World Poetry Day: From Cats to Cabaret

World Poetry Day is a chance to remember the great poems that run like rivers through our lives. They’re in the lyrics of an Abba song and the rhyming couplets in a Shakespeare play. Without poems, there would be no West End Theatre. Poems can inspire entire shows, like Cats and The Wild Party. They can also shape great stage adaptations like the Canterbury Tales and The Waste Land. And they are the beating hearts of tragedies like Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet.

So, for World Poetry Day, we’ve picked some of theatre’s most poetic moments. We’ll look at the geniuses behind them, and how they make words sing.

Burn (Hamilton)

We should probably change Lin-Manuel Miranda’s middle name to Midas, because it seems everything he touches turns to gold. Not only is he a gifted screen actor (unforgettable as Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials and Jack in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns), he’s also the creative force behind Moana and the soon to be released screen musical In The Heights. On 12th May 2009, life changed forever for Lin-Manuel when he was asked to perform music from In the Heights at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word. Instead, he performed a song from a new musical he was working on called Hamilton. The rest is history. Lin’s fusing of poetry, rap and storytelling changed theatre forever. His poetry is both brutal and beautiful. You’ll find that blend, for example, in one of our favourite moments from the show, sung by Eliza in the song Burn.

You and your words flooded my senses
Your sentences left me defenceless
You built me palaces out of paragraphs
You built me cathedrals

Eliza Shuyler (Burn) – Hamilton

We can’t sum up Hamilton’s effect on theatre any better than rapper, actor and writer Common, who said:

“In every art form there are game changers. Artists whose unique voice and vision have a significant impact on the way we think and create…Simply put, [Hamilton is] one of the greatest pieces of art ever made.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name now joins the likes of Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown as one of American musical theatre’s greatest influencers.

I’m Still Hurting (The Last Five Years)

Jason Robert Brown’s name isn’t widely known outside theatre circles, but he’s written some of the most beautiful lyrics of the past few decades. Rather than tell you about his incredible shows, like Parade, The Bridges of Madison County and 13, we thought we’d let Ariana Grande speak for us through his lyrics:

Jamie is over and where can I turn?
Covered with scars I did nothing to earn
Maybe there’s somewhere a lesson to learn
But that wouldn’t change the fact
That wouldn’t speed the time
Once the foundation’s cracked
And I’m still hurting

Cathy (Still Hurting) – The Last Five Years

You Will Be Found (Dear Evan Hansen)

Sometimes we all need someone to pick us up and tell us everything’s going to be alright. World Poetry Day does that time and again through the feelings and emotion it evokes. The rhythms and rhymes of poetry can gently rock us to sleep, or take us away from our troubles. The creative phenomena of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul do that through the emotional power of words. The lyrics in shows like The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen reach deep into the soul. In the tough times, we keep coming back to the poetry in their songs:

Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found

Evan Hansen (You Will Be Found) – Dear Evan Hansen

Memory (Cats)

When Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he was writing a musical about singing cats, based on the poems of T S Eliot, many producers thought he’d lost the plot. However, it turned out to be a theatrical coup for a young producer who did believe – Cameron Mackintosh! Cats became one of the longest running musicals in West End and Broadway history. One of the show’s biggest hits, Memory, featured Elaine Paige (who stepped in to the role of Grizabella when Judi Dench injured herself before the show opened). Originally developed from Four Quartets, Memory quickly became the hardest song to remember for Elaine as rewrite after rewrite followed. Finally, Sir Trevor Nunn created the version we know in a single night, using lyrics of his own inspired by the Eliot poem ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’.

World Poetry Day: T S Eliot may not have had musical cats in mind when he wrote his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

Today, we know Thomas Stearns Eliot best for his poetry, but he he was no stranger to writing for the stage. His play The Cocktail Party won the 1950 Tony Award for Best Play. Yet still, it’s Memory that keeps his name at the tip of the tongue for most theatregoers – even if some of those words are Trevor Nunn’s!

