"It's like a haiku onstage," John O'Farrell observes about the delicate art form of the book musical. "It makes you more creative for the limitations you're in." At least that's been true for O'Farrell and his Something Rotten! collaborators, who have often felt like they might as well have been writing ultra-formal Japanese poetry over the last four years. O'Farrell is half of the book-writing team for the new musical comedy, which is set to open this week at Broadway's St. James Theatre. The other half is Karey Kirkpatrick, who also writes songs with his brother Wayne Kirkpatrick. All three are making their Broadway debuts.
In fact, unless you count a Fame knockoff called Stages that the Kirkpatricks wrote right out of high school, none of them has ever created a musical before. That doesn't mean they're showbiz novices. Wayne is a Grammy-winning songwriter who has worked with Eric Clapton ("Change the World") and Amy Grant ("Every Heartbeat"). Karey is a Hollywood screenwriter (Charlotte's Web) and director (Imagine That). O'Farrell is a celebrated British humorist and author (An Utterly Impartial History of Britain). The three have loads of experience, just not with musical theater. "We never thought we'd really get to Broadway," O'Farrell admits.
Yet something about this show has charmed producers and investors alike, inspiring so much confidence that a planned out-of-town tryout in Seattle was skipped in favor of a cold open on Broadway. Set in Elizabethan England, Something Rotten! is the story of thespian brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom. They want to create the next big stage sensation, but find themselves constantly in the shadow of "The Bard," rock-star playwright William Shakespeare. Nick visits a soothsayer who tells him that musicals are the future of the theater, so the Bottom brothers immediately embark upon producing London's first singing, dancing spectacular. Over the past four years this irreverent romp has attracted Broadway A-listers like Brian d'Arcy James, Christian Borle, and director Casey Nicholaw. "The road to Broadway has been green lights all the way," O'Farrell says in near disbelief.
Still, just because an idea looks good on paper and in a workshop doesn't mean it will necessarily translate to a real production. And comedy success in Hollywood doesn't automatically mean comedy success on Broadway. That's where Nicholaw (the Tony-winning director of The Book of Mormon) comes in. O'Farrell recalls, "We wrote some jokes that we went to Casey with and he said, 'Meh, that's a movie joke.' That was an education for us." While Hollywood screenwriters have the benefit of cameras and post-production, musical book writers have to contend with scene transitions, songs, and the Rubik's cube-like storage of the set in the wings.
"Just last week we were brainstorming and we thought of adding a scene where they're at the house having dinner," Karey remarks. "Casey said, 'No, we can't have the house at that moment because it's stuck up in the rafters.'" Obviously, with a film, adding such a scene at that moment wouldn't be such a gravity-defying feat.
With so many moving parts at play, there's a lot to think about as a writer. Despite their decades of experience in other fields, the Something Rotten! team feels that this is the hardest thing they've ever had to write. "If you've been a comedy writer all your life, what you're building to is the joke," says Karey. "You get to the joke and then cut. The scene is over." But in a musical, the scene is usually building to a song instead of a punch line. And even when that song arrives, the plot still must continue to churn forward.
"As a songwriter it's the hardest thing I've ever done because the songs have to do eight or nine things," says Wayne. "With a pop or country song, you find the theme and stick with it. You're finding different ways to say I love you. In musicals, it's to your detriment to repeat like that. You also have to think, will this character sing this? Is it funny enough?"
O'Farrell jumps in and adds to the list: "Does it serve the story? We've just had a ballad, so now we need an up-tempo song." They've all clearly had this conversation hundreds of times before. When a show has such specific needs, editing becomes the biggest job.
"We had this song that everyone loved, but the show stopped when it happened," Karey recalls. "We tried every way possible to make the song integral, but the show was telling us that it didn't belong." Like a pagan god, the book musical requires frequent sacrifices in order to work its magic. They've ultimately ended up cutting more material than they've left in.
"That's the hardest part," Karey says, "letting go of work you know is great, but doesn't fit here." But let go they have. By all accounts, Something Rotten! has gone through massive changes over its monthlong preview process. O'Farrell and the Kirkpatricks went into this as beginners, but they're emerging from Broadway boot camp as seasoned veterans.
- Christian Borle
- St. James Theatre
- Casey Nicholaw
- Wayne Kirkpatrick
- Karey Kirkpatrick
- John O 'Farrell
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