Staging Romeo and Juliet as a rock musical

professor in green tie speaks
Melissa Beattie-Moss

Cary Libkin tells how to give Shakespeare a rock twist.

What is the greatest love story in history? For most people, the answer is "Romeo and Juliet." William Shakespeare wrote the famed tragedy in the late 14th century, yet it is still performed and praised today. It has been adapted into opera, ballet, and screenplay, and has also been transported into innumerable time periods and locations.

During the 1990s, acclaimed stage actor and director, Terrence Mann, collaborated with composer Jerome Kern to create "Romeo and Juliet: A Rock Musical." Penn State's own Cary Libkin, head of the School of Theatre, became interested in Mann's creative rendition of the Shakespearean classic and plans to bring the production to University Park in the spring of 2006.

Research Unplugged invited Libkin to the March 16 conversation to discuss the challenges and rewards of staging a Shakespearean classic as a rock and roll musical. "Everyone likes to mess about with Shakespeare," he told the lunchtime crowd of colleagues and community members. "Why is that? And why are some mess-abouts more successful than others?"

Libkin said Shakespeare's plays readily lend themselves to transportations of time and place. "Shakespeare was a literary genius, but a lousy historian and geographer," he explained. But the Bard's inaccuracies in rendering time period and location are irrelevant, he argued, because Shakespeare's larger concept of the human condition is eternal.

There are both good and bad reasons to transport a Shakespearean classic, according to Libkin. "Simply reproducing a play for a contemporary audience is a bad idea," he said. This approach tends to result in a "dumbing down" of the language. Libkin believes a director must not mistake the challenge of reading Shakespeare on the page with the more readily accessible experience of seeing Shakespeare performed on stage. "The mark of a well-directed Shakespearean play is that it should be understood by an eager ten year old," he said.

"A good reason to transport Shakespeare is to illuminate certain aspects of the play," Libkin said. Finding that core or essence of the play that can live in any time and place, he suggested, is the first step in any successful adaptation.


Melissa Beattie-Moss

Carino, Reseland, and Vogt-Welch perform a rock ballad written for "Romeo and Juliet."

Libkin presented three versions of the same scene from "Romeo and Juliet" to demonstrate the possibilities of transportation. First, three senior music theater students—Vanessa Reseland, Heather Carino, and Mollie Vogt-Welch—gave a traditional performance of the scene in which Lady Capulet and Juliet's nurse first discuss with Juliet her prospects for marriage. Next, he showed a film clip of the same scene as staged in the 1996 film by Baz Luhrmann starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. In this version, the Verona of Shakespeare's play has been transformed into "Verona Beach," with the feel of modern-day Miami. Finally, the students performed a rock-ballad version of the scene from the musical by Mann, accompanied by pianist and Penn State faculty member Mollye Otis.

Why does rock and roll work for "Romeo and Juliet?" Libkin said it's because at the core of the play there is intense passion—the lovers love and the haters love to hate. "The sexuality and anger is edgy and powerful," he said. "Rock music carries the same intensity."

In rock and roll, a single thought or idea is repeated, and the joy comes from changes in key and rhythm, Libkin said. These elements serve to accentuate the passion of Shakespeare's words. "For 'Romeo and Juliet' to work, the audience must buy into the idea of 'love at first sight,'" he said. "There must be chemistry and vulnerability." According to Libkin, rock and roll is the ideal musical form for displaying this intensity of emotion.

"It would have to be either that or opera," he said. "Nothing in between could provide the necessary passion."

Cary Libkin, M.F.A, is head of the Bachelor of Fine Arts Musical Theatre and M.F.A. Directing programs in Penn State's School of Theatre; cll4@psu.edu.

Yoni Malchi is a graduate student in mechanical engineering and a member of the Research Unplugged committee. Emily Wiley is assistant editor of Research/Penn State and coordinator of Research Unplugged.

Last Updated March 16, 2005