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Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet

The most frequently excerpted moment of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) is the iconic, prefiguring, and non-Shakespearean song from Act 1 scene 5, “What Is a Youth,” composed by Nino Rota, with lyrics by Eugene Walter. Designed by Zeffirelli as a diegetic moment that extends the masquerade ball at the Capulets’ while allowing the viewing audience to both hear a love song and see one unfolding, the song subsequently permeates the film’s fabric as a thematic identifier for the tragic lovers. The song was released as part of the film’s soundtrack and also generated more than 190 musical covers over the next fifty-plus years, 31 of them from within the first year after the film’s release.1 Some of these covers arranged Rota’s song directly, but many more drew on Henry Mancini’s 1969 adaptation, which eliminated the pavane-like middle section of the film version with its neo-Elizabethan qualities in favor of a shorter (and heavily sequential) middle section. Mancini’s top-of-charts favorite soon inspired new lyrics, penned by Larry Kusik and Eddie Snyder, the broadly distributed “A Time for Us.” Frequently branded by the film’s title as “Theme [or Love Theme] from Romeo and Juliet” rather than by either set of lyrics, the musical covers themselves have had an active after-life on YouTube, where they frequently appear, with or without license, on multiple channels, often from different continents. Cumulatively, covers of the iconic song have accumulated more than 100 million views on YouTube alone, not counting playtime on Spotify, Pandora or Amazon Music. As of July 2022, André Rieu’s cover has had 16,924,594 views, and Richard Clayderman’s cover can be found on eighteen different channels, three of which boast more than five million views apiece.2 Luke Kennedy may have consciously exploited this popularity, for he (successfully) used the song in 2013 as his blind audition for The Voice Australia season 2, and used it again as the title song for his first album later that same year. (A listing of YouTube examples by channel owner in the order of discussion can be found as appendix A.)

Musical covers, the response by one artist to the work of another, draw shared material into new perspective through allusion and through a network of contextual cues. One of the guiding rules of creating a cover is for the work to be recognizable, but also to be recognizably different. Peter Nero’s pop piano arrangement of Rota’s work with its reinforcing choir on the middle sections, or the improvisation-informed cover by guitarists George Benson and Earl Klugh, or the melodic ornaments added to the alto sax and piano rendition by Hiroko Yamakawa each create a new sound and a new interpretation of the venerable cover. Film scholar Jeff Smith saw a primarily financial motivation behind such arrangements and argued in the 1990s in The Sounds of Commerce that covers work to “[f]ree the score from its immediate filmic context¼ by commodifying it and reinscribing it in alternative marketplaces” (26–7). As he notes, “releasing multiple versions of the song ¼ not only enhanced the tune’s licensing revenues but also its chances for radio airplay and overall record sales” (60). The late dates of YouTube postings for “What Is a Youth,” however, calls that financial argument into question for more recent instantiations; on average, thirty-one years separate a performance from its upload onto a particular YouTube channel. Individual covers have demonstrably inspired YouTube’s creative contributors in ways that extend far beyond the financial commodification that drove the first generation of covers. What then drives this ongoing creation of covers and their YouTube instantiations?

Media studies scholar George Plasketes has theorized that the last fifty years have focused on such artistic recycling for any of a number of reasons: “the historical context, apprenticeship, homage, empathy, adaptation, translation, interpretation, preservation, revitalization, and the value of exposing songwriters, their songs and styles, old and new, to an audience” (149). As he sees it, creative work has functioned at its best through re-visioning of the familiar, or as he puts it, through the “trigger of memory residue” (159). Plasketes speaks of nostalgia, familiarity, and the “illusion of fresh” (138, 146, 147), descriptors which apply equally well to “What Is a Youth” and its many musical progeny. Moreover, to explain the transmutation from cover song to YouTube video—what we will call “instantiations”—we might invoke what Fabian Holt characterized a decade ago as “the video turn in music.” In a YouTube environment, the channel owner or other creative agent must decide what to include within the video space, for audiences and creators alike appear to be drawn to the multi-media sensory opportunities of song or instrumental number combined with novel video. Holt predicted the involvement of professionals in video production, but subsequent experience has instead emphasized a participatory culture of user-created materials (Burgess and Green, Chapter 1; O’Neill 12, 38–40; Boxman-Shabtai, 4). These YouTube materials can range from the simple—an image of the album cover—to the complex, with multi-camera shots and a stitched-together narrative.

