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Get to Know the Territory: Musicals Based on Public Domain Works

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The following is a guest post by Marilyn Creswell, the 2020–2021 Librarian-in-Residence at the U.S. Copyright Office.

Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs inspired by the public domain? It’s been a couple of hard-knock years, when real life felt more like fiction each day, but we’ve got a wonderful feeling that most things are settling into a new normal. Often Broadway musicals are totally original works, based on historical archives or adaptations of copyright-protected works. These blockbusters, however, all directly take (and they take, and they take) inspiration from works that were in the public domain when they had their Broadway debuts. In fact, Broadway musicals have a long tradition of pulling inspiration from the public domain. They’re inspired by different types of works: plays, short stories, operas, novels, and traditional stories, but all find ways to help their origins be remembered for forever. I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind, that I put down in words just five of the best musicals, with many cheerful facts, that pull inspiration from the public domain.

1. West Side Story – Romeo and Juliet

West Side Story made its Broadway debut in 1957,1 but its inspiration was William Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, which was first published in a 1597 quarto.2 The feuding houses of Montague and Capulet are reimagined in the rival gangs of the Sharks and Jets, the Italian city of Verona is supplanted by the Upper West Side of New York City, and of course, Romeo and Juliet are recast as Tony and Maria. West Side Story has markedly less thumb biting and much more snapping, but the trope and tragedy of star-crossed lovers resonate with historical and modern audiences.

Other plays from the public domain that inspired Broadway shows include The Taming of the Shrew (Kiss Me, Kate), Mozart and Salieri (Amadeus), and Spring Awakening (Spring Awakening).

2. Fiddler on the Roof – Tevye the Dairyman

Sholem Aleichem created the protagonist and narrator, Tevye the Dairyman, in a series of stories written between 1894 and 1916.3 Aleichem also created a stage adaption of the stories, which was produced after his death by Maurice Schwartz; Schwartz went on to direct and star in the film adaptation, Tevya (1939).4 Fiddler on the Roof was based on these stories and Arnold Perl’s musical TV movie titled Tevye and His Daughters (1962).5 Each of Aleichem’s stories centers around the problem of marrying off a daughter without a dowry,6 but you have to see the 1964 masterpiece to enjoy the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”

Other public domain stories that inspired a Broadway show are Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales (Into the Woods) and The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance, which was published beginning in 1846 as a penny dreadful serial that was adapted into plays and films, and eventually the musical Sweeney Todd.

Two actors in the foreground, singing and gesturing toward each other. Two groups of actors in the background sitting at tables together. In the middle of the background, a figure plays a stringed instrument.
2018 premiere performance of the musical Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Photo credit: Shutterstock/lev radin

3. RENT – La Bohème

One hundred years after the premiere of La Bohème in Turin, Italy, RENT had its off-Broadway debut.7 “La Vie Bohème” isn’t the only reference RENT makes to the original Puccini opera. They both follow struggling artists in a metropolis. Mimì the seamstress (or in RENT, Mimi the dancer) asks Rodolfo the poet (Roger the songwriter) to light her candle; both songs end with the (translated) words “They call me Mimi.” Instead of tuberculosis, Mimi, and others in RENT, has AIDS. It doesn’t matter if you prefer “Musetta’s Waltz” or the “Tango: Maureen,”8 you have to watch to the end of both to know if endings are the same.

Other operas in the public domain that inspired Broadway shows include Mozart and Salieri (Amadeus), Madame Butterfly (Miss Saigon), and Aida (Aida).

Night time image of the marquee at the Nederlander Theatre showcasing RENT.
The marquee at the Nederlander Theatre, the Broadway home of RENT. Photo credit: Shutterstock/jennifer leigh selig

4. Les Misérables – Les Misérables

Another famous author’s work made it to the Broadway stage: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Hugo was the son of one of Napoleon’s generals, and he grew up following the imperial army. In 1832, Victor Hugo heard gunshots and joined the unruly funeral procession of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, which triggered the Parisian June Rebellion: the context of Les Mis.9 Hugo’s politics led him to live in exile from the 1851 coup d’état until 1871. He began working on Les Mis before his exile and published it in 1862 while living on the island of Guernsey.10

Without a doubt, Hugo’s immersion and interest in France’s political events shaped his telling of the novel, which was an immediate success. For his risky writing, Victor Hugo received the highest price ever paid for a work of literature: about $3.8 million in today’s dollars for the rights to publish it for eight years.11 At the end of the first day, 6,000 copies were sold in Paris, and the work was quickly published and distributed internationally. Despite the threat of Louis-Napoleon impounding and censoring the book in France, crowds lined up for it. With about sixty-five film versions, this novel is also the most frequently adapted novel of all time.12 Today the threat has subsided, but the long lines continue in theaters worldwide (when there isn’t a pandemic).

