Why Musical Theatre Actors Should Take On Shakespeare

So many terrific musical theatre performers I have met feel nervous — or even downright terrified — of tackling their first Shakespearean role. Let’s put an end to the notion that performers whose main experience has been acting and singing in musicals should not be playing Shakespeare, right now. In fact, they are uniquely equipped to excel in Shakespeare. And almost immediately. Why?

First and most important, it has to do with oxygen, which Shakespeare’s characters need a lot of. Hamlet, Juliet, Desdemona, and the others think big, long thoughts. And they require a great deal of breath to make it to the end of a thought, which is often the most important part. Singers are accustomed to this kind of expansive, sustained breathing, which is one of the keys to playing Shakespeare.

Also, singers not only have highly developed ears, but highly developed “inner” ears. This enables them to be especially attuned and alive to the hidden poetry in heightened language, whether in a Sondheim lyric or in Shakespeare’s verse. By hidden poetry, I mean the aural clues and cues embedded in the verse that help the actor release intention and communicate it with optimal clarity. Having consorted with the likes of Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein, musical theatre actors come to Shakespeare with a deep love and respect for language.

Joy Franz as Emilia and Susan Derry as Desdemona in OTHELLO directed by Lenny Leibowitz

Joy Franz as Emilia and Susan Derry as Desdemona in Othello

And Shakespeare’s characters adore language; they need it to reach out, to engage and connect with the world, and they choose their words brilliantly and passionately. This is why you can’t paraphrase Shakespeare, any more than you can paraphrase Cole Porter. The words that Shakespeare’s characters speak are vibrant intersections of thought, action, shape and sound. And musical theatre performers have the intuition and training to seize and own Shakespeare’s language with ardor, commitment, and command.

So, musical theatre performers, what’s holding you back? Seize the day, seize your unique talent, and let’s harness it in service of speaking some of the most glorious words ever written. Sign up for Shakespeare for the Working Actor today!

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