Both the creation of the musical cover—the musical materials, the arrangement, the sounding art, whether vocal or instrumental—and the instantiation of that arrangement as video bear a complicated relationship to inspiration as a concept. Yet one of the ambiguities in this repertoire is the placement of intellectual debt. Was a singer inspired directly by the film, or by the many pop radio versions of “A Time for Us”? If the latter, was she conscious of Walter’s original words and his pavane-like middle section? Of the placement of the song within the film? Of the Shakespearean framework it was designed to inhabit? Or did she borrow the song with its so-familiar harmonies directly from, say, one of the 29 covers that came out in 1969, the year following the film’s debut? Given the ephemeral nature of song creation, particularly when arrangements and covers are included, it may be impossible to tell what sparked a given arrangement or performance. So too, for the video’s creator. Was it the song in isolation, or a memory of the tune in Zeffirelli’s visually rich evocation of the unfolding masquerade, or the Shakespearean context of the story that was the spark for creative imagination? We may have little by which to judge a specific cover’s “family tree,” but we know even less about most YouTube instantiations. Instead, we must judge both song and instance by their content. For this purpose, it helps to consider the signals they use to convey meaning to the viewership, and in particular, their signposts to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Many of the creators who have used and repurposed Rota's song or its many spin-offs were responding, at least in part, to an iconic moment in cinema. Although the lyrics of the song were newly created for the film, they are situated within the familiar surroundings of the Capulet ball, with visual action standing in for such elements as Capulet’s call to the musicians to play, or directions to the “knaves” to “turn the tables up.” In Zeffirelli's shaping, the scene focuses on two events: the dance – here a moresca – and the shared sonnet of the lovers’ first kiss. He drops more than half of the text of the scene, retaining only ten lines of the exchange between Tybalt and Capulet regarding Romeo's presence, for instance, and even those are rearranged. This is characteristic of the film as a whole, of course; Maurice Hindle (173) calculates that in the film, Zeffirelli retains only 30% of Shakespeare's lines, substituting close-ups, rapid cutting, and pan shots to tell the story. Costas Constandinides agrees, arguing that this simplification was part of Zeffirelli’s strategy to market Shakespeare to a younger audience. But such simplification also brings the audience’s focused attention to this musically and dramatically generative scene, where the lovers first meet, and where they will undertake the verbal play and hand-play that will prompt the unfolding story of young but forbidden love.

We join the central element of this scene visually with Romeo peering down the hallway of lit torches, and hear, as he does, the call to dance. We follow the dance with its archaicizing instrumental ensemble – a reinforcement of the period elements of costume and choreography. Its alternation of whirl and spotlight guide us to notice the intersections of Romeo and Juliet, each as yet unknown to one another. And then, with a happy shout, the dance ends, and the scene gives way to an element Zeffirelli had newly crafted for the film: the gathering of the happy attendees into a circle for Leonardo’s song. The (diegetic) singer will be centered, drawing the crowd’s attention, while Romeo pursues a conversation and a connection to the young dancer who has already overtaken his heart.

Scholars such as Kenneth Rothwell (328) and Tom Schneller (51) have made much of the neo-Elizabethan devices of the song such as its modal melody and its dance-like middle section, and Robert Shaughnessy (184) believes that this familiarity is integrally linked to the song’s success. As he puts it, “It is this second-hand, already-heard quality which accounts for the theme’s effectiveness.” As the song unfolds, the first stanza gives visual weighting to the singer and the crowd’s response to his song. As we move to the pavane-like mid-section, we become visually distracted as Romeo and Juliet seek one another among the crowd. Not until the flute and then singer conclude their reprise of the opening section do the two lovers finally make contact. Russell Jackson’s analysis (204) in particular explores the shift to a non-diegetic presence for the familiar music that occurs at that point, noting the replacement of the neo-Elizabethan scoring with a more “symphonic orchestration” as a mechanism that “underscore[es] the lovers’ emotional experience,” and Richard Dyer's biography of Nino Rota (90–1) amplifies this assessment. It is during this more modern (and non-verbal) development of the tune and its fragments and snippets in juxtaposition with one another that we get the hand-play at the pillars and hear the lovers’ dialog-in-sonnet-form that establishes a substructure for the scene. The build-up culminates in the swelling, romantic string statement of the theme’s first section which underscores the lover’s kiss, and Rota and Zeffirelli let us dwell a moment in this lush cliché before we shift back to the diegetic singer, echoing his final lines: “A rose will bloom; it then will fade / So does a youth, so does a fairest maid.” But we didn’t really need this return to the world of lyrics; in subsequent scenes in the film, the tune becomes a leitmotiv for the lovers. The non-diegetic portions of this scene prepare the audience mentally to understand the instrumental reworkings of the melody in other scenes of the film through the context of this verbal foreshadowing. As Shaughnessy (187), aware of the song’s extended “reverberations” in a broad array of covers and contexts reminds us, “Shakespeare may be left without words but, possibly without knowing where they come from, we continue to hum the tunes.”

