The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.197 Monday, 20 April 2015
From: Hardy Cook <
Date: April 19, 2015 at 8:26:53 AM EDT
Subject: Review: ‘Something Rotten!’
In ‘Something Rotten!,’ if Music Be the Food of Farce, Play On
By Charles McGrath
APRIL 16, 2015
“Something Rotten!,” which opens Wednesday, is about a pair of brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, Elizabethan-era playwrights who are more or less learning on the job. Unable to get anywhere in a theatrical world dominated by Shakespeare, they consult a soothsayer, who informs them that the next new thing will be the musical, and with mixed results they set about trying to write one. An early number they drop, for example, is a celebration of the Black Death.
The real-life brothers behind this concoction, Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, would be the first to admit that when starting out they were almost equally clueless. Unless you count high school in Baton Rouge, La., they had no musical theater experience at all — which makes it all the more surprising that their maiden effort is coming to Broadway, with a $14.5 million budget and a blue-chip cast but without the benefit of an out-of-town tryout.
By now there’s a long tradition, going back to “The Boys From Syracuse” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” of Shakespeare-inspired musicals. (Meat Loaf starred in the short-lived “Rockabye Hamlet” in 1976, and “These Paper Bullets!,” which matches “Much Ado About Nothing” with music by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, is scheduled to open Off Broadway later this year.) “Something Rotten!” is a little more antic than most, making fun of Shakespeare even as it steals from him, and at the St. James Theater, where the show is in previews, a kind of very cheerful anarchy prevails — an Elizabethan willingness to try anything.
Wayne Kirkpatrick, at 53 the older, shorter and shyer of the two, is a successful Nashville songwriter. He’s made some records himself — in a sweet, bluesy tenor — but is probably best known for songs like the Grammy-winning “Change the World,” recorded by Eric Clapton, and “Wrapped Up in You,” made famous by Garth Brooks. Karey Kirkpatrick, 50, the more talkative, made his name in the film business, helping to write and direct animated movies like “Chicken Run,” “Over the Hedge” and “James and the Giant Peach.”
Whenever they got together, the brothers said recently, they used to knock around ideas for a musical. For a while, they worked on one based on the Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee play “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” But it never happened, Wayne Kirkpatrick explained, because they were too dumb to secure the rights.
They didn’t know a whole lot more about Shakespeare than they did about show business, Karey Kirkpatrick said, but that didn’t stop them from bouncing around 15 years’ worth of jokes based on the idea of a Shakespearean-era musical: What if there were a pair of agents back then called William and Morris, and a law firm called Rosen, Krantz & Guildenstern?
The plot took on more shape in 2011, when John O’Farrell, an English humorist, novelist and nonfiction author who had worked with Karey Kirkpatrick on the script for “Chicken Run,” came on board and began writing a real book for the show. Mr. O’Farrell was no Shakespeare scholar either, but that didn’t stop him from shamelessly ripping off the Elizabethans. In following the rivalry between the Bottom brothers (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani) and a puffed-up Shakespeare (the Tony winner Christian Borle), “Something Rotten!” now borrows or alludes to just about every Shakespearean convention you can imagine. There’s a soothsayer, a Jewish money lender, a female character disguised as a man, a pair of star-crossed lovers and lots of misappropriated lines from “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Richard II.”
This is all highly appropriate, according to James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University. Shakespeare was himself a magpie, Mr. Shapiro explained, borrowing and copying from others; not only that, but also the notion of an Elizabethan musical is not as far-fetched as it seems.
“Look at ‘As You Like It,’ ” he said. “It has several songs, including one by Thomas Morley, one of the leading musicians of the day, and a big grand finale. You sense Shakespeare sort of feeling his way toward something like a musical, and by the time it gets revived in the 18th century, it’s really a full-fledged one. So these Bottoms are really on to something. They didn’t need to go to a soothsayer.”
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