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Theater preview: 'Something Rotten!' tweaks Shakespeare in fresh musical


BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

For decades, Wayne Kirkpatrick’s name has been a familiar sight on song credits.

From Amy Grant to Garth Brooks, Eric Clapton to Little Big Town, Kirkpatrick has long been regarded as a reliable creator of hooks and melodies.

About 15 years ago, he and his screenplay writer brother Karey, known for his work on the cinematic versions of “James and the Giant Peach,” “Chicken Run” and “Charlotte’s Web,” started spit-balling ideas for a musical.

They set their story in 1595 with brothers (natch) Nick and Nigel Bottom struggling to produce a successful play because they keep running into competition from some guy named William Shakespeare.

Frustrated with their inability to succeed because of Shakespeare’s popularity, Nick seeks advice from the legendarily clairvoyant Nostradamus, who tells him the next new theatrical fad will be something called a “musical” – explaining it as a play where the actor “out of nowhere starts singing.”

And so the Bottom brothers begin their quest to write the world’s first musical.

When the Kirkpatricks’ creation, “Something Rotten!,” hit Broadway in spring 2015 after positive word of mouth detoured it from the usual out-of-town tryout, it landed solid reviews and nine Tony Award nominations (it scored one, for Christian Borle’s featured actor in a musical role as Shakespeare).

The show ran for nearly two years before shuttering in January 2017 and weeks later launched a national tour featuring Adam Pascal as Shakespeare, Rob McClure as Nick Bottom and Josh Grisetti as Nigel Bottom.

Wayne Kirkpatrick still pops in on the road production and plans to be in attendance for this weekend’s performances of “Something Rotten!,” which plays Tuesday through Sunday at the Fox Theatre. The musical is on tour through May and will commence a new round of dates in September through July 2019.

Calling recently from Los Angeles, where he and Karey are working on an animated project, the Louisiana native talked about the evolution of “Something Rotten!,” his theatrical influences and the challenges for a musician ducking into the theater world.

Q: What was the inspiration for the story?

A: It’s the journey that anyone in a creative field goes on when you’re trying to get that break. In our case, if you could look at one of the greatest playwrights of all time and get a jump on what he’s going to write next before he does, would you? The lesson in that is there is no shortcut to success, and we also know people who try to take the shortcut. Center that around our lead character, who is well-intentioned with wanting to provide a better life for his wife and family. Karey once compared it to “Breaking Bad” and the Walter White character. He started off well-intentioned, and it just went really, really wrong. But you’re kind of rooting for him. There’s honor among thieves.

Q: What shows influenced you growing up that you might have drawn from while writing this?

A: Some of the earliest music I can remember from my mom and dad having cast recordings playing in our house are “Hello Dolly” and “The Music Man.” I’m a huge Rodgers and Hammerstein fan as well as Kander and Ebb. In recent years, “The Book of Mormon” – that was just opening when we were on the front end of doing our show – and “Next to Normal.” But from a songwriting standpoint, I always go back to the foundation of Rodgers and Hammerstein. They’re just writing memorable songs. That’s where I live. That goes back to them. They were writing songs that did things emotionally, but also you could remember when you walk out of the theater.

Q: The show did respectable business on Broadway, but obviously everyone hopes they have the next “Wicked” or “Hamilton.”

A: Honestly, I was surprised it even got to Broadway, so everything was kind of gravy to me! The fact that it not only made it to Broadway, but it got Tony nominations and ran for just under two years… I was just grateful that it didn’t close after two weeks. What helped was, once it opened and was running, the love that it got from the fan base has continued with the road tour. It’s a show that had zero branding, no source material. We were nobodies in the theater world. It was our first show. It was a wacky title. We had a lot of things working against us. It was a bold experiment that, in the long run, has paid off.

Q: A lot of musicians have dabbled in musicals – Sting, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett right now. So how was the experience for you?

A: It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done creatively. There were days, weeks, months when we were like, why are we doing this? It was brutal, and we experienced every aspect of emotion, from sheer torture to exhilaration and everything in between. But to get through to the other side and watch it come to life, there’s really nothing quite like that.

THEATER PREVIEW

“Something Rotten!”

7:30 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Sunday. $30-$125.50. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.


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About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for Atlanta Music Scene blog on ajc.com.