‘Fat Ham’: Broadway’s latest take on ‘Hamlet’ joins a long list

James Ijames Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham,” which opened to strong reviews on Broadway April 12 after a SRO engagement at the Public Theater, is the latest reinvention of a Shakespeare play. A strong contender for multiple Tony nominations is set at a Southern cookout where a queer black college student named Juicy (Marcel Spears) is dealing with a lot of issues including identity, the ghost of his dead father and the fact that his mother recently married his uncle.

“I have this need to disrupt the canon as much as I can, and disrupt people’s deification and lionization of classical texts…as if they’re frozen in amber and all we can do is put a treatment on top of that like wallpaper, by setting it in the ‘20s,” Ijames told Playbill. “There’s this real desire in me to take the parts of the classics and bring them closer to me in the way that people look, in the way people speak.”

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“Fat Ham” is just the latest reimagining of the Bard’s tragedy of the Melancholy Bard.

Janet McTeer received a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Sarah Bernhardt in Theresa Rebeck’s 2018 play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a comedy/drama set in 1897, Now in her mid-50s, she’s too old to play Ophelia and isn’t ready to tackle Gertrude.  So why not Hamlet? Said the New York Times: “The gender crisis even then, ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ suggests, was not about femaleness but maleness. What’s wrong with men that they can’t tolerate strong women?”

There’s little known about the 1908-1909 musical comedy “Mr. Hamlet of Broadway.” But it ran 54 performances; Ben M. Jerome wrote the music; Edgar Smith penned the book; and Edward Madden wrote the lyrics. The famed Eddie Foy, patriarch of the Seven Little Foys, starred.  Songs included “The Dusky Salome.”

To play “Hamlet” or not to play “Hamlet” that was the question in Paul Rudnick’s 1991 “I Hate Hamlet” which finds a popular TV star (Evan Handler) living in John Barrymore’s old New York apartment grappling with the prospect of playing the role he hates. The New York Times described it as “unapologetically silly and at times hilarious tale.” Barrymore, who played a legendary Hamlet in 1922-23 and died in 1942, “come back from the grave to give his young would-be successor instructions in Shakespearean acting, not to mention life and love.” Barrymore was played by the mercurial Nicol Williamson who once admitted he drank to excess and smoked 80 cigarettes a day. He was no stranger to the Bard, earning acclaim on Broadway in 1969 as Hamlet.

There was a lot of drama revolving around Williamson.  In fact, Handler left the stage, gave notice and walked out of the theater near the end of the first act during one performance. The New York Times reported: “Mr. Handler’s unplanned departure came after a dueling scene with Nicol Williamson, the play’s star, who apparently ignored the choreography and struck Mr. Handler on the back with the flat part of his sword. The unrehearsed exit came after weeks of erratic behavior by Mr. Williamson that has disrupted the ‘Hamlet’ company both on stage and off.”  Five years later, Williamson made his last appearance on Broadway playing Barrymore in “Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore.” It lasted 12 performances.

The musical “Rockabye Hamlet” with music, lyrics and book by Cliff Jones directed and co-choreographed by the legendary Gower Champion opened Feb. 17, 1976 and was history after seven performances. The New York Times described the rock musical as a “pungent mixture of the flashy and the vulgar not all the flashiness is bad, but precious little of the vulgarity is good.” Though Jones’ only other credit was 1994’s “Lamb Chop on Broadway,” several members of the cast went on to bigger and better things including Larry Marshall, Beverly D’Angelo and Meat Loaf.

Tom Stoppard has turned “Hamlet” on its ear three times beginning with his landmark 1967 play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which flips the action away from Hamlet to  concentrate on two minor characters from the Bard’s play.  He’s also written two short plays: 1976’s “Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s MacBeth” and 1992’s aptly title “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet” which is paired with “The Real Inspector Hound.”

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