by Kirk Woodward
[When Kirk first sent me this article on Something Rotten!, which he’d just seen, he remarked, “I will have to see the musical again to be confident that I’ve seen most of what’s going on in it.” So I suggested that if he decided to do so, I’d like to go along with him. Lo and behold, Kirk and another friend decided to catch a Wednesday matinee in the first week of May, and I rode up to the TKTS booth in Duffy Square to meet them and join them for the show. So, in a first for ROT, I will be posting two contiguous reports on a play on the stage right now—first Kirk’s, below, and then my own in a few days. (ROTters may recall that last year, I posted my own report on An American in Paris and then followed it with one by Kirk, but those weren’t posted—or written—in a row. Mine was posted on 2 August and Kirk’s wasn’t published until 13 November; in fact. Kirk saw the play not just after I did, but after I posted my report.) So if you're curious to see if Kirk and I agree or not (readers will recall that we had divergent opinions about American), come back at the end of the week and see.
[The two posts are more than a matter of potential disagreement about the play, as Kirk and I are taking different approaches to our two articles. Kirk is making a point about musicals and how Something Rotten! does or doesn’t represent the genre. My report is standard to my usual procedure: I give some background, record the details of the production, describe my experience, and then finish with a survey of the published reviews. In other words, Kirk and I aren’t covering the same ground so there won’t be any déjà vu if you read both posts. Which I encourage you to do.]
To judge by the standard narrative of American theater history, the musical for decades after its origin was nothing much more than a collection of songs, dances, and comedy, loosely held together by a frivolous story line about questions no more serious than: would this dashing young man and this charming young woman finally overcome an obstacle or two (a misunderstanding, a parent) and find happiness together?
Fortunately, the historical narrative goes, a group including the songwriters Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), and Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), finally dragged the musical form into the world of coherent drama, beginning with preliminary efforts like Showboat (1927) and Pal Joey (1940) and reaching fulfillment in Oklahoma!, giving us the plot-oriented musical theater we so enjoy today. (Hammerstein wrote the book and lyrics for Showboat, and Jerome Kern the music; Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote the score for Pal Joey, and John O’Hara the book; Rodgers and Hammerstein, of course, wrote Oklahoma! Obviously there are many intertwined relationships in this narrative.)
There’s truth to this account, but it’s also a fact that by the end of the Twentieth Century many felt that the Meaningful Musical, with its serious messages and stirring affirmations (think, for example, South Pacific, 1949, again by Rodgers and Hammerstein), had more or less worn itself out.
No theater trend is complete; theater is a continuity, and we still have plenty of various kinds of musicals with us. But musical adaptations of movies, in particular, began to loosen the Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Sondheim grip on the musical form, although R&H seem to have permanently elevated the status of the musical “book,” and Sondheim the range of the lyric and the music. (For more about musicals based on films, see Rick’s article “Movicals,” posted 20 September 2013, and the follow-up, “More on Movicals,” 21 February 2014.)
Something similar may have happened to the musical: there is evidence that, like a river rediscovering its channel after a flood, the musical form in many ways has revisited its original purpose of providing a framework for enjoyable song, furious dancing, and boisterous comedy.
I have always felt that the musical at its heart provided an excellent excuse for seeing marvelously entertaining acts; and the theater seems less self-conscious about putting this approach on stage today.
As evidence I cite the Broadway musical Something Rotten!, which previewed in New York City on March 23, 2015, and opened on April 22, 2015, and as I write is still running. I saw it twice at recent matinees.
SPOILER ALERT – Something Rotten! is a problem for me to describe, because I don’t want to ruin the jokes, of which there is an abundant supply, many of them integral to the plot itself. It’s sufficient here to say that the story involves the two Bottom brothers, Nick (an actor) and Nigel (a playwright), in the Elizabethan theater of 1595.
They are doing poorly because their theater is overshadowed, like everyone else in their world, by the titanic presence of the rock star-sized talent William Shakespeare. Nick, ferociously jealous of Shakespeare’s success, decides to consult a soothsayer, learn what Shakespeare’s most successful play will be, and write it first. The soothsayer turns out to be, shall we say, vision-impaired, and the result – a musical! – is, well, memorable.
