Originally published on Playbill.com
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While the much-buzzed-about move to Broadway of the new original musical Something Rotten! may seem quick to industry watchers, the production’s Broadway premiere has actually been almost 20 years in the making.
Something Rotten!, which is helmed by Tony Award-winning Aladdin and The Book of Mormon director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, received private industry presentations in October 2014. The next planned step was a world-premiere production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in spring 2015. But in December 2014, producers announced that the musical would skip its out-of-town tryout and instead take its world-premiere bow on Broadway at the St. James Theatre.
The fast-tracking to Broadway of Something Rotten!, which has music and lyrics by Grammy Award winner Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (“Charlotte’s Web,” “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) and a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell (“The Man Who Forgot His Wife,” “An Utterly Impartial History of Britain”), is an unusual move in an economy that renders investments in musicals risky, even when utilizing out-of-town tryouts to assess the responses of live audiences and test different material.
With a cast that includes Tony Award winner Christian Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Monty Python’s Spamalot), Tony Award nominee Brian d’Arcy James (Shrek the Musical, Time Stands Still), John Cariani (Fiddler on the Roof) and Heidi Blickenstaff ([title of show], The Little Mermaid), Something Rotten! is produced by Kevin McCollum, who is no stranger to bringing new work to Broadway, having also produced the original musicals Rent, Avenue Q, The Drowsy Chaperone and In the Heights, among others.
Set in 1595, Something Rotten! follows aspiring playwrights Nick and Nigel Bottom (James and Cariani) as they struggle to write a hit play but remain overshadowed by the Renaissance rock star William Shakespeare (Borle). After visiting a soothsayer to learn what the next big thing in entertainment will be, the brothers set out to write the word’s very first musical.
The idea for Something Rotten! originated when the Kirkpatrick brothers would get together for holiday meals. Describing conversations as a bunch of “What ifs?,” Karey said the two would contemplate being a struggling writer competing with The Bard and what lengths one would go to in order to outshine Shakespeare in the public’s opinion.
“We kept saying, ‘We should write this,'” Wayne said. “Then we would go to our other careers we were doing [but kept saying], ‘Oh, I thought of something else. We should write that one day.’ Eventually we just said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we need to get serious about it.’ That took about 15 years.”
Karey then brought in O’Farrell, a collaborator on the animated film “Chicken Run,” to write the musical’s book. The trio, all of whom lived in different time zones, communicated via Skype, writing and revising and discarding more than 40 songs for the musical over the years.
“It rarely happens like this,” Borle told Playbill.com about the quick trip from workshop to Broadway. “I was really happy that Kevin saw something that was happening in the room and he felt, ‘Let’s not mess with this. Let’s just take what we have and work really hard on it.’ I love his confidence about it.”
Out-of-town tryouts were the norm for Broadway musicals for years, with theatres in Boston, Philadelphia and New Haven frequently utilized. As previously reported, the trend waned in the late 1960-70s, but several successful recent Broadway productions first played regional engagements, including the recent, Tony-winning revival of Pippin and the critically acclaimed revival of The Glass Menagerie, both of which were first produced at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. The ART was also home to the pre-Broadway run of the musical Finding Neverland. The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey was home to the musicals Newsies and Honeymoon in Vegas prior to their Broadway runs, and Kinky Boots played Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre before its Tony-winning Broadway production.
“When we were doing the lab in the fall, we all had a hunch it was something special,” Cariani said. “I remember one day I was having lunch with Christian and Brian Shepard, and Brian said, ‘Guys, this is good, isn’t it?’ And Christian said, ‘Yes, this is good.’ Christian said he had a feeling that there might be a cancellation of the out-of-town engagement, and we might come straight in.
“I think part of it was because Kevin wanted to keep this company together,” he continued. “And it’s hard to keep people together because we all have to take jobs as we get them.”
The New York lab of Something Rotten! generated a great deal of buzz within the industry, much of which found its way to Heidi Blickenstaff, who was cast in the Broadway production following the lab.
“I heard from all my friends how special it was,” Blickenstaff recalled. “In the Broadway community, people definitely talk. The buzz about it was outstanding. I was like, ‘How lucky for those people to be a part of an original musical that’s got that kind of buzz.’ Then I got a call about a month ago. I had worked with Casey [Nicholaw] several times before, and sort of miraculously, he was like, ‘Do you want to do this?'”
“It’s kind of like we have nothing to lose,” Karey said of the decision to open on Broadway. “Oh, wait. We have everything to lose!”