By the end of the irresistibly bouncy opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance,” it’s clear that the new Broadway musical Something Rotten! is something special: a totally original show that’s hilarious, hummable, and loaded with surprises.
Broadway newbies Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick took a zany idea — that Shakespeare somehow inspired a pair of down-on-their-luck siblings to invent the musical — and conceived a show that finds the fun in the Bard’s greatest hits while lovingly sending up everything audiences love about Broadway tuners. The Kirkpatrick brothers and co-librettist John O’Farrell hit the jackpot when director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (helmer of megahits The Book of Mormon and Aladdin) signed on, attracting, in turn, a cast of Broadway all-stars.
During a rehearsal break, four Tony-honored cast members of Something Rotten! headed to the popular Theater District bistro Angus’ (next door to their future Broadway home, the St. James Theatre, where previews begin March 23) for steak frites, chicken salad, and a lively discussion of their delightfully “rotten” new show. On hand were two-time Tony nominee Brian d’Arcy James (Shrek, Sweet Smell of Success) and Tony nominee John Cariani (Fiddler on the Roof), who play aspiring playwrights Nick and Nigel Bottom; Tony nominee Brad Oscar (The Producers) as unreliable soothsayer Nostradamus; and Tony winner Christian Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher) who portrays the Bard as a vain rock star, “the man who put I am in iambic pentameter.”
Something Rotten! is totally fresh and new. How are you describing the show?
Brian d’Arcy James: It’s is a backstage musical with great songs, big laughs, and huge production numbers. John and I play two scrappy guys who are trying to make ends meet and go up against the Goliath of the theater. How do you compete with Shakespeare? And yet we end up doing just that.
John Cariani: I tell my friends that it’s a rock-and-roll, tap-dancing musical set in Elizabethan times.
Christian Borle: The description I’ve landed on is 42nd Street meets The Book of Mormon, for the whole family. That’s the fastest way to sum up the tone.
Brian d’Arcy James: Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have devised this wonderful, theatrical score with a modern pop sensibility and a wide variety of sound. We’re singing about contemporary ideas while wearing puffy pants, vests, and hats, which makes it even funnier.
And these songs are really, really hummable.
Brad Oscar: That’s what’s fascinating: The music never feels anachronistic, even though the show is designed in period style. Every song feels organic to the people and the situations.
Christian Borle: Audiences are not used to seeing something completely original in the theater anymore, where you have no idea what’s going to happen next. But right out of the gate, you care about these characters, which is fantastic. The show is so clean and classic and really celebrates our love of musicals. There’s nothing cynical about it.
John Cariani: It validates joy as a crucial component of drama. Karey Kirkpatrick has written animated films, and the cool thing about a movie like Chicken Run is that adults and kids can enjoy it on totally different levels. The same thing is true here. Anybody who doesn’t know anything about Shakespeare will be just fine.
That’s a good point: This is not a “Shakespearean” musical.
Christian Borle: Not at all. But there are a lot of great jokes if you do know Shakespeare. I think it’s a relief for people that the Bard is presented as a bit of a charlatan. One of Brian’s first songs is “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” which puts people in the right frame of mind.
Brad Oscar: It’s also a musical for people who don’t usually like musicals. And it’s a great show for parents and kids. I think the audience is really going to root for these characters.
John Cariani: The show is so well put together and unfolds so logically, which is a testament to the writing. People always complain about the book of a musical, but no one is going to complain about this. They’re going to love the story, and every song is catchy.
Casey Nicholaw comes to Something Rotten! after the huge success of The Book of Mormon and Aladdin. What makes his work special?
Brian d’Arcy James: When I think about Casey as a director and choreographer, “completeness” is the word that comes to mind. He has an incredible ability to create a complete world within these huge, eye-popping musical numbers.
Christian Borle: He has very cleverly given each character a little “pop” of an entrance, and it just keeps happening with all these amazing actors, leading up to Shakespeare’s ridiculous entrance. Everyone in this company is better than ever, including Casey. This is some of his best work, and that’s saying something!
Brad Oscar: My favorite thing about Casey is that he was a singer/dancer/actor for a long time, and he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be on that side of the table. And as Christian said, he has put together a company I respect and admire and can learn from. Everyone is at the top of their craft, which is exactly what you want in the creative process. I can’t wait to get this show in front of an audience.
All in all, it sounds like you’re all ready for a great time on Broadway.
Brian d’Arcy James: We all feel that this is a special show — not just the material, but the way it speaks, the way it sings, and the way it makes people laugh. I was weaned on musical comedy, and I like the fact that we’re holding up the banner this season for what this kind of show can be. It’s so much fun to do, and it’s going to be so much fun to watch.
John Cariani: The first time I read the script, I thought, I want to do this — whatever it is, I hope I get to be part of it.”
Christian Borle: As an actor, my favorite moments are when you know the material is so strong, you don’t have to put any spin on it. You’ve got a line coming up that is so perfectly timed and written, you can just say it and know, Oh God, this is gonna be great.” Those nuggets are all over the place in this show. There’s a palpable glee from this group of people that’s going to pour out over the audience.