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An oral history of 'Something Rotten,' the Broadway hit coming to the Broward Center

“Something Rotten!” is that rare thing: an original musical comedy. The show — about two brothers in 1595 who are trying to outdo Shakespeare on the theater scene and, along the way, invent the musical — isn’t a Broadway-tized version of a book, a movie or a jukebox of genre-defining hit songs.

So audiences may be unfamiliar with the touring production coming March 21-April 2 to Fort Lauderdale.

To remedy that, we talked to the creative team, which includes brothers Wayne (music and lyrics) and Karey Kirkpatrick (book, music and lyrics), Gregg Barnes (costume designer), John O’Farrell (book) and Kevin McCollum (producer).

Wayne Kirkpatrick is a Nashville-based songwriter who has composed hits for Little Big Town, Garth Brooks, Martina McBride and Bonnie Raitt.

Karey Kirkpatrick is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter whose credits include “James and the Giant Peach,” “Chicken Run,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Over the Hedge” (which he also co-directed).

Barnes lives in New York, and has designed costumes for “Kinky Boots,” “Aladdin” and “Legally Blonde.” He has won Tony Awards for his work with “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Follies.”

O’Farrell is in London and answered our questions via email. He is an author with five best-selling novels, both fiction and nonfiction. He is also known for comedy scripts he’s written for British TV shows as well as for contributing to the screenplay for the movie “Chicken Run.”

What was the genesis of the show’s idea?

“It’s almost like it kind of oozed out of the earth somehow in our many conversations talking about wanting to write a musical. We were always sharing with each other ideas, whether it was a song idea or a movie idea. I’ve always been fascinated with historical figures and their impact on pop culture and culture at large. And [Karey Kirkpatrick] has a similar interest in that kind of thing. We always say we wish we had a better story about how this came about, but it was so incredibly organic.”

— Wayne Kirkpatrick

“Well, this idea is about 20 years old. I wish we could pinpoint the precise moment that it all happened, because we get asked this a lot. … It was one of those ‘what if’ situations. We were wondering what it would be like to be a writer … in the shadow of Shakespeare. What if the writing community back then — Marlowe and Middleton and Shakespeare — what if it were like Hollywood or Broadway in the 1930s and everyone had an agent like William Morris and they had attorneys? There were a lot of idiosyncratic jokes that we played with from early on, but always with that idea: We all have people in our lives that get all the credit and glory and all the fame and the prestige while we’re struggling away. And what would you do to beat Shakespeare at his game?”

— Karey Kirkpatrick

“John came on board. We had worked together on ‘Chicken Run.’ In February 2011, we pitched again to Kevin. He said, ‘I think I know just the right director,’ and he literally picked up the phone and called Casey Nicholaw. We came in the next day and pitched to him, and by the end of the day he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I remember afterward calling my wife back in L.A. and saying, ‘Well, the Book of Mormon director is doing it.’ ”

— Karey Kirkpatrick

How did you get “Something Rotten!” to Broadway?

“Well, I knew Kevin [McCollum]. We went to film school together. In ’96, he invited me to a tech rehearsal to a little-known musical he was doing called ‘Rent.’ Right after we saw that tech rehearsal, we kind of mentioned that we had an idea for a musical, and he said his door was always open. That was 1996, and we didn’t pitch it to him until 2010. We had about five songs. To his credit he said, ‘I think you’ve got something here.’ ”

— Karey Kirkpatrick

“And then, we started seriously writing it. The 15 years or so that we had discussed it, [all the ideas] were all just like snippets of what something could be. It was just hanging out there without a lot of shape to it other than the basic tent pole: two brothers trying to get a hit in the shadow of a guy who everything he writes turns into gold. The other tent pole was Nostradamus trying to predict the future of theater.”

— Wayne Kirkpatrick

“Wayne and I had over 50 songs. [Casey Nicholaw] helped shape it, and we did three table reads and one lab [where the show was staged]. That was the end of 2014. It was supposed to go out of town in Seattle. But the chemistry of the cast was working so great, so they decided let’s go with them into a Broadway theater. If we did the out-of-town tryout, we would have lost some people. It was risky, especially with a new, unknown title. But Kevin is a risk-taker.”

— Karey Kirkpatrick

“We had a great company. The name of my company is Alchemation. It’s really my philosophy, alchemy … and we sort of said, ‘It’s ready.’ Now, should we go somewhere else and lose this company or come in [to Broadway] with this company? It was a touch choice, but we definitely talked about it. If I had waited, it would probably just now be coming in, you know, to get everyone to readjust their schedule.”

— Kevin McCollum

“[When told the musical would be produced], my first thought was, ‘You do realize we’ve never done this before?’ Everything we did was the first time we’ve ever done it. So we really didn’t realize how that profession worked from table read to workshop to whatever. We were like sponges soaking it all up. It was exciting and exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time.”

— Wayne Kirkpatrick

How close is the show we see today to the idea that you kicked around for years?

“In spirit and premise, it’s really close. There were some little plot deviations here and there, particularly with the female characters. We put a lot of work in the development of the female characters. It’s a male heavy show, partly because women were not allowed on the stage back then. We wanted to make sure our women characters were really strong. Those things definitely developed over the year, but it’s very much the idea we had.”

— Karey Kirkpatrick

“The basic idea was there of these two writers in the shadow of Shakespeare going to see Nostradamus to learn about musicals. But there were fundamental structural problems with it, that I am sure Karey and Wayne would have worked out on their own if I had never come along. We made the two writers brothers [Nick and Nigel Bottom, who run a theater troupe]. We made it so that only Nick visits Nostradamus, and keeps this a secret from Nigel. We had Nick go back a second time to Nostradamus when he gets desperate. That was actually a big structural change that I banged on about for ages! And we made Bea [Nick’s wife] a feminist who wants to be an actor. Also I said, ‘Write brilliant songs,’ and they did. But that was my suggestion.”

