A Musical about Writing a Musical

The hit musical comedy Something Rotten! left Broadway on January 1, 2017 after a solid run of nearly 700 performances and 10 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical.

Something Rotten! is a show is about writing a musical, albeit a musical set in 1595 during Shakespeare’s heyday. Creative people can take inspiration from the show and its development.

Getting Started on Something Rotten

When brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick launched their own bard role for writing a musical, they had virtually no previous musical theatre experience. Wayne was a Grammy-Award winning songwriter who had penned hits for Amy Grant, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, and others. Karey was a screenwriter and director who had several movies to his credit, including Chicken Run and James and the Giant Peach. But they had an idea for a musical that they kept discussing during family get-togethers.

A story emerged about two brothers having trouble earning a living as actors or writers in Shakespeare’s London. About the concept, Wayne Kirkpatrick told EW, “The kernel was two writers trying to make it in the shadow of Shakespeare, who everything he touches turns to gold, and they can’t get a break.” (Can any writers today relate to that? In the shadow of Sondheim, for example?)

Kirkpatrick says they also had another core idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if the theater scene in Tudor England was like the theater scene in ’40s Broadway?” They knew the show would be full of anachronisms, and that would be part of the comedy.

They ran their show concept and a few songs past producer Kevin McCollum, an acquaintance of theirs.  McCollum liked what he heard. The Kirkpatricks decided to bring in another writer, John O’Farrell, an English humorist, novelist and nonfiction author, who had worked with Karey on the script for Chicken Run. O’Farrell came on board and began co-writing a real book for the show. Then McCollum brought in director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw right after his success with The Book of Mormon.

From Readings, Workshops, and Rewrites

As usually happens, the musical development proceeded through several years of table readings, staged readings, workshops, and rewrites.

“I can emphatically say that this has been the hardest and most challenging thing I’ve ever done,”

“I can emphatically say that this has been the hardest and most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Wayne Kirkpatrick commented in an interview (Broadway Beckons). “I’ve heard others talk about the challenges of writing a musical, but I didn’t get it until I experienced it for myself. You can write a song from top to bottom in a day or two. Musical theater has so many moving parts, and it all has to translate to a live setting.” The brothers scrapped more songs than they kept and rewrote the “keepers” multiple times before they were satisfied.

The writers now have many songs in their trunk of unused pieces. Karey Kirkpatrick told the New York Times that they wrote 42 songs, of which only 18 remain in the production. An example of one that failed was called “Words You Never Heard.” Karey said, “It was a list song about all the words Shakespeare made up. We played it for Casey, and he said, ‘Well, that would be a good song in a cabaret.’ ”

Borrowing Like Shakespeare

Sometimes leaning on writers of older source material is okay, especially in comedy. Shakespeare was famous for borrowing from and reworking legends or other people’s material. The Something Rotten team didn’t shy from the approach. As writer Charles McGrath noted in a New York Times article about the show, “Something Rotten! now borrows or alludes to just about every Shakespearean convention you can imagine. There’s a soothsayer, a Jewish money lender, a female character disguised as a man, a pair of star-crossed lovers and lots of misappropriated lines from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II.” The score is full of homages to other works as well, so much so that the Wikipedia entry for the show lists 39 show references. The song “A Musical,” that was performed at the June 2015 Tony Awards, is especially full of them, and they seem to delight audiences.

Cast Album and “Hard to be a Bard”

Thanks t0 the Grammy-nominated Something Rotten! cast album, we can enjoy the songs anytime. Writers will especially appreciate “Hard to Be the Bard,” a song that voices writers’ challenges. In the song, character Will Shakespeare moans of the troubles of writing: confining oneself to a room, pacing and searching for a spark, trying a new word but then hating the new word, and on it goes. “I make it look easy but/Honey believe me/ It’s hard… hard to be the bard.”