To celebrate The Bard’s 453rd birthday last week, I watched SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. The 1998 Oscar-winning film shows the world’s greatest playwright struggling to write ROMEO AND ETHEL, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER.
Of course he eventually turned it into ROMEO AND JULIET, which is still arguably his most popular play. Screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman didn’t arbitrarily choose it; they knew that ROMEO AND JULIET was the Shakespeare play that the public was most likely to know. Neither TROILUS AND CRESSIDA nor ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA were ever in the running.
Watching the film did start me thinking. Have you ever noticed that a dashing and romantic man is often called a Romeo but a pretty and love-struck girl is seldom-if-ever referred to as a Juliet? Is he a more noted character than she?
In musical theater, many songs reference both of them. In BELLS ARE RINGING, “Is It a Crime?” – a song dropped from the film (which was a crime in itself) – switchboard operator Ella Peterson fantasizes working for Veronaphone. There she’d take the important message, relay it and thus “Those two kids would be alive today!”
It’s a delicious line written by either Betty Comden or Adolph Green and put forth with the expert brio, gusto and distinction that Judy Holliday had. If you doubt her star-power, remember that she beat out Julie Andrews in MY FAIR LADY that year in the Best Actress in a Musical Tony race.
You wouldn’t expect a hard-boiled detective and policemen to mention Shakespeare’s most famous couple. They do, however, in “Living Simply” in BAJOUR. Walter Marks, a most underrated lyricist, has Detective Lou MacNiall, backed up by some of New York’s finest, size up his attraction to anthropologist Emily Kirsten. “Though Romeo and Juliet would say it’s all wrong, our love will last longer.”
(Well, I hope so. ROMEO AND JULIET takes place over a mere five days.)
Emily, though, has her doubts. She sees that “living simply” would mean being “simply exhausted and simply fed up.” Such a life, she decides, “is simply not me” for “while I’m darning your socks, I’ll be damning your hide.” (See? Quite a lyricist, this Marks.)
There’s no real surprise that Romeo shows up in THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. Lyricist Lorenz Hart was dealing with two characters named Dromio, so Romeo made for an easy rhyme. However, Hart did give Juliet equal time in the show’s biggest hit, “This Can’t Be Love.”
“Where?” some may ask, for pop recordings of the song mention neither a Montague nor a Capulet. No, Hart relegated both of them to his verses before he had the song go into its main section.
That’s what smart lyricists did when they needed to include show-centric information in a song but didn’t want to damage their chances for a pop hit: they put the “book” material in the verse, and let the rest of the song be general enough so that it could be popular with the populace.
“Shakespeare Lied” in HOW NOW, DOW JONES gives an alternate history of Romeo and Juliet. It’s one of Broadway’s most musically elegant cheer-up songs (although it does have a deliciously snazzy finish and ride-out). Leave it to lyricist Carolyn Leigh, who did such wonders for PETER PAN, WILDCAT and LITTLE ME, to find a completely different take on the play we know and mourn.
There are many others that cite Verona’ cutest couple. In LADY IN THE DARK, one of twelve men who are dubbed “Liza Elliott Admirers” sings “what Juliet was to Romeo you are to me.”
“I Believe in Taking a Chance” – a swinging tune that proves that Mary Martin didn’t get all the good songs in JENNIE – Jack De Lon and George Wallace (NOT the politician of yore) say that when you “play the Romeo role” you’re “bound to get your Juliet.”
And then there is, of course, WEST SIDE STORY, where Tony and Maria are the updated Romeo and Juliet, although you’d never know it from the credits; the Bard’s name is notably absent. (If Shakespeare ever gets the chance that CAROUSEL’s Billy Bigelow got, he should spend his one day on Earth in court.)
Note that Bernstein and Sondheim involved Tony in six songs and two outright solos while respectively bestowing five and one on Maria. And that brings us to the nub. There are plenty of musical theater lyrics where Romeo is mentioned and Juliet is absent.
In OUT OF THIS WORLD’s “Cherry Pies Ought to Be You,” that fun-filled list song by Cole Porter (and who wrote better ones?), we hear “Romeo in disguise ought to be you.” Juliet has just as many syllables as Romeo, but she didn’t make the cut.
In GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES’ “I’m A’Tingle, I’m A’Glow” has Josephus, a well-heeled gym rat who believes in keeping fit, still admits “I’m no Romeo.” Although he’s conversing with Lorelei Lee, he doesn’t refer to her as a Juliet.
In TAKE ME ALONG, Sid (played by Jackie Gleason, one of the biggest stars of television’s early years) returns from Waterbury, Connecticut to his hometown of Centerville. Pals are at the train station to welcome him back. Sid, recognizing one, says, “Hiya, Clem! How’s the Haystack Romeo?” The guys all laugh heartily before they celebrate him in the rollicking “Sid, Ol’ Kid.” If it isn’t quite “Hello, Dolly!” it’s as good a welcoming song as any character in a musical can expect to get.
In FINIAN’S RAINBOW’s “Something Sort of Grandish” Og –Broadway’s favorite leprechaun – doesn’t sing about Romeo and Juliet, but “Romeo and Guinevere.” To be sure, Broadway lyricist extraordinaire E.Y. Harburg wanted to show that Og wasn’t up on his Shakespeare, but he could have written, say, “Theodore and Juliet,” for there are probably just as many “et” rhymes as “o” rhymes. Yet he didn’t.
At the end of HAIR, when members of The Tribe mourn the loss of Claude in Vietnam, he returns as a ghost and reprises “Manchester England.” His comrades sing in counterpoint “Eyes Look Your Last,” a speech that comes from ROMEO AND JULIET. And who do you guess says it there? Right: he, not she.
“There’s a reason why Romeo is used more in songs than Juliet,” says Ken Bloom, co-author of BROADWAY MUSICALS: THE 101 GREATEST MUSICALS OF ALL TIME. “Romeo is a word that’s more musical.”
He’s right. Vowel sounds are always easier to sing, and each syllable in Romeo has one; Juliet once again lags behind, for she has but two.
However, Romeo has apparently been losing some of his musical theater luster. Between 1903 and 1955, there were twenty Broadway show songs with the word Romeo in their titles. Since Jan. 1, 1956 – meaning for more than sixty-three years – there hasn’t been a one.
Maybe that’s why in 2001, THE FULL MONTY’s tunefully butch song “Man,” composer-lyricist David Yazbeck had Dave sarcastically call Jerry not Romeo but “Fabio.”
You’re excused if you don’t know the name, but, oh, there was a time when many women and men lusted after this long-haired, chiseled-featured demi-god. But, as Lorelei Lee so accurately said, “We all lose our charms in the end.”
If Fabio Lanzoni’s friends held a party to celebrate his birthday this past March 15th, they could have acknowledged his new age by singing that terrific song from HAIRSPRAY: “Welcome to the Sixties.”
Say what you will, but Romeo – and even Juliet – have had a lot longer run.