As they create instantiations of the Rota song or its many progeny, channel owners position their work culturally through the same array of mechanisms that are the hallmark of YouTube originality. As Angel Zhang has demonstrated in a study of YouTube metrics, the balance of static content (such as keywords and license information) with video creativity gives us tools to understand how the individual channel creator(s) thought a particular work would best resonate with its target audience. Nearly all the covers examined here provide static content that links a particular instantiation to Shakespeare, to Romeo and Juliet, and/or to the song title, whether it be “What Is a Youth” or “A Time for Us.” This makes sense, since indexing and keywords are integral to song retrieval on the ever-ballooning collection of songs both present and past. Perhaps less obviously, many of the covers for “What Is a Youth” are also “Shakespearean” in a non‑textual way, much like the advertisements that Douglas Lanier assesses in “Post‑Textual Shakespeare.” As Lanier says for his advertisements, “The challenge posed by these ads is that there is not a single word from Shakespeare’s text in either example, despite the fact that they depend for their effect on being identified as ‘Shakespearian’” (145). So too for these freshly‑texted or instrument‑only arrangements, channel owners find an appropriate audience by relying on signals of linkage to the “Shakespearean” elements—title and description, implicit or explicit song‑text, stylistic cues, and video elements. In particular, many creators build out a kind of Shakespearean-ness that accretes through an array of direct and indirect visual cues and through association with the Romeo and Juliet plot (or at least our memory of it). In essence, these YouTube creators, like Lanier’s ad campaign designers, seem to believe that the visual and auditory articulation of a carefully chosen set of commonplaces can stand successfully in lieu of Shakespeare’s words in ways pleasing to an audience. We think of that process as signposting.

Signposts give information such as direction and distance to a point of reference—to a place if using road signs, or a marker of what will (or should) happen in the future if using written forms. We are all familiar with signposts of a literary nature, ones that identify the significant elements in an argument or clarify the sequence or direction of an argument. First, furthermore, in addition, consequently, moreover: verbal signals in writing help the reader to navigate the unfolding prose. In a similar way, cultural signposts help us navigate the relationships between created objects. Allusion, citation, borrowing, and homage all signal the ties between one cultural object and another. These references are typically hierarchical, a nod from the creator of one object toward a more broadly recognized cultural touchstone they had in mind. The reason for that hierarchical positioning is obvious: a reference to a minor work of literature might not be recognized by an audience, but a reference to a beloved play by a cultural hero is likely to elicit the audience’s knowing nod. Signposting is a relational act, the establishment of a claim to connection, the drawing to attention the subtle interconnectedness of two independent objects. The creator, the person forging this linkage, has many possible tools to command, ranging from textual to visual to contextual. Done well, signposting results in the “ah-ha” moment of recognition on the part of the audience member: viewer, listener, or browser of materials. The connection draws into relief the intelligent consumption of cultural objects and the skilled remembrances that the viewer brings to bear.

In the context of YouTube instantiations of “What Is a Youth,” we can see the cover itself as an adaptation—a “translation” of the cultural object—the diegetic song of a famous film transmuted now into song or instrumental arrangement. The signpost is a clue to how that translation is supposed to be received. Such work is done by what YouTube identifies as “content creators,” mostly fans and participants – what Lillian Boxman-Shabtai would call “passionate practitioners.” Working through pastiche and montage, these amateur artists become agents of who select and deploy images, video clips, or newly-filmed videos that they deem appropriate to the setting, matching the mood and material of their visual display to the time-determining musical arrangement they have selected as their basis. For the complex of covers surrounding Rota’s famous tune, such creators prove to be a global network, affiliated through an interest in a common tune, and often through a shared practice of signposting. Christopher Cayari (14) has suggested that there may be an element of reputational piggybacking in this kind of approach, for he notes that tying a creative offering to a more famous and established work, the junior member of the two is likely to reap reputational benefits in the form of views and, perhaps, likes, the two-part currency of social media success.

A number of artists choose to situate their YouTube instantiations as historically positioned, opting for an archaic look or feel. They might select an older-looking font on the title slide, for instance. The pseudonymous Mytokar uses a Vivaldi font for the Andy Williams cover with its looping script-like letters. (A list of the YouTube videos discussed—with channel owner, date, view count, geographical region, and choice of musical cover—is provided as Appendix A.) Similarly, Robert Silvestri employs a white font on the title slide for the Johnny Mathis cover that adopts the curly-cues and italic presentation of the baroque script font. And Saskia Kusrahadianti, who identifies herself on YouTube with the moniker ScheherazadEify, incorporates Beowulf Modern, a font that includes double-interlocked “V’s” for the “W” of “What Is a Youth” and emulates the mixture of thick and thin strokes common to pen writing. (These font choices are illustrated in Example 1.) What matters isn’t so much the specific details of a Shakespearean typography, but rather the visual gesture toward the past.

Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and 
the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet
Cynthia J. Cyrus*, Aileen T. Lorge, Schyler J. Rowland, Gabriel Rodriguez Esperon
, Literature Film Quarterly
EXAMPLE 1: Archaicizing Font Choices in cover repertoire of What Is a Youth. [My thanks to Jeanette Murgatroyd and Nozomi Teshima Leung of the “What font is this” Facebook group for assistance identifying specific fonts.]