The role of Shakespeare, when I saw the show, was played by the original actor of the part, the breathtaking Christian Borle (b. 1973, notable for acclaimed performances in the TV series Smash and the productions of Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway and Angels in America Off-Broadway). Personally I knew almost nothing about Borle when I saw the musical, so I had the pleasure of discovering for myself what everyone else apparently already knows: he is a dazzling, multi-talented actor, and his Shakespeare is a stunning tour-de-force – thrilled by his (Shakespeare’s) own greatness, on top of his field and desperately competitive, idolized and loving it, an artist who has become a huge celebrity, still needing to write, of course, and desperately hoping he can keep the hits coming.
Borle won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor; Brian d’Arcy James (Smash, Shrek the Musical), who plays Nick Bottom in Something Rotten!, and Brad Oscar (The Producers, The Addams Family), as the Soothsayer in the show, were also nominated for Tonys, and they are also terrific in it. The show was nominated for nine other Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Original Score.
The authors were Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell (book); Karey and his brother Wayne Kirkpatrick wrote the clever and lively score. O’Farrell is the British member of the writing team for the musical, which, rather unusually, opened on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout. The director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, an American, choreographed Spamalot (2005), directed and choreographed The Drowsy Chaperone (2006), and co-directed and choreographed The Book of Mormon (2011), also bravura musicals with something of the same exuberant feel as Something Rotten!
As I said, I don’t want to spoil the plot of the play, which is hilarious in itself, but I can make several points about it. For starters, its plot is Shakespearian, in the sense that it includes multiple subplots that are resolved at the end. There is the story of the two brothers; there is the story of the actor and his wife, who is looking for her own role, and that’s the word, in the world; there’s the love story, between the writer and the daughter of a Puritan leader – yes, there are plenty of Puritans.
Something Rotten! is also Shakespearian in its humor, which ranges from extremely low (those codpieces!) to highly sophisticated, and often can be found in the background (for example, one of Shakespeare’s bodyguards motioning to a female crowd member to join the great man in his dressing room after his “show”). Best of all, I thought, was the lightning-fast second act opener “It’s Hard to Be the Bard” in which Shakespeare, dealing with the effects of celebrity on his ability to write, unravels in front of us.
And – delightfully for the thesis of this article – Something Rotten! is not only a musical, but it is about musicals; the show luxuriates with references to (according to Wikipedia) almost forty other musicals, all of the references extremely funny.
The reviews for Something Rotten! were mixed, and one reason I am writing this piece is that I felt that they frequently paid no attention to what the show was trying to achieve – which surely is the first rule of reviewing. Ben Brantley in the New York Times, for example, felt the show was ultimately tedious and tasteless, but he doesn’t appear to have seen the same intentions in it that I did, or if he did, didn’t like them much. Disagreeing with Ben Brantley, to be honest, does not bother me much.
Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post thought more along my lines, calling the show “deliciously clever under its goofy exterior,” which is my opinion exactly. Elysa Gardner in USA Today thought the show was amusing but not memorable. Marilyn Stasio in Variety thought it was “irresistible.” Okay . . . but do reviewers bother to consider what a piece is trying to achieve?
One possible factor in this discussion, I would say, is that humor critically speaking has a rough time. For many reviewers, something is either funny – to them – or it’s not, and one person’s sense of humor is not necessarily like another’s. So a reviewer who doesn’t find a piece funny may be unlikely to dig further into the intentions of the piece. If there had been reviewers in Shakespeare’s time, one wonders what their reviews of Shakespeare’s comedies would have said. Would they have bothered to identify what Shakespeare was doing, not just in the jokes, but in the play?
Do I have reservations about the show at all? I’d prefer that the “heartfelt moment” toward the end be a little more brisker. That’s about it. After all, why do a musical? Surely, so people can sing and dance and say outrageous things! And that’s what happens in Something Rotten! It is a musical in its purest form – and smart, and funny. Who, as a song from a musical goes, can ask for anything more? Perhaps we can, but the musical, as scholars keep reminding us, is an indigenous American art form, and one to treasure.
[Now, don’t forget to come back to ROT in a few days to see what I have to say about Something Rotten! myself.]