From Abraham Lincoln’s White House readings to Hollywood westerns and West Side Story, Shakespeare’s plays are an integral part of the American dream. So how did this icon of Englishness become a US phenomenon
Perhaps the apotheosis of the marriage between Shakespeare and the new world occurs with West Side Story. The most famous 20th-century musical adaptation of Shakespeare began in 1949 when a friend of the director Jerome Robbins was offered the part of Romeo in a stage production and began puzzling about bringing the role to life. Robbins’s reaction, however, was more Shakespearean. “I said to myself: ‘There’s a wonderful idea here,’” he later recalled. Having begun to work on a story of ill-fated lovers and gang violence, Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and the librettist Arthur Laurents. Eventually the young Stephen Sondheim came on board to write the lyrics.
Sondheim, speaking to me at home in Manhattan last summer, recalls: “I had no particular interest in the subject matter, but I knew I wanted to work with Bernstein, Arthur and Jerry. We never checked Shakespeare’s text. I don’t think any of us picked up that script once Arthur had written the ‘book’.”
Today, Sondheim has become a passionate follower of Shakespeare productions around the world, and especially in London. “I just can’t believe Shakespeare,” he says. “I mean, I can’t believe that one man did all this. Shakespeare is – oh, come on – some of his lines always make me cry.” Sondheim is less emotional about the relationship between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet, a play in which, as he puts it, “so much happens”. He describes it as “a melodrama with something extraordinary happening in every scene. On top of the flavour, there is the compactness – the plot is always exciting.”
Shapiro shares with Sondheim a sense of anticipation at the imminent excitements of 2016. “I’m willing to bet,” he says, “that this year will be celebrated with more attention and more festivity in the US than in Stratford or London.”