1a. Vivaldi font: Andy Williams/mytokar (Jan 31, 2008), https://youtu.be/sRnx-s1TQbU

1b. Baroque script font: Johnny Mathis/Robert Silvestri (Feb 25, 2012), https://youtu.be/DeTxBzF5vpE

1c. Beowulf Modern font: Saskia Kusrahadianti/ScheherazadEify (May 25, 2012), https://youtu.be/FQzbJmyP1_I

Non-verbal visual elements can also combine to help create such historicizing signposting. The Anastasia Lee and Mireya Derksen cover begins with an elaborate script-font for the title sequence, superimposed first over Romeo and Juliet on the Balcony by Julius Kronberg of 1886 and then over Romeo and Juliet by Heinrich von Angeli from 1871—centering the music within the context of pointed images from the story—but the central portion of their cover features the two singers in live performance, first of the Italian translation, and then the English version of the song. Even here, they signpost an older era, wearing quasi-Renaissance concert garb. Lee’s dress features heavy red velvet, a band of lace, pearl-closures on the sleeves, and scoop-necked bodice with white under-dress; Derksen’s dress echoes the scoop-neck and under-dress but adopts a deep purple. Both costumes have detached sleeves, as glimpses of the under-dress at the shoulder reveals, a feature as common to Renaissance fashion as it is uncommon today. Costume and situation-specific coding make obvious the song’s linkages to its Shakespearean inspiration.

Other YouTube contributors employ scene setting and costume in lieu of live performance. In 2017, channel owner Aswa Hola, who writes in both English and Korean, uses Taiwanese-American performer Joanna Wang’s breathy cover of “What Is a Youth” as backdrop to a mini-narrative crafted through artistic montage of brief video clips. These are kaleidoscopic; we see in short order a woman’s face against a renaissance building with arcade, staircase, and arched doorway supported by statuary; a player in embroidered long coat and vest; a reader in an elaborate printed jacket; a brief glimpse of a rower and lady on the river; searching looks in a mirror and toward the heavens; someone walking away from the building; someone glancing out sorrowfully from a window balcony; and, at the end, someone exiting from an elaborate chamber. The ambiance is old, but perhaps less “Shakespearean” than nineteenth-century, for in spite of the architectural backdrop, the costumes stem from the 2016 musical “Dorian Gray.” In other words, like fonts, the visual signposting of “age” need not be specifically Elizabethan to resonate with the viewing audience. There seems to be a bucket of “old historical things” to which Shakespeare—and this song from a Shakespearean drama—each belong.

To be more noticeably and self-consciously Shakespearean, channel owners can, of course, draw directly on Shakespearean film clips superimposed over a choice of musical cover. In so doing, such instantiations nearly always displace Rota’s music with a cognate arrangement by a favorite artist or group.3 Some visual editors seem interested in excerpting and recombining the visual narrative of the ball, but others choose to retell a broader swath of the story. Russian creator Mikhail Stellar, for instance, starts with Zeffirelli’s masking scene, coupled to the Richard Clayderman cover, and shapes his story within the temporal space of the Capulet ball. For instance, he foregrounds the image of Romeo viewing the ball through the fire of torches—perhaps referencing the heat of passion. Moreover, through excision, he introduces Juliet not in the arms of another man but rather in a solitary dance-space, an entrancing figure in the velvety-red of the Capulets. Although we do move forward within the story to the pillar play, eye-to-eye engagement, and on into the hand scene, Stellar stays within the ball, ending climactically with the ball scene’s kiss. There is no foreshadowing here; only the driving impetus of young love, channeled to the piano-and-string instrumental cover. The video and its Clayderman soundtrack still captivate audiences; in less than a dozen years, it has accrued more than 12 million views.

Italian creator Giulia Zarantonello, on the other hand, combines ball and balcony scene to tell more of the story, aligning her visual choices with the Henry Mancini cover. She establishes a pattern of foreshortened storytelling from the beginning, compressing Romeo’s arrival—donning his mask, spotting Juliet through the crowd, lifting his mask to get a better look—into five seconds of video time through elision. She never references the actual singer of the Zeffirelli film, nor the attentive diegetic audience of the ball. Instead, she distills the initial meeting into its moments of special poignancy: dancing hands, Romeo’s movement through the crowd to see his beloved better, hands clasped at pillars, the dreamy eye-gazing that Zeffirelli used to convey to instantaneous bonding. Each visual moment adds to the rapid build-up of longing. But with the arrival of the wordless chorus for the second statement of the middle section of the tune, Zarantonello shifts her attention to the balcony scene. She includes both the rush to the balcony and the passionate embrace that Zeffirelli used as climax to the balcony scene. She finishes her narrative alongside Mancini’s tag-echo ending by adopting the balcony scene’s separations—the hands that can no longer continue to hold together, the distance of Juliet’s space on the balcony from the greener world inhabited by Romeo, the parting that becomes, through synecdoche, part for whole. In other words, Zarantonello uses the music as an excuse for a retelling of the story, one that is not constrained by the bounds of original context in the Capulet home, but points instead toward the broader narrative, foreshadowing the sorrows of the play’s tragic ending. Similarly, Russian channel owner Narina Allakhverdyan, known on YouTube as stumblingChaos, excerpts the Zeffirelli film to accompany the cover by Barratt Waugh in an instantiation with over 15.5 million views. She, however, uses clips to tell the entire story of the tragedy in quick outline. In addition to ball and balcony, she includes Mercutio’s death, the lovers’ separation, their deaths, and the funeral cortege. Whether connecting song to scene or song to play in its totality, these YouTube creators seem intent on linking the music of the theme song (in whatever guise) with its Shakespearean origins.

