Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietI just finished watching the 1968 film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  The play is by far the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and I believe it is the earliest effort in the genre of tragedy that we have from the Bard.  The story is ubiquitous, and I hardly can imagine a rock to turn over where you wouldn’t find someone familiar with at least the outline of the play.  Even if you weren’t familiar, it is a tragedy, and as such really does not have any huge surprises.  It will turn out badly, everyone will die in the end, and the audience only has to sit there and watch it all unfold.  There is no suspense, as in a melodrama, where things may possibly turn out good in the end, just maybe.  Shakespeare makes it clear in the prologue of the play that the star-crossed lovers will die in the end. 

Zeffirelli cast two unknown young actors in the lead of his movie, Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet.  It was a bit of a risk, to place such weight of the production on two young people under the age of 18.  It worked out brilliantly, as the film remains a classic version of the play even until this day.

Interview with Whiting and Hussey

Zeffirelli has to edit and interpret the play, because Franco cannot leave well enough alone.  The biggest diversion from the original that I see is in the ending of the play, where Romeo encounters Paris at the tomb of Juliet.  In the film version, Paris is absent at the end, and action is streamlined to Romeo encountering what he believes is a deceased Juliet.  With my musician’s ears, the most distracting part of the film is not the changes in the text of the play, but the sentimental love theme in the soundtrack.  I suppose the musical melody is good enough the first time, or first dozen times it is heard.  My problem is that it does not wear well, and by the end of the film it seems a distracting sentimental bit of mush that detracts from my enjoyment.  You can hear the melody I am referring to in the opening of the trailer to the film.

Trailer for Romeo and Juliet, 1968

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

I studied the Overture-Fantasia  to Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky for the brilliant orchestration, but my favorite musical setting of the play is the ballet version composed by Sergei Prokofiev (1892-1953).  I think it is because of the familiarity of the story that the play is ripe for a ballet setting.  The audience knows the action, even without the text, and can follow a long story with only music and dance.  Sergei Prokofiev composed music for a ballet in 1935, following a synopsis of the play written by Adrian Piotrovsky.  Originally they had substituted a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers, but further revisions restored the tragic ending.  The ballet languished unperformed for five years, only receiving its premiere in Leningrad in January of 1940.  

Prokofiev extracted three different orchestral suites from the complete ballet.  These suites are performed and recorded fairly regularly, and represent some of the composer’s most familiar music.   I think my musical brother Mike prefers Dmitri Shostakovich to Prokofiev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff to almost everyone, but certainly Prokofiev is one of the major Russian composers of the twentieth century.

Tchaikovsky, Overture-Fantasia to Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2

Bolshoi Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

12 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet

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  1. I saw this film years ago, and then purchased the DVD four years ago. It is wonderful, and the music is exquisite.

  2. Just skimmed this now, Rich, but I’m saving it to devour in detail later. I remember when this movie came out. In fact, my English class went on a field trip to see it. I remember a classmate sobbing in the ladies’ room.

  3. I prefer the Prokofiev version over the Tchaikovsky any day, but then I like Prokofiev better than Tchaikovsky anyway, being a fan of 20th century Russian music, particularly if we can include Stravinsky (Shostakovitch is currently playing on my computer as I write).

  4. Also noteworthy is Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette, a kind of choral symphony… very powerful in its own way. Then there is the Gounod opera… But I have always loved that Prokofiev ballet music…

  5. Gotta admit, I’m still a sucker for the theme of the Zefferelli film. And it’s the one of the few versions that gets the essential truth of Shakespeare’s play right—Romeo and Juliet are youngsters.

  6. Another vote for Prokofiev. I don’t think there’s any more ominous music than the dance of the courtiers — it’s ungainly and sounds like a walrus in a tutu, which should be farcical, but it’s not, it just makes you start to creep over the back of your seat in increasing alarm. At least me.

    I remember when the Zeffirelli movie was in the theaters, and every dip-brained babe in my high school graduating glass was gaga over it; you heard that sappy saccharine love theme everywhere. It was instant Muzak. I bet 101 strings had a recording before it was out of the theaters.

    If Branagh had filmed the play I’d have loved to hear what Patrick Doyle would have made of it.

  7. Yet another vote for Prokofiev’s ballet music. I don’t remember the film music and decided not to listen in case it was catchy and I didn’t like it. I do remember the film very well, though.

  8. This post was like revisiting my childhood! My mother was a huge fan of both Hussey and Whiting after seeing this film adaptation, so I am more than familiar with this score. Both Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky bring something special and sentimental, and I cannot think about this film without hearing that theme in the back of my mind. Great post!!

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