As promised, here is my review of the hot new Broadway musical “Something Rotten.”
My reaction: I went into this show with the hope that it would be a witty, whimsical, musical salute to both Shakespeare and musicals, and it certainly was , but to my mind as a Shakespearean fan, I felt like it didn’t quite live up to its full potential. Yes it’s entertaining, yes it has some great acting and great performances, yes it boasts some glistening songs and scores of jokes, but the plot is a little recycled, the characters are hard to like at times, and the balance of Shakespeare and musicals is pretty tipped to one side.
Something Rotten is entertaining from the moment you walk up to the door of the St. James Theater: I was greeted by colorful Elizabethan cartoon figures who voiced their take on the show via speech bubbles: “Song and dance at the same time? Blasphemous!” As I walked up the stairs to my seat in the Mezannine, I saw all kinds of Shakespearean merchandise in the lobby from magnets to T-Shirts, to signature candy bars and drinks, including one called “The Bloody Bard.” This raised my hopes that this show would show some love to Shakespeare in addition to musicals.
As I took my seat, I gasped at the enormity before me: a huge Greek proscenium opening on a Pantheon like dome, complete with two painted muses on the ceiling, and three chandeliers that would tempt any Phantom of the Opera to deploy upon the audience. Below the dome was the set; an impressive recreation of an Elizabethan playhouse with its thatched roof, wooden galleries, and the banners that announce the start of the show. Once the lights dimmed, the orchestra began with trumpet and the ping of an old fashioned Tambor drum, which slowly evolved into the raucous jazzy tune “Welcome To the Renaissance.” The show had begun, and I was smiling already.
As I’ve stated before, the premise is pretty simple. Two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, (Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani respectively), are struggling writers who are trying to make it in theater in London, constantly out classed by Shakespeare (Christian Borle), who used to be an actor in their company. Nick angrily curses out Shakespeare in song in the hilarious number: “God I Hate Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare is a flamboyant and stupendously successful writer with a leather doublet, killer abs, and a cocky smile. He knows he’s the best there is, and shows off by giving extravagant parties and poetry readings, complete with colored lights and pyrotechnics! Shakespeare also has an annoying habit of stealing lines and ideas from other writers; the second he looks at Portia he says, “Good name,” hinting at his use of her name for the heroine of The Merchant Of Venice. Borle is fantastic in his Shakespeare strut, and plays the Shakespeare rockstar persona to the hilt.
Both the Bottom brothers secretly envy Shakespeare; Nick for his money and success, Nigel for his skill at writing beautiful poetry. Nick worries how to make a living as a playwright, especially since he is also supporting his brother and his wife Beatrice (played excellently by Heidi Blickenstaff). Bea urges him not to worry and assures him that she is strong enough to get a job and help ease the burden of supporting his family in the song: “Right Hand Man,” (a wonderful satire of contemporary gender politics). “It’s 1595, we have a woman on the throne,” Beatrice tells her husband, “By 1600 a woman will be exactly as equal as a man.”
Nick doesn’t want his wife to have to work for him, but he can’t get out from under Shakespeare’s shadow. Desperate to turn his luck around, Nick pays a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to tell him the future of musical theater. Oscar goes into a raucous musical number, “A Musical,” that “invents,” and parodies almost every musical of the last 50 years from A Chorus Line, to Rent, complete with an upbeat tune and kick-lines!
Bottom becomes convinced that he will create the great new musical that will rival Shakespeare’s plays in popularity, and he gets his brother and the Soothsayer to write it. He now imagines that for once, “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top!”
Nigel Bottom, Nick’s brother, is an aspiring poet who dreams of creating a play that will show beauty and truth. Nigel’s poems put love in the heart of Portia, who adores both his poems, and Nigel himself. The only problem is her father Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas), is a Puritan, (as well as a closet homosexual). Jeremiah despises theater, and by extension, Nigel. The pair secretly meet to allow their love, and their love of poetry to blossom. They also have a wonderful duet, “We See The Light,” where they imagine getting Brother Jeremiah to believe in their love, which turns from tender Elizabethan ballad into a catchy Gospel tune.
I don’t want to give too much away but, in the end, the Bottom family and Shakespeare strike a deal- Shakespeare will still rule theater in England while the Bottoms get to be on top at last in America, where their new musicals will become the theater of the future.
If you already have seen the show, here are some Shakespeare jokes you might have missed:
- The title “Something Rotten,” refers to a line from Hamlet where the guard Marcellus declares: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
- The name Nick Bottom comes from one of Shakespeare’s characters; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is an actor in an amateur theater troupe, who is magically transformed into a man with the head of a donkey. Through the play and the musical there are jokes about what an ass Bottom is both literally and figuratively.
- The two female characters are also named after Shakespearean heroines: Beatrice, Bottom’s strong-willed wife is from Much Ado About Nothing, while Nigel’s sweetheart Portia appears in The Merchant of Venice, as does the Jewish moneylender Shylock.
