‘Something Rotten!’ brings Shakespeare to life in more ways than one

The idea of a Broadway musical inspired by Shakespeare’s plays is hardly new. Fans of the genre — Broadway musicals, that is, if not Shakespeare — will note “The Boys From Syracuse,” the 1938 Rodgers & Hart work based on “The Comedy of Errors”; Cole Porter’s 1948 “Kiss Me, Kate” (based on “The Taming of the Shrew”); and perhaps most notably “West Side Story,” the 1957 Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein classic that placed “Romeo and Juliet” in a New York gang context.

“Something Rotten!,” which premieres at Bass Concert Hall on May 30, is set in 1595 London and is definitely of Shakespeare’s world, but there’s a bit of a difference: William “The Bard” Shakespeare is himself a character in the musical, played as a sort of preening, slightly neurotic rock star (he sings, he tap dances). The musical, though it’s definitely cut from a familiar comedic Broadway musical cloth (you don’t have to be a Renaissance scholar to get the jokes), is also unusual in that it’s an original work. Though it premiered on Broadway only two years ago, the musical had been gestating for two decades when it was created by Karey Kirkpatrick, known for writing screenplays for family movies by Disney and DreamWorks, and his brother Wayne, a longtime Nashville-based songwriter.

Around 1995 the brothers had the idea, says Karey, “based on a ‘what-if,’ what would it be like to be a writer in Shakespeare’s London, and what if the theater scene in London was sort of like the theater scene in New York or Hollywood in the ’30s, when everyone had agents and lawyers?

“We just kind of ran with the idea of what would it have been like to be a writer in the shadow of the most famous writer ever, and what would you have to do to get noticed? Somewhere along the way we came up with the idea that one of them would go to a soothsayer to look into the future, to predict what the next big thing in theater would be, and he would say musicals.”

Somewhere along the way, the fictional theatrical strivers became two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom. “It amused us to think about writers in Tudor England trying to figure out this musical form and trying to write the first musical, to beat Shakespeare,” says Karey. “It was always meant to be slightly anachronistic, and also playing on the popular notion that maybe Shakespeare didn’t write everything that he’s credited as writing. Of these two brothers, one of them is a quiet, insecure genius who Shakespeare is stealing from.

“We had both been raised in that (musical theater) world, and we knew that this would be a love letter to Broadway, where we could reference it. It’s a form that we knew we could lovingly poke fun of while paying tribute to.”

Although to a casual observer “Something Rotten!” might look like a departure from the Kirkpatrick brothers’ careers, Karey points out that it’s a return to their roots. “Wayne and I went to a magnet school in Baton Rouge, La., which had an amazing arts program,” he explains. “It had a separate drama department, separate music theater department, separate band, separate jazz (departments). It didn’t have a football or a baseball team; all the money went into the arts, and it was a fantastic place to immerse yourself in stuff like that. I got bit by the theater bug when I was around 14 and OD’d through age 19 on musical theater and initially wanted to be an actor in musicals, but soon realized I wasn’t a good enough singer and probably not a good enough actor either. But (I) started writing musicals when I was in high school.”

Kirkpatrick adds that his screenwriting career was a direct result of that interest. “I had gone down to San Diego to see the out-of-town tryout of (the Stephen Sondheim musical) ‘Into the Woods,’ and on the way back I was with my then-writing partner, and we said, ‘How can we write a musical and get paid?’ trying to skip all of the struggling and expenses stuff, and we said Disney Animation. This was 1987, at a time before the Disney Animation renaissance, but having grown up on movies like ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Lady and the Tramp’ and ‘Dumbo’ and all of those things, which were my favorites, we wrote an animated musical and pitched it to Disney. They didn’t buy the musical, but they liked the talent, and then I spent the next three years being a staff screen- and songwriter there. ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ was my first movie. It originally had songs in it, which they cut later. You start writing those kinds of movies and you get known for writing family films and that becomes your calling card, but it all started with musicals.”

For one reason or another, it took until 2010 for the “Rotten!” ball to really get rolling, when Broadway producer Kevin McCollum, an old friend of Karey’s, put the brothers together with director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. The Kirkpatricks collaborated on the music and lyrics, with Karey and British comedic writer John O’Farrell writing the musical’s book.

Karey stresses the form’s collaborative nature. “Composers in musical theater don’t just sit off to the side and wait for some lyrics to show up,” he says. “It’s very much a team sport. Over four years, about 54 songs (were) written; 18 survived. (We were) writing the same song 10 different times. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and the most rewarding. Part of it was because it was our idea, it was original, so not having any kind of book or movie to follow (was) a blessing and a curse when it comes to what happens next. We get to make it up, and then the downside is we have to make it up.”

For his part, Wayne Kirkpatrick says he really didn’t know what to expect when the show premiered. “I was surprised at how well it was received, just because every time we did something it was the first time we’d done it. We were just waiting to see how people would react to it, and we were obviously very pleased that it was received so well.”

Even after the official premiere, the brothers took the opportunity to tweak the show when new leads were brought in on Broadway, and again when the touring company was forming.

“It’s a constantly living thing,” says Wayne. “I think that’s the thing that amazed us the most. What audiences don’t realize is how much they are a part of the show. Each time I’d go see it in New York, or when I’d go see it on the road, you can kind of tell, from the opening number on, what the audience is going to be like. If they’re a rambunctious crowd the cast kind of feeds on that energy; it changes the pace of the show, it changes the intensity. It’s a very interactive process.”

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