He Entertains, But He Makes You Think As Well

Often when we announce our season, someone will see a show listed that surprises them, and then they'll say to me, "Ooh, what are you going to do to it?"

That drives me nuts. While we approach some of our shows in completely different ways from the original productions, we approach other shows a lot like their original productions did. This time, we are coming at Something Rotten! with a fairly different approach from the original. But it's never about doing something to the shows; it's about figuring out what story is being told (which isn't always obvious), and then figuring out the clearest possible way we can tell that story. That's all.

In the case of Something Rotten!, as much as I love the show, I found it hard to love the original production, which was constantly begging for laughs, underlining every joke with a sight gag, inserting pointless gags that interrupted the wonderfully wacky story. I've come to the conclusion that the original director Casey Nicholaw just isn't a naturally funny person, and he doesn't understand this new form of the neo musical comedy; so he tries to show us funny, he tries to tell us funny, instead of just telling a very funny story.

We don't have to make Something Rotten! funny. It already is.

So how do we tell this story as clearly as possible? Get out of its way. When material is this good, this  funny and this well-plotted, anything you try to add or "enhance" will just get in the way of this extremely well-told story.

You don't buy a Maserati, then buy horses to pull it.

This show is brilliant. I mean it. Not only in its conception, not only in the lean, hilarious script and catchy, laugh-out-loud songs. But within this strange universe, everything in the story plays out logically, and all the characters take the high stakes very seriously. It's an incredibly well built narrative that's hiding behind the laughs.

It feels like a rowdy old-school musical comedy, but that's what neo musical comedies do -- they use the tools of old-school musical comedy for more interesting, more sophisticated aims. In Something Rotten! the writers are asking questions about commercial success vs. artistic success vs. personal success. They're asking question about the creative process and the mind-bending struggle of birthing a new work of art. They're asking questions about why we Americans love musicals, about how much they're a part of our consciousness, about how they manipulate us -- and they're laughing at our knowledge of the great American musicals.

The intellectual power of this musical is every bit equal to its pure entertainment value, which is considerable. As we can see at work in outrageous musicals like Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, and Head Over Heels, musicals are uniquely able to touch our hearts deeply even while making us laugh out loud. The writers could have mocked the emotions of these characters, but instead they gave them all very real, very complicated feelings, that engage us on a very human level.

The trick for the actors is to play these characters as honestly and seriously as possible. We don't have to make it funny. The show's comedy is already doing zero to sixty, just in the opening number.

So yes, this is a wacky, outrageous comedy, but it's built entirely on an intellectual conceit. The situation at the beginning of our story is half real world and half alternate reality. So the realer the acting, the closer to our recognizable reality, the better the story works, and the funnier all of it is.

In this world, Shakespeare is an intolerable asshole and a relentless plagiarist, but still a box office giant. Our story is set in 1595, so Will has already written all three parts of Henry VI, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew. And just in the last year or so, he's written The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost. His hit play Romeo and Juliet has just opened, and next up is Richard II.

Part of the ongoing fun is the idea that these plays are all new, that the famous quotes aren't famous yet, that people don't know the plot twists yet, and that Shakespeare is still grasping for new ideas for his next play. Significantly, Will's next play will be A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Nick Bottom and his entire acting troupe (minus Nigel) will be portrayed as clumsy, talentless hacks. Payback is a bitch.

And this alternate reality actually seems to affect the real world we already know. Of course, we in the audience only sense all this because we know the future! The future from the perspective of 1595. We know the names of plays and characters that Shakespeare will write in the future.

It puts us on a level with Thomas Nostradamus. We have a limited but real view of the future.

Within the year, Shakespeare will write King John; A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Nick Bottom is literally turned into an ass; and The Merchant of Venice, about a really mean Jewish moneylender named Shylock, and a pious young woman named Portia.

A few years after our story, Shakespeare will write the hilarious Much Ado About Nothing, starring a smart, ball-busting feminist named Beatrice, presumably (inside the universe of Something Rotten!) named for Bea(trice) Bottom.