The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.

The moon has lost her memory.

Excerpts from Rhapsody on a Windy Night by T S Eliot

The History Boys

The history boys we have in mind aren’t Alan Bennett’s…they’re Geoffrey Chaucer (c1340-1400) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616). While Chaucer may not have the legacy of dozens of famous plays, his is the earliest example of British entertainment many of us will encounter. Moreover, the storytelling tradition of the Canterbury Tales had a substantial impact on popular culture both in Chaucers day and for centuries afterwards. Saucy stories told by characters like The Miller and The Wife of Bath were the Carry On Films of medieval England. We’re surprised that Mischief Theatre hasn’t already made a West End Theatre version – sure that’s only a matter of time!

Now lat us ryde, and herkneth what I seye.” 
And with that word we ryden forth oure weye; 
And he bigan with right a myrie cheere
His tale anon, and seyde in this manére. 

Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsman is based on The Knight’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales. In the same way that Chaucer continues to shape modern storytelling, Shakespeare forever looms large over British drama. Shakespeare is still the world’s most produced playwright as well as one of its most enduring poets. Take away Shakespeare and Chaucer, and there is no World Poetry Day. From Shakespeare’s sonnets, comedies and tragedies, there are no words so beautiful as:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come; 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 
If this be error and upon me prov’d, 
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

The American Boys

Say “Kander & Ebb” and most of us will think of shows like Cabaret and Chicago, with great big show-stopping numbers. On the other hand, John Kander and Fred Ebb also wrote spellbinding songs that rely on far more subtlety. One of our absolute favourites comes from a show called Flora The Red Menace. It can easily hold it’s own against any great poetry. That’s down to Kander’s tender melody as much as Ebb’s intimate lyric. Indeed, when it comes to painting with words, less is often more. We can see that perfectly in the late, great Marin Mazzie’s performance of the song.

When you hold the world
In your trembling hand
You’d think you’d hear a choir sing
It’s a quiet thing

Flora (A Quiet Thing) – Flora The Red Menace

The legacy of American Lyricists is arguably even more influential upon the modern musical than that the legacy of their British counterparts. Where we Brits have Shakespeare and Tim Rice, America has lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Dorthy Fields and Stephen Sondheim. Fortunately, poetry isn’t a competition. Which is just as well really!

Mack The Knife (Threepenny Opera)

We can’t end without mentioning Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Brecht is a giant of 20th Century Theatre, and one of its most influential poets and playwrights. He wrote The Threepenny Opera with composer Kurt Weill way back in 1928. The show is a socialist commentary on capitalism so clearly, it’s not always a barrel of laughs. Even so, it transcended politics to become one of the most daring – and disturbing – pieces of music theatre of the past 100 years.

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight

Mack The Knife by Weill/Brecht – translated by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky

You’ll definitely know one of its biggest hits, which has been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Michael Bublé. Whereas you might not have seen the 2016 National Theatre version – so let’s put that right!

My Love, My Life (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again)

Unlike Weill and Brecht, ABBA had a more mainstream approach to musical theatre. Okay, so they might not be Shakespeare, but Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus’ ABBA’s lyrics (even the rewritten ones) have an uncanny power to move us to tears. That’s exactly what good poetry should do. Again, it’s often the simplest words that carry the greatest meaning.

Images passing by
Like reflections of your mind
My love, my life
Are the words I try to find
My love, my life

My Love, My Life – by Benny Anderson, Björn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson

So who is the greatest theatre poet? Sondheim? Jason Robert Brown? Or maybe someone else entirely – Tim Rice perhaps? We’d like to think that Shakespeare has a pretty good claim to first prize, but then Lin Manuel Miranda is still only 41 years old. So, who knows what’s coming next to the rich tapestry of poetry in theatre?

Last but not least, and while you decide who YOUR favourite poet is, see how well you know your lyrics! See how well you know your musicals by taking our 15 first lines from West End Musicals quiz!