The same motivation of establishing clear-cut references to Shakespeare may drive the creators who choose to use more recent films of Romeo and Juliet. Vanda Kurucz from Hungary combines the Rota setting as performed by original artist Glen Weston with images from the Baz Luhrmann production of 1996 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and canny viewers comment approvingly on the temporal shift between audio and visual materials. “Sunny G,” for instance, observed in 2018 that “The old R&J theme song goes so well with the new R&J movie. Beautiful.” Similarly, Annabells love Music includes the Waugh arrangement of “A Time for Us,” but adopts scenes from the balcony scene from director Carlo Carlei’s 2013 film with Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth. (See Example 2.)

Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and 
the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet
Cynthia J. Cyrus*, Aileen T. Lorge, Schyler J. Rowland, Gabriel Rodriguez Esperon
, Literature Film Quarterly
EXAMPLE 2: Crossover: Annabells love Music matches Hailee Steinfeld from Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet (2013) to Barratt Waugh’s performance of “A Time for Us,” https://youtu.be/X1Gt90h4INU?t=55, (0:55).

We are displaced in the story—this is no longer the Capulet’s ball, and the love interest has progressed significantly since the lovers initially met—but the astute listener will remember how much Rota’s tune informed and undergirded the remainder of the story; it is visually rebranded as being the “lovers’ theme” rather than dwelling merely in a single moment of the plot. Likewise, channel owner Snježana “Tina” Vodopijak from Zagreb, Croatia (Channel 05vs1) uses clips from the 2013 production set to the Engelbert Humperdinck cover, but she draws more broadly from the film than Kurucz, and includes bits and pieces of the whole of the story: ball, balcony, Friar Laurence, yelling, discovery of the death, and poison and sword. Tina creates such videos as a hobby, for her primary job is working at a bank. Japanese creator hotshiawase2 even mixes and matches images from the Zeffirelli, Luhrmann, and Carlei’s films, along with a reproduction of Ford Madox Brown’s pre-Raphaelite balcony scene from 1870, as accompaniment to the jazz cover by the Karel Boehlee Trio. For each of these creatives, it isn’t a particular film director’s original vision that is compelling, but instead the storyline itself. Their signposting inheres in the observable connection to the play, rather than to the Zeffirelli film. In other words, their call-out is to Shakespeare and not to the famous film director or his spectacularly young stars.

The V.I.P.S. channel is typical of many YouTube instantiations in that it expands beyond the Shakespearean film repertoire to include more general images, here set to the Barratt Waugh cover. It features lovers in photos, sometimes overlaid with sparkles, other times combined with moonrise. Billowing gauze fabric, rose petals, and kisses from the chaste to the bedded make clear the thematic resonance with Shakespeare’s story, even if the tone and tenor are much more modern. Thus, the viewer is prepared when, two-thirds of the way through, a renaissance-evoking image appears on a balcony (at 3:18) with a basin of roses, as the lovers entwine, her with fine wrapped-hair coiffure and him with the lanky, loose-haired look of manliness. (Compare Example 3a and 3b.)

Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and 
the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet
Cynthia J. Cyrus*, Aileen T. Lorge, Schyler J. Rowland, Gabriel Rodriguez Esperon
, Literature Film Quarterly Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and 
the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet
Cynthia J. Cyrus*, Aileen T. Lorge, Schyler J. Rowland, Gabriel Rodriguez Esperon
, Literature Film Quarterly
EXAMPLE 3a / 3b: Rose-petal imagery (1:20) and balcony image (3:18) from Barrett Waugh/V.I.P.S. Channel, https://youtu.be/jUiUQRETlLg

This, however, proves to be a cross-over reference, for it is a clip from the private wedding of star-crossed lovers Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker from the 2002 film Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. The use of the clip draws an explicit parallel of their neo-Renaissance wedding to the Romeo and Juliet story from which that moment is derived. The film used the renaissance Villa del Balbianello as a stage set, a stand-in for the fictional Varykino, much as Zefirelli used the Palazzo Borghese as a stand-in for that special balcony of late medieval Verona.

