Conflicts and Resolutions: Musical Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet

Ahead of the Autumn 2022 Season of the Symphony Orchestra of India which features three widely regarded adaptations of the classic, a look at the historical context in which they were written, the norms they challenged and what emerged from the synthesis of Shakespeare with music.

The global reputation and prestige of William Shakespeare as a writer has worked actively against the dissemination of musical adaptations of his works. Although the famous Gooch and Thatcher catalogue of adaptations of Shakespeare’s works in various Western musical forms runs into five volumes, those that are still regularly performed can be counted on the fingers of one hand: a few operas and choral works by 19th- and 20th-century composers such as Hector Berlioz, Charles-François Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, Otto Nicolai, Giuseppe Verdi, Benjamin Britten, and in recent times, Thomas Adès and Brett Dean, a couple of musicals by Leonard Bernstein and Cole Porter, some song settings (such as Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen”, based on a song lyric from Cymbeline), and a few orchestral works and ballets, chief among them those by Felix Mendelssohn, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Edward Elgar, Antonín Dvorˇák, Jean Sibelius and Sergei Prokofiev, and the active repertory of musical adaptations of Shakespeare is more or less complete.

This is, to a considerable extent, due to the longstanding (and perhaps still prevalent) tendency to measure the success of any adaptation in terms of its “fidelity” to the original, which causes particular problems in the case of musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, since it takes much longer to sing words than to recite them. The aesthetic standards for evaluating any adaptation call for a thorough understanding of the medium in which the adaptation takes place, a requirement that was more or less missing from the history of criticism of Shakespeare adaptations till the last couple of decades or so, dominated as the field was by Anglophone literary scholars. Not surprisingly, musical adaptations of Shakespeare that eschewed the spoken word altogether—such as programmatic overtures and ballets—have had relatively better afterlives.

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the Shakespeare adaptations you are going to hear the SOI perform are orchestral works, although only one of them, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture (1869; revised 1870; final version 1880), is a purely orchestral composition. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (1935; revised 1940) is a ballet based on the Shakespearean plot, and therefore, has a vital visual/dance component, but it still does not involve any of Shakespeare’s words. Finally, West Side Story (1957), a Broadway musical created through the collaborative work of Jerome Robbins (concept), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Leonard Bernstein (music),1 is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set in New York of the 1950s. Through this change of setting, the musical’s creators were able to extricate themselves from expectations of full-scale “fidelity” to Shakespeare’s original. When Bernstein extracted a suite of symphonic dances that did not follow the action of the musical closely, he took away the music from its Shakespearean connections even further and brought it closer to the concert hall, as did Prokofiev through the suites he created from his ballet score.

Situating an adaptation in the immediate context of its creation provides the most immediately relevant starting point for analysis, and in the case of our three Romeo and Juliet adaptations, it takes us into histories of conflict and resolution. Tchaikovsky’s overture provides the first case in point. Following the establishment of the Russian Musical Society in 1859, which was devoted to the training of native musical talent, the world of “art” music in St. Petersburg was cloven between what could be called a cosmopolitan/nationalist divide. Under the leadership of Mily Balakirev, the Russian nationalists—perhaps the most brilliant group of autodidacts in the history of Western music—believed (at least for a while) in rejecting academic training in music along Western European lines, and instead sought to develop a specifically Russian tradition based on folk music.2 In contrast, an openly cosmopolitan musical environment was cultivated at the St. Petersburg conservatoire under the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose star pupil, Tchaikovsky, was destined to be Russia’s most popular composer to date.

Tchaikovsky’s stepping stone in that path towards musical immortality came, ironically, through his contact with Balakirev, who suggested Romeo and Juliet as the basis for a programmatic concert overture in 1869, and went on to offer Tchaikovsky guidance by correspondence till the first performance, in Moscow in March 1870, of what is now known as the first version of the overture.3  The premiere was not very successful but the work came to be greatly admired by the members of Balakirev’s circle, although everyone also felt the need for revisions. Balakirev offered specific feedback, but Tchaikovsky, now more confident and independent as a composer, accepted some of them and ignored others to produce the second version of the overture, which was first performed successfully in St. Petersburg in February 1872, with several performances following in Europe and the U.S. In 1880, Tchaikovsky made a final revision (mostly to the ending of the overture) to produce the final (third) version, first performed in 1886 in Tiflis (Tbilisi) under the baton of composer-conductor Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. It is this version that is now performed all over the world. It begins with a slow, gloomy introduction (which Tchaikovsky associated with Friar Lawrence), makes way for a furious theme of great rhythmic energy representing the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues. Then follows, by way of contrast, the overture’s glorious love theme, which Balakirev thought had a tinge of “Persian” exoticism,4 followed by a development and a recapitulation that brings back a melancholy version of the love theme, followed by a quiet, sombre segment that finally makes way for a rousing, angry conclusion. It was the musical strength of the Romeo and Juliet overture that eventually led to a rapprochement between Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, bringing the nationalist/cosmopolitan debate to an end. The overture, which Tchaikovsky thought was one of his best works, remains a perennial audience favourite.