- In many of Shakespeare’s comedies women dress up as men to take on their jobs, just as Beatrice does for her husband Nick.
- The villainous puritans who try to shut down Nick and Nigel’s musical are based on a real life religious group who did eventually pull down all the playhouses in London, and ban theater altogether. Fortunately for Shakespeare, they didn’t succeed in destroying the theater until 30 years after he was dead.
- The brothers’ home land of Cornwall probably echoes that of the brothers Edmund and Edgar in Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear.
- Many people have accused Shakespeare of stealing his work from other people over the years, and of course, this musical makes it one of his defining characteristics. I’ve written about this in the past, but to sum up my arguments- Shakespeare adapted, he didn’t steal.
- The beautiful song: “To Thine Own Self Be True,” is a direct quote from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet; a bit of fatherly advice from Lord Polonius to Leartes.
- (Spoiler Alert) Toby Belch, Shakespeare’s non-de-plume as he spies on Nick Bottom, is named after another of the real Shakespeare’s characters- a fat drunken knight from the play Twelfth Night.
- The line “Son of York,” comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III.
- (Spoiler alert) Ironically, in Shakespeare’s play of Merchant it is Portia, not Beatrice who disguises herself as a male lawyer and saves the heroes from death in the courtroom with her famous “The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strained” speech, though Beatrice does so in Something Rotten.
- (Spoiler Alert) The judge in the courtroom whom Shakespeare promises not to make fun of is named Falstaff, named after Shakespeare’s most celebrated comic character- another fat, drunken knight who has no moral code whatsoever!
- (Spoiler alert) When the brothers are banished and sent to America with Shylock, this parodies a historical event in 1751, where a troupe of actors mounted one of the first ever theatrical productions in America, which happened to be Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
This musical is a wonderful and entertaining show, but as I said before, I feel that some of it didn’t quite live up to my own expectations. I’ve decided to list my criticisms as a list so that you can choose to read or ignore it. After all, this is only my opinion, and I want you to make up your own mind.
- I would argue that plot-wise, Something Rotten is basically The Producers set in 1595. The Bottom brothers who struggle to produce a play are quite obviously lifted from Mel Brooks’ Bialistock and Blume, and the fact that Brad Oscar, (who was in that musical), has such a big part in Something Rotten, is a dead giveaway. Plus the final scene that culminates in a courtroom is very derivative of the climax of The Producers. I feel that for a musical that bills itself as “A Very New Musical,” the creators belie this statement by ripping off one of the most popular musical of this century.
- This is a small point, but I believe that there are far more musical jokes in Something Rotten than Shakespeare jokes. This could just have been my own experience, (surrounded as I was by high-school aged musical theater geeks), but I thought that the torrent of musical theater puns and quotes was simply too much. The audience ate it up and laughed so fast that I couldn’t hear a lot of the other jokes. I wish that the jokes were a little more spaced out, and that the balance was a little more toward Shakespeare instead of musicals.
- The roles for women are small and the roles for minorities are nearly nonexistent- the only black actor is a minstrel (played superbly by Michael James Scott), who only gets one song, “Welcome To the Renaissance,” and doesn’t have any influence on the plot whatsoever. In Shakespeare’s plays, fools and minstrels were essential to understanding the plot and often helped comment on the action, so I thought not using his talent more was a huge missed opportunity. Likewise, Bea and Portia are great characters, but I wanted to see more of them in the play, and it would have been nice if they got a scene together.
- Although Shakespeare is the antagonist, I found his scenes were the best, which arguably caused sort of a problem. I feel the writers couldn’t really pick a lane in terms of making it clear whom to root for- Bottom or Shakespeare. In many ways Nick Bottom is a jerk- he ignores his wife, he ridicules his brother, and his jealousy to Shakespeare (though understandable) is highly unappealing. By contrast, Shakespeare might be an egomaniac and a thief, but as he says in “It’s Hard to Be the Bard,” he’s just trying to live up to the adoration that his fans demand of him. The Bard is arguably more sympathetic because he is constantly trying to live up to his image as a genius. Like a lot of artists from Mozart to Bob Dylan, to Picasso, to George Lucas, Borle’s Shakespeare worries that he’s piqued too soon, and has nothing more to offer his public. Bottom never offers to help Shakespeare or ask him for advice on how to become a better writer, he just tries to steal Shakespeare’s success and justifies it with his insatiable jealousy. At least Max Bialistock was nice to Leo Bloom and encouraged him to follow his heart’s desire of being a producer, but Nick never even does that for Nigel. In short, I found it hard to enjoy the character of Nick Bottom, (who was supposed to be the hero), when he is never given an opportunity to be likable. Once again, Bottom is overshadowed by the Bard, but this time it’s his own fault.
Although I was a little disappointed with these issues, the show is incredibly entertaining, well-acted, and has great catchy songs. I certainly would recommend it to any musical theater fan with at least a touch of Shakespeare in their soul!
Stay tuned for a review of one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations I’ve ever seen, the experiential theater piece, “Sleep No More.”