Why we should be singing Shakespeare
No-one hates Shakespeare. True, many a High School student has been plagued by his writing, annoyed by their English teacher’s fascination with him, even frustrated by the school system’s tendency to shove literature down their throat - but never hated him. They might have thought that they hated him, but in reality, they just didn’t understand him, or simply hated the entitled person at the front of the room trying to transmit their love for him to the class.
Musical Theatre, on the other hand, whilst loved by many, has the particular capacity to be outright despised by those who aren’t in love with it - and I’ve never understood why. Yes, there are cheesy moments, but it’s those moments that make the sad parts all the more devastating, the funny parts all the more hilarious and the sweet parts all the more touching.
It is my sincere hope that by the end of this article, you won’t be able to think of musicals or Shakespeare the same way again.
Because of Shakespeare’s writing, the genre of tragedy has changed enormously since its first texts, produced by the Ancient Greeks. And whilst I by no means wish to sully the names of truly great authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides, it is no secret that these plays were not meant to entertain, but rather to promote vigorously philosophical discussions about the nature of politics, religion and the human condition. As such, they have a tendency to be a bit of a drag.
Shakespeare changed this completely - by interjecting his most cataclysmic, suspense-filled scenes with bouts of humour, he gave the audience a break from whatever soul-wrenching action was happening on stage. When you’re watching such a tragedy, shock and dismay changes to laughter, then back to shock and dismay in quick succession. A great example of this are the gravediggers in Hamlet, who jest whilst digging up a tomb, or the gatekeeper in Macbeth, who seems to make humerous remarks about almost everything. Not only does this jerking back and forth make you go through a myriad of emotions, making the Shakespeare experience all the more exciting, but the moments of relaxation and relief, by giving you a break from being on the edge of your seat, also make you feel the suspenseful and depressing parts much more intensely. It’s kind of like being on a rollercoaster - moments of relief followed by moments of terror.
When you think about it, musicals are really doing the same thing - take, for example, Wicked: right before Elphaba, the main character, is forced to flee and is unable to save the man she loves, she gets involved in a very humorous fight with her former best friend. They taunt each other, make fools of themselves, get a few laughs from the audience. Then bam, devastation. This is that same strategy I mentioned earlier - the relief of a comic scene to lighten the mood and accentuate the sadness to come.
The reason there are so many monologues in Shakespeare is that a lot of things he wrote about couldn’t exactly be depicted on stage: a shipwreck in the middle of the ocean (The Tempest), 16 years passing in between two scenes (A Winter’s Tale). The bard notoriously didn’t give many stage directions (one of the longest being “Exit, pursued by a bear”), but rather set the scene for the audience through the words of the characters.
I can name countless instances in musicals where this particular method was also used: take the many narrative passages in Chicago (where the histories of the convicts are explained, for example - the infamous Cell Block Tango) or Glinda explaining Elphaba’s parents’ backstory in Wicked or even the Narrator in Into the Woods with his many explanatory interjections. It’s a great strategy for catching up the audience on whatever they’ve missed. At the end of the day, Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed, to be seen (not, as some would insist, to be read) and that, in my opinion, is also the goal of Musical Theatre - those show-stopping numbers look much better on a stage than they do on paper.
Finally, many “intellectuals” often criticise musicals for being overly simplistic and, well, cheesy. The jokes are considered cheap, the music oversimplified, the characters superficial. I think that every once in a while it’s humbling to remember that Shakespeare wrote for the masses. He wrote to entertain. The success or failure of any one of his plays was determined by the reaction of the “groundlings”, the common peasants in the cheap seats (you could pay a shilling to see a play in the Globe if you stood for the whole thing). These people were fishermen, carpenters, blacksmiths. They came with their beers and their drinking buddies after a long day of hard work in order to laugh or to cry. And whilst they, of course, probably couldn’t read into any of the clever plays on words or political connotations, many of Shakespeare’s themes are easy to understand: a man dressed as a woman and a woman dressed as a man (As You Like It), a power-hungry aristocrat (Macbeth), two teenagers falling in love (Romeo and Juliet). Is that not the same basic storyline that musicals follow? Is it not possible to over-analyse and read into possible messages in musicals, just like it is for any other literary medium? Is it not, after all, still theatre?
If these two have so much in common, why not combine them? In my personal opinion, Shakespeare would only be improved by a song or two here and there. Essentially, the message and base ideas of musical theatre have a lot in common with his writing. Music would add to the tragedy’s suspense, to the comedy’s light hearted humour, to every emotional parting or difficult decision. The monologues, the soliloquies, and in fact most of the text is already written in verse - it’s a musical waiting to happen.