This NYC-based review is part of an on-going series of regional Shakespeare coverage.
Last year saw the arrival of The Globe in New York, with two Rylance-helmed productions, Twelfth Night and Richard III, playing to sold out audiences for the duration of the run. This spring, Shakespeare is back – but not as we know him. Something Rotten, a new musical from Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, gleefully plays with the Shakespeare myth by presenting the man as a flashy, faux-cockney (or “mockney”) rock star who will stoop to any depths to maintain his celebrity.
Something Rotten follows the adventures of Nick and Nigel Bottom, the creative minds behind a rival theatre company, struggling to make a name for itself in a world dominated by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men over at the Globe. Nigel, the writing talent of the troupe struggles to believe in his talent, in spite of being continuously plagiarized by Will Shakespeare, who reaps the benefits of theatrical success. When Nick Bottom visits as soothsayer to get a sneak peek of Shakespeare’s greatest creation that they can sell as theirs, he returns with a vision of a new genre of theatre, and invests everything in a production of Omelet, The Musical. Naturally, hijinks ensue. At the end of the play, the two men have fed Shakespeare the inspiration he needs to write Hamlet and find themselves banished to America, where they bring their new musical form to the colonies. Along the way, there is a half-baked love story in which Nigel falls in love with a puritan girl named Portia, who ultimately sheds her oppressive father to elope with the Bottom brothers to the new world.
First and foremost, Something Rotten is terrific summer-stock fare and should enjoy a healthy life as part of the summer festival repertoire. The show is a ridiculous, over-the-top homage to the musical, exhaustively name-checking the texts that it parodies, with some terrifically enjoyable set-pieces. Equally, the text is laden with broad, easily-identifiable Shakespeare references, from inadequate Bottom Brothers and Shylock, the usurer who finances Omelet, to the loose revenge tragedy that is interwoven with the cookery lesson of Omelet. For good or ill, the show feels like a throwback to the type of pastiche that was popular ten, or fifteen years ago. It lays bare its debt to Mel Brooks with the inclusion of a stage Nazis, which the soothsayer predicts will be relevant, nothing that although he does not know whether they are good or bad, it feels “important to get it right.”
Being a musical about musicals, Something Rotten’s treatment of Elizabethan England is not likely to satisfy anyone looking for a detailed portrait of the late fifteenth-century, satirical or otherwise. Shakespeare in Love this isn’t. This Elizabethan London is unabashedly American – Will Shakespeare is the only one who speaks in an English accent, for example. Christian Borle’s swaggering Shakespeare is as shallow as the rest of this world, in love with celebrity and burdened by his obligation to complete the more difficult tasks of his trade – that is, to write. Something Rotten plants its flag in the longstanding assumption of a binary between Shakespeare and popular culture. The idea of the Bottoms aspiring to Shakespeare’s greatness is laughable, and these anti-heroes end up leaving the pressures of classical greatness in pursuit of the more authentic musical experience. Likewise, Will’s own character is built around his desire to escape the obligations of art’s creation in favor of the fun that rock stardom promises, affirmed by the show’s resistance to including any substantial Shakespearean text within the play. When Will gives a concert reading of a sonnet, for example, it is an abridged and modified version, performed with hip thrusting and punctuated with a lot of hysterical screaming from the fangirls watching. Ironically, the interplay between the Bottoms and Shakespeare that involves the cross-fertilization of ideas, borrowing and occasional attempts at blatant script stealing is probably the closest the show comes to representing Elizabethan theatre culture, albeit accidentally, but Something Rotten’s poor Will is forced to endure the plight of the solitary genius.
This review shouldn’t sound curmudgeonly. The show is delightful, and has rightly enjoyed success at the 2015 Tonys. It is over the top, occasionally drawn out, and full big, broad generalizations, and a patchwork of other texts. But as anyone who has read Titus Andronicus knows, such strategies worked well for Shakespeare…..