How do you top yourself if you've done Aladdin, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon — plus a little Spamalot soft-shoe on the side? If you're director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (and you would be), you'd try Something Rotten!
Hardly a change of pace and definitely not rotten, this madcap scramble into Shakespeare's heyday is delicious fun for the theatre buff even when it's overripe.
And it couldn't be more populated with zanies if someone had run an ad in Show Business paging all sillies. Nicholaw doesn't have to do that. He picks up the phone.
"What's crazy about doing a show with Casey," said Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote the score with his brother, Wayne, and the book with John O'Farrell, "is he'll say, 'I'm just going to get a few of my friends around the table to read. They all won Tonys.'" Not quite, but a blue-chip gaggle of comics has been corralled to attend the birth of musical theatre, which, as the brothers Kirkpatrick-plus-one tell it, was created as an alternative entertainment to battle The Bard for box-office loot and stage space.
Waging this hopeless crusade are the brothers Bottom, Nick and Nigel, well-named for their placement in the race. The brains of the outfit, Nick, in desperation, goes to Nostradamus to find out what The Next Big Thing is. The soothsayer replies, in an epic showstopper chocked full of contemporary references, "A Musical."
He also tips Nick what Shakespeare's biggest hit will be. Unfortunately, it's not the real Nostradamus — it's his cousin, Thomas Nostradamus — and his forecasts short-circuit. Instead of Hamlet, he foresees Omlette: The Musical, with ditties like "How do you solve a problem like Ophelia?" Shakespeare infiltrates the Bottom company as an actor and steals his most famous lines from the earnest, poetic Nigel Bottom.
The Kirkpatricks came up with this conceit 18 years ago, spent 15 years pitching the idea back and forth and then toiled the rest of the time working on it in earnest with O'Farrell. Their welcome-to-the-theatre curtain-raiser, "Welcome to the Renaissance," was the first of the 40 songs they wrote for the show and one of the 18 that remain.
"I remember Wayne sitting down at the piano and saying, 'What about this?' and my answer was 'That doesn't sound like Sondheim,' but that, maybe, is a good thing."
O'Farrell anchored the bros in the labors. "We didn't want to be a play with obscure references," he said. "It's pretty much Shakespeare's Greatest Hits — 'To be or not to be' and 'To thine own self be true.' I've written books on Shakespeare, but I wouldn't say there's anything in the show that the audience might miss or not understand."
Wayne said their save is built into the show. "The character of Nostradamus gave us license to be anachronistic without breaking any rules within the show because anything that turns out to be anachronistic we could say Nostradamus saw it."
Nostradamus provides a field day—and a workout! — for musical-theatre veteran Brad Oscar. "'A Musical' is a dream of a number," he admitted. "The audience really feeds the performers. There's such an exchange of energy."
The show's central conflict is a clash of "Smash" stars Christian Borle vs. Brian d'Arcy James. The former plays it like Shakespeare Superstar-in-heat; the latter is perfectly content to stand up straight and have all the silliness running around him.
"That's Nick's function," said James. "He's someone once played by the Gene Wilders and the Bob Hopes — kinda the straight man, but with a chance to be a live-wire himself. It's nice when you have a role that holds up the poles of the tent but lets you go off the rails at times. I love being part of a big machine that makes people laugh."
Of all the zanies on the loose in the show, John Cariani's Nigel has a shy Harpoesque sweetness to him. A Tony-contending Motel in the 2004 Fiddler on the Roof, Cariani really is a playwright (Almost, Maine), and "that makes the part pretty easy to play. I understand his pain. I based the character on Wayne Kirkpatrick. He's the older, shier one, and that's the relation of the Bottom brothers, so I watched Wayne."
Heidi Blickenstaff holds up the distaff side of the ledger all by herself, as Nick's wife (and breadwinner), Bea. "She truly is a 1590 feminist. They've written her so smart. It's thrilling to play a character like that in a time when that wasn't happening."