Indeed, the generalized theme of “lovers” inspired numerous creative endeavors. Slide-decks of lovers’ images, with and without sparkles or moonscapes, abound in the repertoire. Greek creator Mavloni crafts instantiation to the choral jazz cover by Joe Pass that includes a montage of stills of lovers in and out of bed, getting married, and enjoying one another’s company, with no hints of the darker side of the Shakespearean plot. Ricardo Scales provides images for his own cover of “A Time for Us” that focuses on lovers in a series of poses: at the beach, backlit by the sun, holding hands at sunset, in a sea of flowers, and so on. He includes wedding images, but gives no hint of the obstacles faced by the lovers in the original. Rather, he ends by making a reference to age, for the last two images (other than that of the performer himself) are a period image (“A loving couple, circa 1907,” from Library of Congress), and an image of an old couple originally captured by Dutch photographer Gerben Grotenhuis in 2007 and popularized on Pintrest.4 In other words, Mavloni chooses to provide an implicit happy ending to the story, suited more to song text than to Shakespearean original. Russian Slavjanka Lida is more faithful to the original context. She intermingles symbolic elements—medieval buildings and bridges, roses, barbed wire, a closing book—with images from the Zeffirelli movie to accompany the Humperdinck cover. These include multiple stills from the Capulet’s ball, excerpts from the balcony scene, and scenes capturing pain and longing on the part of the two main characters. The scene with Friar Laurence appears, but not the biers from the story’s ending; we have here foreboding, but not the denouement.

Love Asuncion Villanueva from the Philippines found personal biographical elements in the song in the Lettermen’s cover—echoes of her mother’s diary, as she explains in the video description:

my mom used to sing this song when i was a kid, and when she let me read her diary before she passed away, it was then i found out that this song is my mom and dad's theme song. The lyrics of this song tells about their love story actually. That in spite of hardships and afflictions in life their love will endure to the end.

Villanueva illustrates the song with line-by-line lyrics superimposed over stills chosen to illustrate the specific meaning of the text. In the choral middle section, for instance, Villanueva uses a cartoon of romantic birds with a clock back the text “A time for us… At last to see,” and then segues to an image of back-lit lovers for the follow-up text, “A life worthwhile for you and me.”  Closer to the beginning, she similarly presents a heart and hand-heart seemingly transformed into a clock (See Example 4).

Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and 
the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet
Cynthia J. Cyrus*, Aileen T. Lorge, Schyler J. Rowland, Gabriel Rodriguez Esperon
, Literature Film Quarterly
EXAMPLE 4: Pictorial response to lyrics, The Lettermen/Love Asuncion Villanueva (0:11), https://youtu.be/TxH-0IGpOYo?t=11. A heart and a hand-heart represent love; the clock numbers and beams of light as clock-hands represent time. The creator has superimposed the lyrics over her images as well, so one can simultaneously read the text, hear it sung, and watch its interpretation unfold.

She ends her video with an image of lovers at a lake for the final tag (“A time for us”) and then shifts to a colorful (though blurry) home photo of her parents to accompany her own final words— “For Eternity” —given as an unsung postscript to the cover’s lyrics. The biographical reading of the story resonated with her audience; in July 2021, RW commented that “... This, the Lettermen's version was my late wife and I's song. Every time I hear it brings tears to my eyes. She died way too young.” Here again, the themes seem to be love and tribulation, but not the tragic ending and social reconciliation of the play. Moreover, we are reminded of the biographical and autobiographical elements in song reception. Studies by Petr Janata, Stefan Tomic and Sonja Rakowski in 2007 and by Amy Belfi, Brett Karlan and Daniel Tranel in 2016 have pointed toward both cognitive and affective elements in memory evoked by popular song. Such music-evoked autobiographical memories, or MEAMs, as they are known, are often accompanied by positive or mixed emotions even when encountered as part of daily life, as a 2021 study by Kelly Jakubowski and Anita Ghosh established. By drawing on the familiar tune, our YouTube creators are increasing the likelihood that the sound of the music will trigger happy or nostalgic memories on behalf of the viewer; by adding in a layer of interpretive imagery, they are helping to shape the direction those memories might move, just as Jakubowski and Ghosh found that music, when coupled with “other relevant cues (e.g., visual objects, activities, people),” could be more potent than music alone, prompting vivid recall. YouTube music videos, with their mixture of relatable melodies, constructed narratives, visual references, and decodable symbols, seem uniquely positioned to serve the viewer as a prompt to memory.

Performer André Rieu seems to be drawn to this kind of strategic storytelling, for his quasi-narrative video from 2012 features a young woman with wavy hair who is inferred to be Juliet, with Rieu himself as Romeo. Renaissance signposting abounds. Both characters are dressed in white. His garb features a complicated, old-fashioned collar complemented by a simple light-brown unbuttoned vest. Her dress is simple, dropping in diaphanous folds from a halter-top to highlight her barely pubescent body. The Dutch violinist plays in an arcade with marble columns as backdrop, while the young woman appears in a series of garden settings, first coming through a gate, then walking away by a (Renaissance) garden wall, then seen at a Renaissance terrace overlooking the water. (See Example 5.)

Signposting Shakespeare on a Global Stage: Musical Covers and 
the YouTube Afterlife of Nino Rota’s Theme from Romeo and Juliet
Cynthia J. Cyrus*, Aileen T. Lorge, Schyler J. Rowland, Gabriel Rodriguez Esperon
, Literature Film Quarterly
EXAMPLE 5: André Rieu’s quasi-narrative performance: a Juliet figure in gauzy gown ascends the staircase from a Renaissance terrace with urn planters on symmetrically disposed columns (1:09), https://youtu.be/TEVGLXVhhns?t=69 .

