Nothing's As Amazing As This Musical

You don't notice the deceptively complex, incredibly sophisticated structure and form of Something Rotten!, largely because the dialogue is so laugh-out-loud funny on the surface.


The premise is sheer wacky genius -- A rival and former mentor of Shakespeare's becomes his Salieri, who schemes and lies and cheats to beat Shakespeare in the marketplace; but one giant mistake early on (trusting Nostradamus' nephew to see the future clearly) poisons every step of his plan -- without him knowing it until too late.

The rival, this Salieri to Shakespeare's Mozart, is Nick Bottom -- who we know, because we live in the story's future, will become one of Shakespeare's most ridiculous characters in one of his most famous plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream -- which isn't written yet in 1595 when our story is set. And the writers of Something Rotten! give all this a credible backstory. Will was once a member of Nick's acting troupe, but Nick really hated him, so he suggested Will try writing instead of acting, thus creating his own unbeatable rival in the process. All of that fits into real world details we know.

Years ago, I wrote a show called Attempting the Absurd (and I'm currently revisiting it), about a guy who has figured out he's only a character in a musical comedy and doesn't actually exist. I love the premise, but it took me months to figure out the rules and logic for this odd universe I had created. It was hard. But once all the rules were established, it was easier to pull off the trick.

The same thing is at play with Something Rotten! Once the premise was in place, it took the writers quite a while to work out the rules of this intricately plotted story. Every piece of the story relies on another piece, which relies on another piece, etc. So many of the fundamental ideas are set up so casually, so subtly, that the rich payoffs later on are great surprises (like Bea's male drag). And yet it all seems so wild and chaotic.

Like all great farces, structure is everything here.

All three of the show's writers agree that this was one of the hardest projects they had ever worked on. The reason it was so hard to construct is the reason it's so perfect -- they built a fully alternate reality and nothing in the story rips that weird fabric or violates that world's rules. Within that crazy universe, there is a perfect interior logic to everything that happens -- no matter how silly. 

A big part of the show's fun is the relationship between the world of Something Rotten! and our real world. Only we in the audience know what Nostradamus is getting right and, more importantly, what he's getting wrong. Likewise, we already know (or at least, know about) Shakespeare's plays, even though in this fictional world, most of them haven't been written yet.

One of the running jokes in the show is that whenever Nigel writes something new, we recognize it as a Shakespeare quote, and we realize (at least in this alternate universe), many of Shakespeare's greatest quotes really came from Nigel Bottom. This is set up in the very first rehearsal scene, after the opening number. The dialogue they're writing and rehearsing ("Oh noble kinsmen...") is from Shakespeare's Richard II -- a play Nick and Nigel have been writing, but soon Will's writing that play too. He's already stealing from the brothers.

In another fun reality dissonance, Nick insists on going forward with Omelette the Musical, But Nigel is determined to write his own story, and he eventually arrives, sort of accidentally, at what we all know today as the real plot of Hamlet. By this point in Something Rotten!, we already know Will Shakespeare is actively stealing Nigel's work, but the implications are so far-reaching we don't think about them. Nigel is actually writing Hamlet, Shakespeare steals it and sends the Bottom Brothers to America, after which he debuts Hamlet himself in London. In the world of Something Rotten!, all Shakespeare really contributed to his greatest play was the right title.

But that creates a wild time loop. Thomas Nostradamus looks into the future and (sort of) sees Shakespeare's Hamlet. And it's his mistaken vision, Omelette, that Nick undertakes and that spurs Nigel to write his own version of Omelette, which eventually becomes Hamlet, which Shakespeare steals and produces... which Nostradamus looks into the future to see...

One of the many clever tricks in the show is that the word "rotten" fits in both Hamlet and Omelette. In Hamlet, it's part of the famous line, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," referring to the corruption of the crown. In Omelette, the whole idea of a rotten egg becomes the dominant metaphor for Nick's show (and Nick).

As Nostradamus says at the end, "I was this close!" And using this iconic phrase as the title is funny too, since it can easily be construed to comically criticize itself.

Part of the impressive craft here is the wild mixing of reality and nonreality, real people and fictional people, real shows and fictional shows. The coolest, and least noticed, mashup of that kind is the idea that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. That's a real conspiracy theory in our real world, and there are several candidates that certain people believe really wrote those plays, using Will Shakespeare as only a fictional public persona. Yet here in Something Rotten! the essence of that real world idea gets comically morphed into the parallel idea that Shakespeare was real; he just stole all his plays instead of writing them. We have to wonder who else he steals from? Kit Marlowe?

And of course Something Rotten! also creates an alternate timeline in which musical comedy was invented -- sort of -- not really -- by the Bottom Brothers and brought to America way back in 1595.

But they could do that only because Thomas looked into the future and saw what musicals would be. We know that his visions are of our mid-20th-century through the early 21st-century. But if the origins of musical comedy go back four hundred years earlier in their world than they do in our real world timeline, what more would musicals have evolved into by the 21st century? Would our present musical theatre be advanced four hundred years further, into what would really be our musical theatre future?

Sadly, we'll never know for sure because Thomas doesn't see so good. Oh, and also because it's only a silly, little, musical comedy.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Single tickets for Something Rotten! are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

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