Given the canonical status of Shakespeare’s play and of Tchaikovsky’s overture, it is surprising that Prokofiev, another prodigiously gifted Russian composer, wanted his ballet Romeo and Juliet to end on a happy note. In an autobiographical essay for the journal Sovetskaya muzïka (1941), Prokofiev wrote: “There was quite a fuss at the time about our attempts to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending—in the last act Romeo arrives a minute earlier, finds Juliet alive and everything ends well. The reasons for this bit of barbarism were purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying cannot. [. . .] Curiously enough whereas the report that Prokofiev was writing a ballet on the theme of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending was received quite calmly in London, our own Shakespeare scholars proved more papal than the pope and rushed to the defence of Shakespeare. But what really caused me to change my mind was a remark someone made to me about the ballet: “Strictly speaking your music does not express any real joy at the end.” That was quite true. After several conferences with the choreographers, it was found that the tragic ending could be expressed in dance, and in due course the music for that ending was written.”5

The insistence by Soviet-era Shakespeareans to retain Romeo and Juliet’s tragic ending tells us something about how the reception of Shakespeare in Russia changed over time. Alexander Sumarokov, whose Gamlet (1748; when transliterated from Russian, as the language does not have the ‘h’ sound) was one of the earliest Russian adaptations of a Shakespeare play, had a happy ending, as did Jean-François Ducis’s pioneering adaptation of the play for the French stage a few years later. Both of these 18th-century adaptations were products of French neoclassical aesthetics. In the following century, however, there was a strong reaction against French neoclassicism, led by Romantics from France and elsewhere, one of the consequences of which was the renewed veneration of the Shakespearean “originals” across Europe. This literary turn led Russians to develop a unique tradition of adaptation, in which adapters for the stage assumed knowledge of the literary source on the part of their audiences. They were, therefore, freed from the need to retell the plots of their source materials, and stage adaptations were often based on the principle of illustrating scenes from literary and theatrical classics.6 Such an approach made it possible for Mussorgsky to adapt Alexander Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov, and Prokofiev himself to adapt Tolstoy’s mammoth War and Peace, a novel that, under normal circumstances, would be enormously difficult to adapt for the operatic stage.

It was this specifically Russian tradition of adaptation, coupled with the popularity and prestige of Shakespeare’s play, that put paid to Prokofiev’s hopes of giving his ballet a happy ending. The refusal on the part of the Soviet authorities was all the more remarkable because the grounds for the alteration were, in fact, closely aligned to the political ideology of the Soviet Union under Stalin. As Sergei Radlov, the theatre director who worked in tandem with Prokofiev and the dramaturge Adrian Piotrovsky, put it, they read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as “a play about the struggle for love, about the struggle for the right to love by young, strong and progressive people battling against feudal traditions and feudal outlooks on marriage and family. This makes the entire play live, breathing struggle and passion as one—makes it, perhaps, the most “Komsomol-like” of all of Shakespeare’s plays.”7

As it turned out, the first version, which Prokofiev completed rapidly in 1935, soon after returning to his homeland for good, was put on hold, then rejected; and through a series of negotiations, revisions, political manoeuvrings and a premiere in 1938 in Brno (in what was then Czechoslovakia), Prokofiev’s ballet finally received its Russian premiere in 1940 at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known in the Soviet days). Unlike Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, over whose final version the composer exerted full control, Prokofiev’s final ballet score is the product of a number of compromises. Some of them involved practical modifications the composer made to the orchestration so that the dancers onstage could hear the music more clearly, while further changes were made at the behest of others. Romeo and Juliet, nevertheless, retains pride of place as one of Prokofiev’s most popular works. The composer preserved some of the music he originally conceived in the two orchestral suites he extracted from the ballet score, while what you are going to hear in this concert is an hour-long truncated version created from excerpts from the ballet score.

It is a testament to Shakespeare’s global appeal that a couple of decades after Prokofiev’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the same play was adapted in the U.S., the Soviet Union’s ideological adversary during the Cold War period, into a quintessentially American genre—the musical— with the setting drastically altered because of the adapters’ desire to address the fact that gang warfare in major cities in the U.S. had suddenly increased. Initially called East Side Story, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s play in a specifically American setting began in 1949, and was then revived by the same group of collaborators (Robbins, Laurents and Bernstein) in 1955, after which Sondheim joined the team. The Broadway premiere, which took place in 1957, was a huge success, running for over 700 performances, as was the 1961 film adaptation. Despite these successes, West Side Story proved to be Bernstein’s last success on Broadway, notwithstanding his hopes to contribute extensively to American music theatre. Why was that the case? There, too, lies a history of aesthetic conflict, one that did not have a resolution in Bernstein’s favour, at least during the great composer-conductor’s lifetime.

