For the last few years, people have asked me if New Line would ever produce Something Rotten!, and they've always been surprised when I immediately replied, "Oh Hell, Yes!" We originally planned to produce it in fall 2020, but that was not to be. So last night, we finally went into rehearsal for this wonderful, incredibly funny musical.

Sometimes, people tend to think that because New Line produces only smart, socially and politically relevant, adult musical theatre, that we don't do comedy. But we do a lot of comedy. As Aristophanes well knew, it's much easier to deal with serious issues through comedy. It's the "Spoonful of Sugar" theory.

And though Something Rotten! is outrageously wacky, it deals with one of the most important issues in our society in the twenty-first century -- what is success? I was so grateful to Michelle Obama for coming out during their White House years and saying directly that making money is not the only measure of success. And that's exactly the lesson our protagonist Nick Bottom has to learn in Something Rotten!

This show is all about defining commercial success, personal success, and artistic success -- and realizing that they are not all the same thing. It's the central conflict between our fictional brothers Nick and Nigel. Nick has this lesson to learn; Nigel has already learned it.

A few years back, I got to interview the real world Kirkpatrick brothers for my Stage Grok podcast when the show first came to the Fox on tour. They are two-thirds of the Something Rotten! writing team, along with John O'Farrell. They told me the idea of the show started with a wonderful What If  that's not only funny, but unexpectedly resonant in a dozen different ways.

What if Shakespeare's London operated like today's Hollywood?

The extra insightful part of this juxtaposition is that Shakespeare's theatre scene was a commercially competitive world, and Will made his living as a writer; so mashing up these two worlds reveals so much that the two moments share, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We see that Bottom's mistakes all come from chasing that competition.

In the original production of Something Rotten!, the costumes were all Elizabethan (or Elizabethan-adjacent); but in ours, the costumes are going to suggest the present, but with references and callbacks to the Elizabethan age. If the audience is constantly reminded of this double setting of time and place, I think the mashup of these two parallel worlds will be even clearer, and as a result, funnier.

One thing I've realized about the show as we've started work -- in so many ways, it's a perfectly constructed 1950s musical comedy, but so meta. It uses the tools and devices and construction of old school musical comedy, but it also undermines all those things at the same time. It's exactly the kind of show I invented the "neo musical comedy" label for, using all those tools inherited from George M. Cohan and George Abbott, but for very different agendas, social, political, artistic, satirical, etc., and completely rejecting the silly idea of a "Fourth Wall."

Something Rotten! is a meta-musical, a show that acknowledges in various ways that it's a show, referencing not just the show's story but the actual performing of it as well. When meta-musicals are written really well, they can be amazing -- if the meta-theatre devices come out of the story. Among the best of them are Bat Boy, Urinetown, Passing Strange, Spelling Bee, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch... there are so many good ones. Among the worst are the shows whose writers think random and relentless self-reference, and intentionally bad acting, are automatically funny. You know which shows those are.

To me, the funniest and smartest thing about this very smart show is its title. Of course, it refers to the famous Hamlet quote, "There's something rotten in the state of Denmark." And that also comically describes Bottom's whole scheme -- and Shakespeare's scheme too. But it also refers to the hilariously bad musical-within-the-musical Omelette. Both Omelette and the eggs (people) that made it are arguably rotten.

But more subtly the title also describes as rotten the central conflict of the show, how Bottom defines success, his worldview that only financial success is worth pursuing, and that any means to that end are okay, which is "rotting" Bottom's soul and his relationships. And though Bottom is attempting to steal from Shakespeare, Shakespeare likewise keeps trying to steal from Nigel. It's "the system" that has poisoned Bottom (and Shakespeare). It's the same misguided mindset among young actors and writers today that only Broadway means success in the theatre.

It's also struck me that Something Rotten! is a terrific companion piece to Tom Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Both shows take minor character from another play and put them centerstage. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we saw Bottom, Peter Quince, and their troupe rehearse and perform The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. Now we find out that they didn't produce only that one play. And Bottom's got a brother who's a writer! And now they're trying to steal Hamlet, which brings us full circle to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two minor characters from Hamlet, who got their own play.

The other fun part is all these very different takes on ol' Will Shakespeare, from Shakespeare in Love to the hilarious UK sitcom Upstart Crow, and now to Something Rotten! -- each portrayal gets something fundamentally right and also takes big liberties. We often see different takes on iconic characters, especially Shakespeare's characters, but it's rare that those characters are iconic writers.

And Shakespeare offers up the coolest meta device, which nobody seems to notice. An actor plays the character Shakespeare, who disguises himself as Toby, who then "plays" the role of Uncle Scar. It's dizzying.

There is a whole smorgasbord of crazy, wild, smart, transgressive, meta-theatrical stuff in Something Rotten! It's everything I could ask for in a musical. Cynical but idealistic, smartass but big-hearted, steeped in musical comedy tradition and also happily dismantling it.

1595, but also 2022.

And the cherry on top is that I love Shakespeare! So that makes all this even more fun for me. It's such a gift to work on material this audacious, this original, this inventive, and I get to do it with a cast full of very funny, very talented actors, along with our new music director Mallory Golden, and our new choreographer (and also current actor) Alyssa Wolf.

This is one of those perfect musical comedies that works best as a perpetual motion machine, no mugging, no gags, no schtick, just keep it moving! The script and score are incredibly well crafted, and we just have to follow the path they've laid out for us, and get out of the way of the brilliant comedy. The best musical comedies, like Something Rotten!, Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls, Urinetown, Bat Boy, don't need the director and actors to make them funny; they are built funny, by funnier people than us. I felt that the original Broadway production got in the way of the material too often with needless schtick. By definition, this is a comedy of words and ideas, so that's where we need to focus the audience; not on funny costumes, funny props, or funny sets.

As we've learned over the years, the more seriously we -- and the characters -- take a story like this, the funnier it will be. The higher the stakes for these characters, the more serious their desperation, the crazier and wilder the comedy gets. As the writers of Bat Boy and the Actors Gang taught us, the goal is "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression.” Honest, but Big. The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle. It's a wacky show, but it's also about real human emotions and relationships.

We've only had a single music rehearsal so far, but all of us can already feel how much fun and what a wild ride this will be. Stay tuned!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Season tickets are on sale now, and single tickets will go on sale at the end of the month. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.