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September 29, 2023

From Classic Storybook Ballet to High School Teen Comedy:
Homages and Adaptations of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Through the Years.

Elwince Magbitang as Puck in <em>The Dream</em>. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
Elwince Magbitang as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

Returning for a second year in a row, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream retells Shakespeare’s classic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through the scope of ballet—a mystical journey through the forest filled with fairies, mischief, and entanglements of the heart.  

The beloved Shakespeare tale has seen many transformations throughout time, transporting the characters from Ancient Greece to Victorian England and from the stage to screen and back again. Here are seven retellings of Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, ranging from 1980s rock operas to early 2000s teen comedies.  

Swingin’ the Dream (1939):
An almost-forgotten jazz and swing musical from the Golden Age of Broadway

With a stacked bill of America’s most famous Black artists at the time– including Louis Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, and Bud Freeman – the creators were ready for their jazz and swing rendition of Shakespeare’s comedy to be a great success. Also joining the impressive credits was Agnes de Mille, a renowned choreographer who choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, in addition to several ballets for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.  

Though there was incredible talent involved in the production, Swingin’ the Dream proved to be a complete flop. Premiering in 1939, the musical closed after only 13 performances, and no musical recording or complete copy of the script survived.  

The Dream (1964):
Frederick Ashton’s storybook ballet, returning for performances by American Ballet Theatre this Fall

Returning for ABT’s 2023 Fall season, Frederick Ashton’s retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream beguiles audiences as his lush, lively characters tangle themselves in love and mischief deep within a magical forest in Victorian England. This happy ode to the illusory nature of love is set to a spellbinding score by Felix Mendelssohn and arranged by John Lanchbery with sets and costumes by David Walker and lighting by John B. Read. 

Premiered by The Royal Ballet in 1964, Ashton’s ballet “contains some of the most delightful choreography—intricate, funny, plush, and, at times, extraordinarily sensual—ever made.” (The New Yorker 

Labyrinth (1986):
A 1980s cult classic homage with David Bowie

Described by The Atlantic as a “Bowie rock opera,” Jim Henson’s fantasy feature was received critically in 1986 – today, it’s a beloved cult classic. From the creator of the Muppets, Henson’s movie sees a 16-year-old Jennifer Connelly as Sarah exploring the winding labyrinth just like Shakespeare’s characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

At the heart of the fairytale Labyrinth is the Goblin King Jareth, played by the genre-defining David Bowie. Bowie is also credited for the synth-electronic score, which uses his iconic sound aesthetics to complement the movie’s surrealist tale of knights, monsters, and coming of age.  

The Sandman Issue #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1990):
Author Neil Gaiman’s DC Comic series turned hit Netflix

Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, Good Omens, and American Gods, created the celebrated DC Comic The Sandman alongside artists Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg, which ran for 75 issues from 1989-1996. The comic series centers around Dream of the Endless, who rules over the Realm of Dreams. His siblings, known as the Endless, take on other physical personifications such as Destiny, Desire, and Despair.  

The Sandman Issue #19 depicts the very first 16th century staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, formed in creative partnership with Dream. A core issue of the series, #19 received a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991. Now, The Sandman has been brought to life on the screen by Netflix as a television series, bringing in more than 1 billion minutes (about 1,901 and a half years) of viewing on the streaming service in its opening weekend.  

Mickey Mouse Works Episode #11 (1999):
Disney takes on the Shakespeare classic

Arguably the most popular cartoon character in history, Mickey Mouse stars in a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Disney’s popular cartoon, Mickey Mouse Works. Alongside Mickey are fellow members of the Clubhouse like Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck. Goofy predictably, and hilariously, plays Puck.  

Running from 1999-2001, this short-lived cartoon series was beloved by many audiences for its ode to the Golden Age of Disney. Each episode featured a series of shorts of varying lengths, using animation and art styles from the company’s 1950s cartoons. Mickey Mouse Works was later incorporated into House of Mouse, which continued to run until 2003.  

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999):
Michelle Pfeiffer and Stanley Tucci transport the tale to 19th century Tuscany

Among the handful of movie adaptations, Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream stands out for its star-studded cast and faithfulness to the original script. Despite relocating the tale from Ancient Greece to the 19th century Italian countryside, the 1999 film keeps its heart in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.  

Hoffman’s film was answered with a lukewarm critical reception, but it dazzles nonetheless with its gauzy romanticism and big-name celebrities playing leading roles. Michelle Pfeiffer is a stunning Titania; Christian Bale practices his ‘rich kid’ persona for The Dark Knight as Demetrius, and Stanely Tucci is a mischievous Puck. Though it was not lacking in celebrity, the film is often lumped in by critics with the high-volume of 1990s Shakespeare movie adaptations.  

Get Over It (2001):
Turning Shakespeare from high school curriculum into high school comedy

The late 1990s should be considered the era of classics-turned-high school flick: Clueless is a valley girl version of Jane Austen’s Emma; 10 Things I Hate About You adapts Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The high school students, who probably read these classic stories in their English classes, were now the characters of convoluted love stories and comedies of error.  

Get Over It, premiering in 2001, takes this trend into the new millennium with early 2000s starlet Kirsten Dunst. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play, the film spins A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a charming high school comedy where the students, entangled in their own drama, are involved in the school musical, A Midsummer Night’s Rockin’ Eve 

From stage to screen to page, each iteration of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a magical tale of whimsy and entanglements of the heart – continues to enchant audiences.  

The writer, Lucy Kudlinksi, is the ABT Press Intern for Fall 2023.