Are we to believe Will also overheard the names of Bea's two friends in Act II? He takes the name Helena for one of his leads in Midsummer. He stores away the other friend's name, Miranda, to use fifteen years later in The Tempest. All through the show, Shakespeare hears clever phrases, often from Nigel, and we see him tuck them away to use later -- and of course, they're all quotes we know as Shakespeare Quotes.

Which also subtextually ties into the actual, real-world subculture of scholars who don't believe Will Shakespeare actually wrote the plays. This running subplot of rampant plagiarism in the show jokingly half-verifies the conspiracy theory since Shakespeare is constantly stealing other people's (i.e., Nigel's) work.

One of the last of the meta Shakespeare jokes in the show is at the end of the courtroom scene, when we find out the name of the Master of Justice is Lord Falstaff.
SHAKESPEARE: But if a merciful ending is not written here today [in court], then on my stage shall I replay these events -- with these characters and thee at thy bench -- then, shall I see fair justice done.

MASTER OF THE JUSTICE: Are you saying you might write a play about this? With me as a character? Well, I wouldn’t want to look the fool.

SHAKESPEARE: And you shan't, Lord Falstaff...

That's a huge laugh for the Shakespeare fans. Sir John Falstaff is one of the most disreputable characters Shakespeare ever put onstage, forever drunk, lazy, sloppy, blasphemous, but great fun at a party! He's a monumentally bad influence on young Hal, who will grow up to be King Henry V. And Shakespeare will write Henry V just a few years after our story.

It's a double laugh because it also points up a dark truism. The playwrights -- the storytellers -- always get the last word. Virtually nobody knows anything about the real Richard III, but lots of people know all about Shakespeare's villainous hunchbacked Richard III. And poor Lord Falstaff! It hardly seems fair, does it?

And then Will tells Lord Falstaff to banish the Bottoms to America (and eliminate Nigel as potential competition!), and to "Send them off this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm -- this England." That's a quote from Richard II, which Will has just written. He's quoting himself again.

Near the end, Falstaff says of Shakespeare, "It's good because he entertains, but he makes you think as well..." It's another delicious meta moment, because that describes Something Rotten! as well.

The entire show is peppered with what we would call Shakespeare quotes. But some of them are from plays he's already written in 1595, in which case, Will is quoting himself, or Nigel, Portia, and others are quoting his plays they've seen recently. (Shakespeare's first play was only five years earlier.) Some of the quotes in the musical are from future plays, and most of those are positioned as things other people say, which Shakespeare files away for future use. In both directions, it's awfully smart comedy, and it just enhances the wild meta nature of the show.

We New Liners are really lucky, because we only work on the very best of our art form, and Something Rotten! is in that category. It's taken the often misused and abused form of the meta-musical to an entirely other level of artistry and complexity. In this show, as in Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other great meta-musicals, the meta devices aren't just for laughs; they are an integral, inherent part of the basic premise of the story.

And it all works only because of us, the audience, and our shared common knowledge of Shakespeare, his famous lines (many of which we don't even know are his!), the style and sound of his dialogue, etc. Even for people who've never seen any of his plays, Shakespeare is such a ubiquitous part of Western culture. And the Kirkpatrick Brothers' stroke of genius was taking this figure of reverence and antiquity, and turning him into a modern asshole of a rock star, upending our expectations, but somehow also making this historical figure more flawed and more human than usual, which allows us to connect to him in a whole new way.

Maybe the true mark of the writers' skill is that most people seeing the show will never even think about all this stuff, and yet it works on them anyway, and they will have a real blast going for this crazy, twisty, ever-surprising roller coaster ride of comedy.

Everything about Something Rotten! is great. And every day I discover more evidence of that. It's such a gift to work on material this exciting and challenging, material we know will delight our audiences. We can't wait to share it! We open in just a few weeks!

Long Live the Meta-Musical!

P.S. Season tickets are on sale now, and single tickets are on sale now as well. For more info about the show, click here.

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