For the Love of Shakespeare: Welcome to the Renaissance

Without planning and without hesitation, upon reading a preview of Something Rotten, a musical written by Karey and John O’Farrel, and both directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, I rushed to the TKTS ticket booth to buy a ticket to the show.  This musical has a much accomplished creative team that will catapult this show to boffo box office sales. This show is pure entertainment. It is hilarious! It is stimulating! It is aesthetically gorgeous!  It had no tryout in London or in any other location. The Kirkpatrick brothers, having almost no theatrical experience believed that their show was going to be successful and opened on Broadway with stunning greatness. It’s that kind of confidence that is exuded in this performance.

“Welcome to the Renaissance,” the opening song of Something Rotten for both acts of the musical, sets the tone, at a high echelon, for the entire performance.  With this song comes great excitement, great energy and yes, great expectation (no pun intended). The minstrel and company arrive on the stage welcoming the audience to one of the greatest musicals in the last few years. It is an informal ode, filled with hilarity, to William Shakespeare, in spite of continuing controversy concerning his authorship of many of his greatest works. After they exit the stage, I was let down, albeit temporarily, because the opening act was difficult to rival and because it continued to echo in my head. After spending the last two months studying, teaching, and acting out scenes from Romeo and Juliet, and after watching a recent performance of Hamlet, it was natural to watch this spoof of Shakespeare’s greatest works, including the aforementioned plays as well as the recitation of his most famous sonnet.

This musical is about two brothers who are playwrights, but have difficulty getting employment as playwrights because of “The bard”, William Shakespeare.  As a result, Nick Bottom in desperation (Bottom was a character in A Midsummer’s Night Dream) consults an apothecary and seer, Nostradamus  (in real life Nostradamus was an apothecary with dubious prescience). As a result of pressure from Shylock, a money-lender (another Shakespeare reference) and Nostradamus’ prescience, Nick decides to do a musical, but his brother Nigel wants to be true to himself and wants to do something better.

This musical  has all of the elements of great theater: great musical score, superb costume and set design, unparalleled tap dancing and choreography, creative writing, compelling actors, a little romance (What is Shakespeare without two star crossed lovers?). Additionally, there are plenty of literary allusions. All the allusions make this a work of great erudition, but in a playful non didactic way. Although there are many lines taken from Shakespeare’s works and others have attempted works based on Shakespeare’s works, make no mistake, this is neither pastiche nor ersatz. In spite of this misappropriation from Shakespeare’s greatest works, it’s all done with both great antic and adroitness that all of the lines elicit chuckles and even appropriate guffaws. Some of the music is similar to musical selections from many Broadway musicals, but because of both the themes and content of the performance, the misappropriation is acceptable and adds to the hilarity. Others have attempted a similar work, but this musical out performs them all as result of a superb creative team that includes the director Casey Nicholaw from Aladdin and The Book of Mormon and Michael James Scott also from The Book of Mormon.
from left, Brian d’Arcy James, Christian Borle, and John Cariani

Something Rotten, opened on Broadway on April 22, 2015. Arguably,it  is the most well written musical to appear on Broadway since the arrival of the Book of Mormon, several years ago.  It may prove to be a juggernaut when the Tony nominations are announced on the 28th of April. The musical takes its title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet which has the famous line, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This music book is written by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and the music is written and composed by Kirkpatrick and his brother Karey Kirkpatrick, both musicians.  The musical stars Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani as the Bottom brothers and Christian Borle as William Shakespeare.

Although this performance misappropriates lines and character names from some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, as well as music, make no mistake, this is neither pastiche nor ersatz. Although there have been productions that have attempted a similar work, this performance has such well written songs (many with familiar tunes), well written dialogue, tap dancing, and superb actors with great verve that one never loses focus while watching this musical.  It is somewhat, however, highbrow with the creative writing, but one may never realize it. The audience member has to be well versed in Shakespeare’s famous sonnet, in Hamlet, in Romeo and Juliet, in The Merchant of Venice, and in Richard II. Having some knowledge of the controversy behind some of Shakespeare’s works also helps.  Moreover, having knowledge of the Renaissance would also add a greater dept to the understanding of the musical. If one is a musical buff and has seen musicals such as A Chorus Line, Dream Girls, Les Miserables, Cats, and has even the NYC Rockettes, then he or she is likely to have a greater appreciation of Something Rotten. If prior knowledge of musicals and Shakespeare is lacking, then the audience member will not understand the greatness of this musical. He or she will enjoy it, while never appreciating the brilliance of the writing. At the end of the show, I wanted to break out into Lionel Richie’s song, “All Night Long. and sing the lines “Let the music play on play on, everybody sing and everybody dance…” in tribute to the extraordinary music selections in the show.

Superb acting also helps make this show supreme among recent musicals. The Minstrel (a medieval singer of lyrical poetry) is played by Michael James Scott, from the The Book of Mormon and more recently as understudy for the genie in Broadway’s Aladdin. He sings and dances with great ebullience, that I almost felt like joining in with him. The song lasts for a number of minutes.  When it was over, I really wanted him and the ensemble to sing the song again.  Luckily, at the beginning of Act II, they reprise the song, although somewhat abbreviated. Scott sings and dances as part of the ensemble throughout the performance. His enthusiasm for the show is evident through his countenance. He seems to be the life of the musical. Shakespeare, played by Christian Borle’s,  walks on stage with great swagger and in garb reminiscent of Shakespeare. He looks just like the famous picture that many of us have seen of Shakespeare. He exudes confidence and ingenuity while acting this role. Every time Borle  arrives on stage and engages in duplicity and in artifice, his acting is near flawless. Brian d’ Arcy James and John Cariani deliver their lines well, but it is Borle and Scott who are supreme in this show.  Borle’s acting and Scott’s singing and dancing are what theater should be- engaging and compelling.
Tudor home The set was designed to look like Tudor homes, reminiscent of Tudor era from 1485-1603.

The set design includes Tudor homes, (reminiscent of sixteenth century England) with thatched roofs and a theater with a proscenium arch.The original Globe Theater had a thatched roof which was the cause of the theater burning entirely. When the characters performed “omelette”, a parody of the real Hamlet, the new set design of a theater would come down from the top of the stage, mimicking a real theater. The set also includes a courtroom scene, that mimics courtrooms during the Elizabethan era .

Elizabethan costumes in the musical provide information about the status of the person wearing them.  The show is set in the 1590’s, toward the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. The fabrics that the characters wear are dictated by society. The women’s costumes feature bumrolls, petticoats, and long sleeves. The costumes of the Christian characters in the musical wear are puritanical in nature to reflect their austere nature. The costumes add authenticity.

For those of you who are Shakespeare aficionados or Shakespeare enthusiasts, this show is a must see. Do not delay.  Get your tickets today. The Tony award nominations are forthcoming.  I predict that Something Rotten will receive nominations for best musical, best book of a musical, best original score, best choreography, best director, best performance by a featured actor in a musical (Scott) and maybe best actor (Borle). Do not pass this by! A review of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, is forthcoming.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

One thought on “For the Love of Shakespeare: Welcome to the Renaissance

  1. I have heard nothing but raves about this show from a number of people in the past few weeks. Thank you for posting some of the details that make the show unique and fun. I have a ticket in July, and after reading your comments, am even more enthusiastic about seeing the show.


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