Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare and the American Musical

At a recent Theatre Library Association conference, I had the good fortune to meet Irene Dash, author of Shakespeare and the American Musical (Indiana University Press, 2009).  I hadn’t heard of the book, so I asked for a copy to read.  It’s a good read.  To quote from the Coda, the book  “… addresses a particular period in American theater history when the musical and Shakespeare’s plays met and developed.  It follows the history of those meetings against the constantly changing American scene.  More importantly, Shakespeare and the American Musical shows how American culture influenced and altered these sixteenth-century plays so that they emerged anew, helping a twentieth-century audience to better understand its own time” (p.186).  Dash focuses on five plays and their musical adaptations: The Boys from Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors); Kiss Me, Kate (The Taming of the Shrew); West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet); Your Own Thing (Twelfth Night);  and Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Dash moves easily between Shakespeare’s plays and the musicals inspired by his writing.  Of course, there is the issue of adapting the plays and, in some cases, leaving Shakespeare’s language behind, and what that means for those who believe that the primary reason for studying Shakespeare is his use of language and not the plots, characters, or themes.  I fall into that camp, but Dash writes so convincingly about the significance of Shakespeare’s influence on the American musical, that it is difficult to take issue with the results of the collaborations between the musical composers and the Bard.   The book is definitely worth reading.


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