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50 Years of Shakespeare in the Park

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One of New York’s great summer pleasures, the free Shakespeare in the Park at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, turns 50 this year. This season current artistic director Oskar Eustis has chosen to produce As You Like It and Into the Woods. “They’re both about people who flee the city, go off into the forest and discover great truths about themselves,” he says. “They are inspiring stories about the possibility of renewal.” Here he walks Julie Coe through a half-century of Shakespeare highlights.

June 18, 1962

The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott and James Earl Jones
“When the play was announced, the New York Board of Rabbis denounced the production, saying that a great public theater should not open with an anti-Semitic play, which then led to a big debate about ethnic hatred in The Merchant of Venice. It climaxed for us with [theater founder] Joe Papp revealing that he was Jewish, something he had hidden until that time.”


A musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona
“Even though it was Shakespeare, it was not just Shakespeare: It was Shakespeare with an awful lot of rock ’n’ roll music.”


James Earl Jones as King Lear
“Just a legendary performance around here. People still talk about the power that Jones had.”


Sam Waterston in Hamlet
“He went on to play 12 of Shakespeare’s great roles for [us] during his career. The fact that actors don’t just do a couple of shows, but come back to the Delacorte over the course of their whole careers, is such a beautiful thing.”


Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in The Taming of the Shrew
“If I could go back in time, this is what I’d see. I’ve seen little clips from it, and my God! It’s just so sexy, funny and bold.”


Denzel Washington as Richard III
“People still speak about this in hushed tones.”


A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Brazil, in Portuguese
“That’s affectionately known as ‘the naked Midsummer’—there were large sections when the performers had no clothes on. According to reports, they were the most beautiful human beings anybody had ever seen, and they attracted a very different audience to the park.”


“One night I saw it with the Clintons—Bill, Hillary and Chelsea—and watched Hillary singing along to every word of ‘Good Morning Starshine.’ It was a great night at the theater.”


Twelfth Night with Anne Hathaway
“That was her professional stage debut, which sort of shocks me. The whole production was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in the park.”


The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock
“Al’s performance had both a real heart and a muscular power, but also a sly sense of humor.”


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