A quick word, however, regarding the plot of West Side Story and its relationship to the Symphonic Dances that Bernstein extracted from it for the concert hall. Set in Manhattan in New York, West Side Story is about the conflicts between two street gangs, the Jets (a white gang) and the Sharks (comprising Puerto Ricans). Tony, a member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. However, a conflict between the two gangs leads to Tony killing Bernardo and, in turn, getting killed by Chino, another member of the Sharks. Maria attempts to kill Chino, but fails, and the two warring groups unite at the end for a funeral procession for Tony.

This plot enabled Bernstein to make use of couleur locale in the form of Latin dance rhythms and jazz, in addition to using compositional devices from the Western “art” music tradition. In a lecture he gave at Brandeis University on 13th May 1952, Bernstein argued that Americans, who did not live in “a contemplative society,” were, nevertheless, open to difficult, modernist innovations in music, provided that they were justified by the extra-musical context.8 Such a route not only enabled Bernstein the composer to be the kind of modernist he wished to be, it also enabled him to bridge what was already, in the 1950s, an increasing gap between the classical and the popular. The Symphonic Dances is a masterly step in that direction, in which the nine sections, which follow each other without a break, are as follows:9

Prologue – a musical depiction of the growing rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks;

Somewhere – a dream ballet in which the Jets and the Sharks are united in friendship;

Scherzo – a continuation of the dream ballet, where the Jets and the Sharks escape from the city;

Mambo – a competitive dance at the gym between the gangs;

Cha-cha – the dreamy dance music accompanying the first meeting of Tony and Maria; 

Meeting Scene – music accompanying the first words the lovers speak to each other;

Cool Fugue – music depicting the Jets harnessing their impulsive hostility;

Rumble – the climactic gang battle that results in the deaths of two gang leaders at the end of Act 1 of the musical;

Finale – Maria’s song, “I have a love” is combined with “Somewhere.”

On the one hand, Bernstein develops motifs and intervals symphonically, most notably the augmented fourth or tritone,10 and which generally carries sinister connotations in Western “art” music. On the other, Bernstein makes use of dances like mambo and cha-cha, both of Cuban origin, presumably in order to give the music a “Latin” flavour. At the end of the Symphonic Dances, hope and despair come together in dramatically and musically apt fashion, as the ethereal C-flat major chord with which the piece ends is undercut by repeated F-naturals, forming an F-C flat tritone.

While West Side Story became a classic of Broadway, Bernstein’s own career as a composer gradually started making way for his conducting career—he had been appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic at around the same time as the musical’s premiere. The world of “art” music was gradually becoming dominated by proponents of 12-tone (or serial) composition and electronic music: the composer conductor Pierre Boulez, one of the post-war ringleaders of serialism, once even went to the extent of stating that he and Bernstein had no common meeting ground, musically speaking. The consequence of such a conflict between divergent notions of musical modernity was that Bernstein and other composers sharing a similar aesthetic, such as Aaron Copland, were forced to make composition a secondary activity and focus on conducting instead. Over time, the stranglehold of serialism faced reactions from other musical quarters, resulting in the music of Bernstein and his counterparts undergoing a renewed appreciation in concert halls all over the world. The present performance of the Symphonic Dances bears witness to this welcome change.

But all this history is on one side, and the actual pleasure—the jouissance of listening—is on the other. And I hope that listening to these three phenomenal pieces impels you to go look up more musical adaptations of Shakespeare, and to recognise the startling ways in which Shakespeare lives on in music.


For the orchestration of the Broadway score and the Symphonic Dances, Bernstein enlisted the help of two professional arrangers, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who worked under his close supervision.

The composers of this group whose works have entered the regular repertoire are Alexander Borodin (a professor of chemistry), Modest Mussorgsky (a civil servant) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (a naval officer), and, to a lesser extent, Balakirev (a mathematician by training), The compositions of the remaining member, César Cui (an expert on military fortifications), are now almost completely forgotten.

All dates in this article are according to the Gregorian calendar (N.S.). The Julian calendar (O.S.), which was followed in Russia till 1918, lagged behind the Gregorian calendar by 13 days.

Letter of 13th December, 1969 to Tchaikovsky, translated by, and quoted in Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 3 (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 409.

5 Translated by, and quoted in Simon Morrison, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37-38.

6 See Caryl Emerson, “Bakhtin and the Intergeneric Shift: The Case of Boris Godunov,” in Studies in 20th Century Literature, vol. 9, issue 1 (1984): 145-67; and the same author’s All the Same the Words Don’t Go Away: Essays on Authors, Heroes, Aesthetics, and Stage Adaptations from the Russian Tradition (Boston: Academic Studies, 2011).

7 Translated by, and quoted in Morrison, The People’s Artist, 35. Komsomol was a political youth organisation that was closely aligned ideologically with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

8 Barry Seldes, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 81.

9 These details are provided by Bernstein’s associate Jack Gottlieb in the Boosey and Hawkes edition of the full score of the Symphonic Dances.

10 For readers familiar with Indian music terminology, it is the sonic distance between sã and tīvra mã.

The SOI will present excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on 16th September and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet along with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story on 21st September at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre.

By Suddhaseel Sen. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the August 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.