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About the Playwrights: Shakespeare in love

By Vanessa Hunt

Tom Stoppard, Marc Norman, and Lee Hall took very different paths to becoming part of the writing team for the theatrical play Shakespeare in Love. From Czechoslovakia, Los Angeles, and England, the three of them all had successful careers in the theatre before each left his mark on this play about the world’s most famous playwright.

Tom Stoppard

Academy Award winner Tomas Straussler, later known as Tom Stoppard, was born on July 3, 1937 in Czechoslovakia. In 1939, as the Nazis invaded his hometown, Stoppard and his family fled to Singapore where his father, a doctor, was reposted thanks to a town patron whose company worked to repost Jewish employees. Following the move to Singapore, Stoppard’s father sent him, along with Stoppard’s mother and brother, to Australia. Staying in Singapore to help the British defense, his father became a prisoner of war and reportedly drowned on a ship after it was bombed by Japanese forces.

Forced once again to flee, young Tomas and his family arrived in India where he attended an American multiracial school, and it was there that his name was changed from Tomas to Tom. Four years later, his mother married a British army major named Kenneth Stoppard, and Tom took on his stepfather’s last name. After the war ended, the family moved to England where he attended Dolphin School and finalized his education at Pocklington School. Stoppard never received a formal university education, which later became one of his greatest regrets.

At age seventeen, Stoppard began a job as a journalist at Western Daily Press. He worked there for four years until he was offered a job at the Bristol Evening World where he was a featured writer, humor columnist, and secondary drama critic. It was during this time that he was fully introduced to the world of theatre.

Starting his writing career with writing short plays for radio, Stoppard then delved into the world of playwrighting for the theatre in 1960 when he finished his first play, A Walk on the Water. It was televised in London, later retitled Enter a Free Man, and was produced onstage in 1968. His first widely recognized play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was written in 1964. However, it began as a one-act play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear. In 1967, this play was met with rave reviews as it played in Britain’s National Theatre circuit and became internationally known. As he continued to write, his work explored themes in surrealism and existentialism. Eventually, he expanded his work to include screenplays.

Stoppard’s credits span decades with works for the theatre such as Albert’s Bridge, Jumpers, Travesties, 15-Minute Hamlet, Night and Day, The Real Thing, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Hard Problem, and many others. His screenwriting credits include Brazil, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Anna Karenina, and Tulip Fever. Perhaps his most famous screenplay, though, is the Academy Award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love, which he worked on with screenwriter Marc Norman.

Marc Norman

Marc Norman was born on February 10, 1941 in Los Angeles, California. He received a master’s degree in English from the University of California Berkeley, and after graduation he decided to pursue a career in the entertainment field. He applied for jobs with different production companies before finally landing a job with Universal in their executive training program. This was a thankless job as he spent eight hours a day delivering mail around the studio. Upon hearing that television producer Roy Huggins was starting a new series, Norman approached him about working as a production assistant. While Huggins turned him down for the job, he told Norman that he needed story ideas. Norman took the opportunity, and Huggins eventually bought one of the ideas that Norman presented. Universal then promoted Norman to the position of casting director, although he was unhappy in this position as well. He worked with the studio for years until his desire to write became too great. For five years, he wrote rewrites for television scripts and then moved on to writing features (Frederic T. Dray, www.writersstore.com/from-mailroom-to-oscar-winner-marc-norman/).

Finally, Norman had a breakthrough with his writing as he developed the idea of Shakespeare starting a theatre company. This is where Shakespeare in Love found its beginnings. It took nine months of research and three months of actual writing before the script was finished. In 1991, Universal purchased the script. Edward Zwick was set to direct the film, but he didn’t like what Norman had written and brought on famed writer Tom Stoppard to do a rewrite and improve upon Norman’s script. Just weeks before production was to begin in 1992, Julia Roberts, who was set to star in the film, left the project because a suitable Shakespearean-level actor could not be found for the lead. After Roberts left, the project was put on hold. In 1997, Universal sold the rights to the script, and Harvey Weinstein agreed to make the film (Dray, www.writersstore.com). With Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes set to star, the project was completed and Norman, along with co-writer Tom Stoppard, found themselves at the Academy Awards accepting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Lee Hall

Years after the success of the film version of Shakespeare in Love, playwright Lee Hall adapted the screenplay for the theatre. Hall was born on September 20, 1966 in Newcastle-upon-Tyre, Northumberland. The son of a house painter/decorator and a home maker, Hall received his education at Benfield Comprehensive School. Later, he studied English literature at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and was taught by poet Paul Muldoon.

Before beginning his career as a playwright, Hall worked as a youth theatre fundraiser in London. His career as a writer began in 1997 when he wrote a radio play called Spoonface Steinberg, which premiered on BBC Radio.

Controversy surrounded Hall’s career in 1999 when a children’s opera that he had written called Beached premiered. It was commissioned by Opera North and was to be performed by children at the Bay Primary School. Due to the story centering around a gay character, the school threatened to cancel the production unless changes were made to the script. To keep the show in production, Hall agreed to change certain words in the script that referenced the character being gay (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Hall_(playwright)).

The most notably successful work to Hall’s name is the 1999 movie Billy Elliot, which he wrote the screenplay for and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Following the success of the film, Hall adapted the screenplay for the stage, turning the show into a musical. The music for the production was written by Elton John, with Hall writing the lyrics. In 2009, the show won Best Book of a Musical at the Tony Awards.

Hall’s additional credits include the screenplays for Pride and Prejudice, The Wind in the Willows, Toast, War Horse, and Victoria and Abdul, along with the plays I Luv You Jimmy Spud, Cooking with Elvis, Two’s Company, The Pitmen Painters, and Shakespeare in Love.

The adaptation for Shakespeare in Love came about when Hall met with West End producer Sonia Friedman. In a meeting with Friedman, Hall learned that she was working on bringing the award-winning film to the stage. He told her he would love to be a part of the process, and two weeks later he received a phone call from Friedman who said that she had spoken with Tom Stoppard and they had agreed they wanted Hall to do the adaptation (Jim Hill, www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-hill/lee-hall-compares-transla_b_5649657.html). The play opened in July 2014 in London at the Noel Coward Theatre.

In 2016, it played to sold out audiences at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. As the play continues to reach a broader audience, it will make its United States debut in 2017 in three theatres, including the Engelstad Theatre during the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 summer season.

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