Other novels in the public domain that inspired Broadway shows include Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (Phantom of the Opera), Don Quixote (Man of La Mancha), The Secret Garden (The Secret Garden), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (The Wiz).

An old book is open to the title page, which says, “Library of Classics, Les Misérables, Vol. 1, by Victor Hugo”
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Photo credit: Shutterstock/olesea vetrila

5. Hadestown – Greek Mythology

As the Greek’s first poet, the son of the muse of poetry, and the inventor of the lyre,13 it might have been fate that Orpheus would become the leading man in Hadestown. Eurydice traditionally dies of a snakebite, but in the musical, Eurydice is drawn to industrial Hadestown by the promise of security offered by Mister Hades.14 In both works, Orpheus uses his music to strike a deal with Hades: Eurydice can return if Orpheus does not look back at her until they reach the upper world. Audiences less familiar with the myth’s origins rely on the narration by Hermes,15 the Greek messenger of the gods, conductor of souls to the afterlife, and patron of music.16 Hadestown weaves in political, economic, and environmental themes but leaves out the ending of Orpheus’ decapitated head floating, singing to the island of Lesbos.

Other longstanding cultural stories that inspired Broadway shows include Bereshit, also known as the Book of Genesis (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), the Gospel accounts (Jesus Christ Superstar), and Arthurian legends (Spamalot).

NYC high-rise buildings in the background. In the middle of the image, a marquee is lit up. It says “The Walter Kerr Theatre” and shows the branding for the musical HADESTOWN.
The marquee at The Walter Kerr Theatre, the Broadway home of the musical Hadestown.

The public domain is good, isn’t it? Grand, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? Swell, isn’t it? Fun, isn’t it? Whatever makes you move, move, enjoy these inspiring public domain works for what they are, for what they were meant to be. Or you can use them as tools to build a new work; once you have these works in your head, you can make a million different musicals by mixing them up. What will you come up with? And just to clear the air, I ask forgiveness for the references and puns you blame me for. I can’t regret what I did for the love of the public domain.17





4 Schwartz’s 1919 play and movie:; it being Aleichem’s









13 From the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece by Nigel Rodgers




17 Theater buffs may have identified the references to song lyrics in the opening and closing paragraphs of this blog post, including The Music Man, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (Les Misérables), “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” (Annie), “Rent” (RENT), “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” (Oklahoma!), “Wait for It” (Hamilton), “Tradition” (Fiddler on the Roof), “For Forever” (Dear Evan Hansen), “Your Song” (Moulin Rouge!), Pirates of Penzance, “Nowadays” (Chicago), “Move” (Dreamgirls), “Take Me or Leave Me” (RENT), “Do-Re-Mi” (The Sound of Music), “Defying Gravity” (Wicked), and “What I Did for Love” (A Chorus Line).

Comments (4)

  1. I find it hard to believe (and difficult to prove) that “Les Miserables” is ” the most frequently adapted novel of all time.” Right off the top of my head, I would bet “Dracula” “Frankenstein” “the Count of Monte Cristo” “The three Musketeers” and “Tarzan of the Apes” would all beat it, especially if you count films that use those books’ characters, if not directly adapting the plot of the novel.

  2. What a fun article. Isn’t it inspiring that the public domain is available as a resource for us all to draw on? We may not make it to Broadway this year but there is plenty of good material to keep us entertained and educated.

  3. Great post!

  4. I just loved this article. Especially all he references to French authors. I have read all the French classics you cited (I majored in French). Victor Hugo wrote enough books and plays to keep Broadway busy for 100 years. I still haven’t finished reading Notre-Dame de Paris. I am still reading Le Comte de Monte-Cristo! The next book on my list is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sear, by Jules Verne. All these books were chosen by my French book club. I’ve read them all, but it is nice to read them again, especially when I don’t have to write a paper about them!

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