The most narrative gesture of the video combines the swell of music that marks the final return of the main musical section with “Juliet’s” ascent of the lush garden staircase to reach her violinist-lover, with Renaissance statue fountain over a clam-shell shaped basin showing prominently in the background. Wildly popular, this video has had over 16 million views and over 116K likes.

Not every video instantiation of “What Is a Youth” ties to the story, of course. Many simply give the album cover. Vietnamese channel owner Tho Loves Food, who self-identifies as a food blogger, includes the Japanese cover of “What Is a Youth” by Aoi Teshima, but simply matches the song to its bright red album cover, Best Gift, which has an image of the singer and a white rose, along with the playlist. Finnish creator Kulkijaneito, whose tagline is “Music for dance and atmosphere” (Musiikkia tanssiin ja tunnelmointiin) presents Seija Simola’s “Kun aika on” – the Finnish version of “What Is a Youth” – with her album cover, a simple headshot on a blush red background, and her name. The song has even been covered as part of a film music CD by a South African charitable organization, Buskaid (https://www.buskaid.org.za/), which provides musical training and educational opportunities to disadvantaged youth. Their YouTube instantiation focuses on the instrumentalists themselves against a cloud-bedazzled sky; the image is simply the cover of the CD, and the text at the bottom of the CD proves to be the date of the live performance where the recording was made. Others feature headshots of the performer, or a live performance itself. The connection here is typically with the performance and the performers themselves, but the comments will still often reference the origins of the song in a Shakespearean context, or even supply the lyrics (or their translation).

* * * * *

Creative recompilations—whether made of film clips, film stills, or images from elsewhere—can signpost the Shakespearean original in a few different ways. They can take as their focus a single scene or two—the ball, or the balcony—or they can provide a more extensive visual retelling of the story, in which music and visual spheres operate at two different temporal levels. They can thematize love and its emotional companion longing, or can address fate, hatred, enmity, and the resulting tragedy. (Family honor, so important to the play, is minimized in the instantiations, likely because of the terse nature of the song medium of less than five minutes in length.) Indeed, we have in operation two different temporal registers. The song aurally inhabits the moments of its structural unfolding, moving from section to section, repeating familiar phrase or introducing new, until it winds down with firm cadence or with an echo of the last line, or, occasionally, with a seemingly improvisatory closing. At the same time, visual rescripting can remind the viewer of the totality of the lovers’ story, enfolding future loss into the moment of initial meeting, much as the lyrics of the original song—with its references to youth’s “impetuous fire” and roses that bloom and fade—was designed to do. The creative artist also brings creative license to the work that she or he undertakes, choosing which aspects of the visual palette to emphasize, and which can be excised.

This process of selection is in some ways akin to a reality of popular memory. When asked to remember the story, there are various levels of remembrance. Romeo and Juliet: it is about lovers. It is about young lovers. It includes tragedy. There’s a balcony scene. The families are at odds. These small gleanings of the story, bits of remembrance, can be coupled with compelling and vivid quotes: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” “But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” “Never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Significantly, such memorial gleanings, signaled and signposted through choice of visual cues, are found not just in the English-speaking world, but represent a more global phenomenon. The 24 examples discussed here (listed in Appendix A) have come from 16 different countries, the majority of which are non-Anglophone.5 What is interesting—and what YouTube’s omnipresence across the globe allows us to see more directly—is the ways in which the broad pan-continental circulation of these musical covers come with a common set of Shakespearean referents: Lovers. Hands. Roses. Gauzy silk or starlit sky. Historicizing elements. And so on. We have developed a common language of images that are “fitted” to the Shakespearean frame in ways that—to judge by viewing counts—are popular with a global audience. The idea that the reception of these instantiations is global is substantiated by the multilingual comment field on many of the most popular covers. It’s true that comments in English tend to dominate; for Lida’s instantiation of Humperdinck, for instance, roughly half of the comments are in English, while only four are in Russian and three are in Spanish. Nevertheless, comments in Hungarian, Indonesian, Polish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese demonstrate the appeal of her video to an international audience. Likewise, the audience for Hungarian channel of Vanda Kurucz makes comments in Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Uzbek, and Azerbaijani as well as English, a testament to the video’s broad appeal.

