The premise is simple: Two brothers, flummoxed and frustrated by living in the theatrical shadow of William Shakespeare, collaborate to write the world’s first musical.
Simple, right? So why did the hilarious Broadway show “Something Rotten!” take 20 years to get off the ground?
“We talked about this idea in spurts for 15 years,” says Wayne Kirkpatrick, who with his brother Karey wrote the music and lyrics for the play — which makes its first appearance in South Florida Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. “Whenever we’d get together one of us would say, ‘Hey, I have another idea for that Shakespeare musical.’ We’d say, ‘Yeah, that could be funny. We should write that someday.’”
But someday is a long time coming when you’re a Nashville songwriter who has written tunes for Little Big Town, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Babyface, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Frampton and Eric Clapton (Wayne) or a director/screenwriter in Los Angeles with such movies as “James and the Giant Peach,” “Chicken Run,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” under your belt (Karey). Throwing out a few jokes about Shakespeare at the family Christmas dinner is easy if you grew up a fan of musical theater (both did). Walking away from your busy and lucrative day job and setting aside time for a complicated project that you have no idea how to begin is something else entirely.
Finally, in 2010, Karey took the brothers’ idea and a few questions to longtime friend and Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (“Rent,” “In the Heights,” “Avenue Q”). What do we need for a pitch? he wanted to know. Did they need to have the entire show written?
“He said that ‘Avenue Q’ was three songs and an idea,” Karey Kirkpatrick says now. “I said, ‘We have that.’”
Thus began the official road to “Something Rotten!,” set during the Renaissance. It opened April 22, 2015, at the St. James Theatre on Broadway and closed Jan. 1, 2017 — just in time for the touring production to begin a few weeks later. The show was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won one (best supporting actor in a musical for Christian Borle, who played the flashy, arrogant rock star Shakespeare). The touring cast includes final Broadway cast members Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti as Nick and Nigel Bottom, who are desperate to write a hit play, and Adam Pascal (“Rent,” “Cabaret,” “Aida”), who took over for Borle as Shakespeare.
We were rewriting up until the day of the first show, rewriting all the way through previews and rehearsal until we realized ‘We can’t write anymore — there are critics coming.’
Wayne Kirkpatrick, co-writer of the music and lyrics of ‘Something Rotten!’
Still, though the Kirkpatricks had decided to work seriously on the show, the course of true love and creativity did not run smoothly (it never does, they say).
“It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” admits Karey, who co-wrote the book with British comedy writer John O’Farrell — whom he met working on “Chicken Run.”
“I’ve written over 50 screenplays. Wayne has written more than 1,000 songs. But a song in a musical has to be the servant of so many masters. It has to advance the story and tell you more about the characters. It has to be a certain kind of song in the right place. You can’t have three ballads in a row. If Wayne and I got together and said, ‘OK, we’re going to write a love song,’ we could do that in a day or half a day. It’s in a vacuum. It’s not doing any extra storytelling.”
Wayne Kirkpatrick agrees that the task was tough.
“Even though I had a lifelong love of musicals, there’s a lot you don’t understand until you try to do it,” he says. “In the music business there’s a certain amount of tweaking, but pretty much you write a song and someone records it, and it’s on record. In theater, it’s constantly changing. You’re always rewriting. We were rewriting up until the day of the first show, rewriting all the way through previews and rehearsal until we realized, ‘We can’t write anymore — there are critics coming.’”
One of the casualties was a song titled “Lovely Love,” Karey Kirkpatrick says. It had been sung by Nick Bottom’s wife reflecting on meeting her husband.
“Everybody loved it,” he says. “It’s a really pretty song that made it all the way to the third week of previews. But it was in Act 2, and it wasn’t moving the story forward. It wasn’t telling us anything new about the characters, and the show kind of stopped. ... You can’t be afraid to murder your darlings, and this was a darling nobody wanted to kill. But it brought a tone shift at the wrong time inadvertently. She would start singing this sweet thing, and people in the audience would laugh. This is a play that never took itself that seriously.”
That humor is key to “Something Rotten!,” which features such amusing numbers as “It’s Hard to be the Bard” — one of Pascal’s favorite songs to perform — and “A Musical,” which makes a dizzying number of musical references.
Tonya Thompson, a Miami Northwestern High graduate who’s part of the touring ensemble, says she’s still discovering new elements to laugh at in the production.
“We’ve been at this three months, and I’m still finding new jokes I didn’t even know were there,” says the actress, who says she wanted a role in the show from the minute she saw it. “And my part is amazing — the ensemble gets standout features. I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s hilarious. It’s such a fun show. It’s a show for all ages, even though it has a few [bad] words in there. Even if you aren’t a musical theatergoer you’ll love it.”
For Pascal, playing a self-important, over-the-top Shakespeare — whom Karey Kirkpatrick describe as a “cross between Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger and Austin Powers” — is one of the highlights of his career.
“I love the fact that every time I come on stage I get to be silly,” says the actor, who may be best known for originating the role of HIV-positive rock singer Roger in “Rent.” “Being silly is the dominant aspect of my personality, and I get to express and explore that every night on stage. It couldn’t be more fun. He’s such a fun, goofy character, filled with bravado and insecurity at the same time.”
All’s well that ends well, then, with “Something Rotten!,” which heads next to North Carolina.
“It’s kind of like sending your child off to college,” Wayne Kirkpatrick muses. “You think, ‘Oh, wow, they’re doing this now!’ And you stand in the back and watch. I still remember the moment we were just huddled in a room coming up with ideas. Now it’s full bloom, and it’s pretty surreal.”
If you go
What: “Something Rotten!,” book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick, music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick.
When: March 21-April 2; 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and March 29; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; 1 p.m. only April 2.
Where: Au-Rene Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets: $35-$150; www.browardcenter.org