s play, we meet sorcerer Prospero, who lives in near isolation on a remote island. He conjures up a storm to bring the King of Naples to the island so that his daughter, Miranda, might marry the King’s son and assume her rightful title. Forbidden Planet features some similar plot notes and a similarly isolated setting to The Tempest, but the musical Return to the Forbidden Planet is much more directly based on the Shakespeare. The remote island becomes the faraway planet D’Illyria (a reference to the setting of Twelfth Night), which is home to Doctor Prospero and his daughter Miranda. A meteor shower leaves a spaceship marooned on D’Illyria, with Miranda ultimately falling for the ship’s commander, Captain Tempest. All of this is set to a jukebox score make up of hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including “Wipe Out,” “Good Vibrations,” Monster Mash,” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
This campy sci-fi spin on Shakespeare began in Australia, touring there in the early ’90s. An Off-Broadway production played the Variety Arts Theatre in 1991 for 243 performances, after which the show has been seen at regional companies across the country.