O’Neill find that “despite YouTube’s global pretentions, it is a predominantly Western mediascape” (11). He asks “Is YouTube Shakespeare global Shakespeare,” (64-71) but, following Burgess and Green, notes that the media empire is globalizing, and in his discussion emphasizes aspects of transmission and retrieval than the more explicitly interpretive elements of reception and creation. Yet given the active engagement with these YouTube creators with the process of signposting, the instantiations of covers of “What Is a Youth” are more than just evidence for Shakespeare passively received across a globally-distributed platform. Rather, we argue, these instantiations signal the ways in which Shakespearean meaning is constructed and shared with an interested and decidedly non-local audience. One is reminded of Barbara Hodgdon’s assertion that “perhaps the least theorized arena [of Shakespearean assessment] involves how audiences transform what they see and hear, how spectators refashion a performance to serve individual as well as communal needs” (159). In the creation of instantiations, and in the participant commentaries upon them, we have a direct window into the place that at least this one song has for the communities it serves. In other words, with these covers of “What Is a Youth,” one does not need the antecedent-descendant lineage mapped out in order to recognize the shared material common to the settings. Rather, it is in the moments of discovery and recognition—of realizing that this Musak soundtrack or this proffered “next video” in the YouTube algorithm is yet another one of those familiar-yet-new renditions of the quasi-Shakespearean tune—that the audience comes to feel the cultural sophisticate. What we have discovered here is that the practice of making these connections visible—of signposting—translates effectively across language groupings and national boundaries. When the scope of what is referenced is familiar enough to a large enough audience, the game of creative transformation can work regardless of language, or word, or turn of phrase. In other words, just as with Douglas Lanier’s advertisements, there does not have to be any Shakespearean text remaining for the reference to Shakespeare to be meaningful.

What we have found, then, is that instantiations of musical covers that use signposts are performatively affiliating; they consciously engage in a world of cultural borrowing and cultural referencing. They are, like Lanier’s wordless ads, proclaiming “Shakespeare” as an indication of a common understanding. Ah, yes, we think, balconies and the impetuous love of the young. The signposts used by our YouTube creators each serve as an invitation to discovery, inviting the audience to enjoy the challenge of identifying shared references, one sophisticate to another. Signposts, in other words, link together viewer, and music, and a common knowledge of Shakespeare, transcending time and, especially, place. Signposts, done well, are markers that can be interpreted by viewers and listeners from a wide range of backgrounds. They are pointers that can be read with relative ease with a minimum of preparation and background. That relatively easy decoding, coupled with the stylistic variability of the musical covers, has created a long and successful afterlife for Rota’s Shakespeare-inspired tune.


1  An inventory of covers of “What Is a Youth” is available from the Second Hand Songs database, https://secondhandsongs.com/work/111573/versions.

2  View counts are current as of 27 July 2022.

3  A majority of covers are based on the music of “A Time for Us” with Mancini’s recomposed middle section—and thus already begin one step removed from the movie version, Rota’s “What Is a Youth,” which, as a Zeffirelli insertion, is itself one step removed from the Shakespearean original. These are third- and fourth-degree adaptations, to follow the schema proposed by Robert Stam in 2017.

4  https://www.deviantart.com/gurbz/art/Cute‑old‑couple‑57566534.

5  Unlike other domains on YouTube, there is also a strong female presence among channel creators, more than half of whom are female.

APPENDIX A: Selected YouTube instantiations of covers of “What Is A Youth” / “A Time For Us” / “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” (in order of first mention in the text).

Geographical identifiers were drawn from YouTube creator’s biography on the “about” tab, from other social media contexts, or extrapolated from linguistic or community clues. Where possible, locations were verified through personal correspondence.  View-counts were current effective 27 July 2022.

Channel Owner

YouTube link

Date of YouTube video upload

Number of views

Location or language of channel owner

Cover Artist / musical basis

André Rieu


May 22, 2012



André Rieu



Apr 22, 2011



Richard Clayderman

Lotusat Lotus


Ap 24, 2008



Richard Clayderman

Mikhail Stellar [Stellar61]


Sep 7, 2010



Richard Clayderman



Jan 31, 2008



Andy Williams

The Voice Australia


Apr 10, 2013



Luke Kennedy

Robert Silvestri


Feb 25, 2012



Johnny Mathis

ScheherazadEify [Saskia Kusrahadianti]


May 25, 2012



Saskia Kusrahadianti

Mireya Derksen


Aug 20, 2019



Anastasia Lee & Mireya Derksen

Aswa Hola


Nov 25, 2017



Joanna Wang

Giulia Zarantonello


Jul 10, 2017



Henry Mancini

stumblingChaos [Narina Allakhverdyan]


Jun 4, 2009



Barratt Waugh

Vanda Kurucz


Nov 3, 2017



Nino Rota, perf. Glen Weston

Annabells love Music


Oct 25, 2019



Barratt Waugh

05vs1 [Snježana “Tina” Vodopijak]


Apr 26, 2019



Engelbert Humperdinck



Dec 9, 2014



Karel Boehlee Trio

V.I.P.S. Channel


Mar 20, 2013



Barratt Waugh



Jul 24, 2014



Joe Pass

Ricardo Scales


Aug 2, 2012



Ricardo Scales

Slavjanka Lida


Jan 31, 2013



Engelbert Humperdinck

Love Asuncion Villanueva


Sep 6, 2010



The Lettermen

Tho Loves Food


Sep 30, 2013



Aoi Teshima



Nov 14, 2011



Seija Simola

The Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble - Topic


May 1, 2020


South Africa

The Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble

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