— John O’Farrell

Any changes from the Broadway version and the road tour?

“If anything, it’s more rich. This is their very first musical. When we went into rehearsal for the national tour, there was this one part of the show they wanted to adjust, so we went in and they rewrote a few extra scenes. There are some wonderful new things in the show. I don’t want to ruin it, so I can’t tell you. But most shows don’t take that kind of care.”

— McCollum

Is there a part of the show that you just knew would kill?

“I’ve never been confident enough to go that far. But when we went to see the pre-production when Casey Nicholaw [director and choreographer] choreographed the first three numbers, it was before the workshop, and they were I believe ‘Welcome to the Renaissance,’ ‘A Musical’ and ‘Bottom's Gonna Be on Top.’ I remember going, ‘Wow, this could be really fun. This might just work.’ ”

— Wayne Kirkpatrick

“Casey had worked with some dancers for a week on ‘A Musical’ with, like, seven dancers. He played Nostradamus. It was just him and six other dancers. We didn’t have 35 people onstage like the number does now, and I was in stitches. I was like, ‘I have to produce this musical.’ ”

— McCollum

“I always loved the central joke of the show when Nick is having the concept of the musical genre explained to him and he says, ‘What, out of nowhere an actor just starts singing?’ And then, he starts singing, ‘Well, that is the stupidest thing that I have ever heard.’ It’s like meta on top of meta. And the audience sort of guess it’s coming, but love it, anyway. There are a few individual jokes that I felt fairly confident would go down well, like when Nostradamus foresees the theaters of the future and says, ‘Incredible! That much for a glass of wine?’ It’s a pleasure to hear an American audience laugh at that joke and remember when I wrote it, sitting in my office in London thinking, ‘That’ll get a laugh.’ ”

— O’Farrell

“We always say it’s like a satellite in the rainstorm — sometimes the signal gets through and sometimes it doesn’t. The thing that constantly and continuously blows us away is the audience reaction to the songs ‘A Musical’ and ‘Make an Omelette.’ The first few weeks of previews they would literally stop the show. The way Casey staged them with all the references and throwing in everything including the kitchen sink and the big tap number, it always brought the house down. We were always amazed at the amount of joy in the theater. Our mantra for the show is, ‘We’re going to make America laugh again.’ ”

— Karey Kirkpatrick

How did you come up with the look of the show?

“When you think about the Renaissance, you think heavy clothing and pageantry. We talked a lot about the style. Should it be ‘The Carol Burnett Show’? Should it be a cartoon? We just talked about different ways of styling the show. But [Nicholaw] said, ‘Let’s approach it like it was a Shakespearean comedy.’ Of course, I had to make the clothing as light as possible so they can tap-dance. There’s a lot of tap dancing in the show. But the style isn’t heightened in any way. It’s very real people. Except Shakespeare. He’s a rock star of his day. So I made his jacket take the shape like a motorcycle jacket. We kind of make it feel like we know this guy. He’s a rock star, and yet it’s elevated.”

— Gregg Barnes

How much do you need to know about Shakespeare to get the humor?

“You don’t have to know anything about Shakespeare, or you can know everything about Shakespeare. You don’t have to know anything about musicals, or you can know everything about musicals. But you do understand someone against all odds trying to write a hit, trying to make a difference in the world, a player trying to make it to the big league. Everyone knows that story arc.”

— McCollum

What was the biggest challenge?

“The biggest challenge for ‘Something Rotten’ is that it wasn’t a movie. It didn’t come from something else. A lot of people want to know what they are seeing before they are seeing it. I’m working on ‘Devil Wears Prada,’ and people want to buy tickets and we’re not even done writing it.”

— McCollum

“[For the big production number ‘Make an Omelette’], we knew there would be tap-dancing eggs. [Nicholaw] came to me and said, ‘I think everyone needs to be dressed as omelettes,’ and my career flashed before my eyes. An egg is the worse possible shape to make into a costume, because in nature it’s the perfect shape. And it has to have a hard surface, but they have to be able to tap-dance in it. They have to see out of it, so it can’t be opaque. Originally, I had designed the egg as if they had taken bamboo and, like high school children, covered it with something like chicken wire. It had to look like something they could make out of what was available back then. So we mocked that up, and [Nicholaw] said it would be funny if it’s just an egg. I said, ‘It’s going to be a lumpy egg.’ For the tour we redesigned it, and I like it better. You’re getting a much better, grade-A egg on the road.”

— Barnes

“The hardest thing was actually getting us together to write it and then rewrite it. We live in three different time zones, and early morning in Los Angeles is midafternoon in London, so we were Skyping for a few hours at a time per day. I’m sure Wayne and Karey would say that writing the songs was the hardest thing, but for me it was getting the story to work, to make it funny, surprising, yet satisfying. Everyone says, ‘You must have had such fun writing it,’ but the fun is after you’ve made it good. Before that, it is just a lot of worry. Even now when I watch the show I still feel like a mum watching her child onstage, hoping he doesn’t trip up or forget his words.”

— O’Farrell

“The amount or rewriting that was always being done. In the commercial-pop-song world, you write a song and then someone records it and it either makes the record or it doesn’t. So you don't do a lot of constant rewriting. And in theater, it’s all rewriting. It’s nonstop, because it's a living, breathing thing. It’s always changing, and when you change one thing, it affects something else. So that was challenging. And exhausting.”

— Wayne Kirkpatrick

 

“Something Rotten!” runs March 21-April 2 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; with matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays (and Wednesday, March 29) and 1 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $24-$150. To order, call 954-660-6307 or go to BrowardCenter.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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