Something Rotten! is a play based around the genius of others – a fact that it acknowledges out right. As a farce about the concept of creative geniuses, it satirizes William Shakespeare’s writing process for his great masterpiece, Hamlet. While the play draws some inspiration from Shakespeare (particularly in its bawdy humor), it also places his works at odds with typical Broadway tropes. According to Something Rotten, kick lines and dramatic expositional music are the hallmarks of a less elevated form of theater. The joke is that Something Rotten is full of typical Broadway spectacles like kick lines, while having very little of the depth you would expect from a play inspired by Shakespeare. In reality, it’s a sassy flip-off to the Bard in favor of a celebration of the lightness of Broadway musicals. But do the two extremes of theater need to be at odds?
Taking place in a purposefully anachronistic Renaissance England, the story focuses on two playwrights who are dwindling in the shadow of their contemporary, the great William Shakespeare (played by Adam Pascal). To get a leg up, the more conniving of the duo, Nick Bottom (Rob McClure), pays a soothsayer to predict the future. The soothsayer foresees that musicals will one day sweep the performing arts world. He also provides some less than accurate details on Shakespeare’s soon to be written masterpiece “Omelet.” Nick quickly begins development on a musical about breakfast food, insisting it will be the next big thing, much to the befuddlement of his brother and more talented partner playwright Nigel Bottom (Josh Grisetti). It’s a comedy of truly ridiculous proportions, but the laughs are mostly reserved for Broadway buffs and Shakespeare fanatics, who can follow the fast-flowing references.
As the first stop on the traveling tour, the Boston Opera House was packed for opening weekend with a lively crowd. It was no surprise that the audience loved the very meta play about Broadway plays. Everyone in the theater (myself included) ate up the many references to Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, Annie, West Side Story, Dreamgirls, Chicago, etc., with the song performed by Nick and the soothsayer (Blake Hammond) titled “A Musical” getting the loudest applause by far. The song is a homage to Broadway, but it also mocks the format breaking down the various dramatic manipulations often featured in its plays. If you’re a big Broadway fan, this play will keep you on your toes. If you’re not a theater geek, not to worry, there are plenty of dancers in omelet costumes to keep you entertained.
The dialogue relies heavily on the words of Shakespeare, with these quotations being the only truly substantial lines. Watching Something Rotten reminded me of the mastery of Hamlet, leaving me somewhat disappointed with its own lack of depth, comparatively. That said, Something Rotten sure is clever; I particularly enjoyed the misquote “Alas, poor yoke” in Nick’s performance of his monologue from “Omelet”. But despite the play’s reliance on Shakespeare’s work, it also characterizes him as the villain, making him out to be a pompous rockstar-like figure who stole his best lines from the fictitious character Nigel. Perhaps we sense a little jealousy on the writers’ parts?
There is something to the idea that as an artist, there will always be someone else better than you and even if you are the best, you still have to compete with your last big hit. In one scene, Shakespeare acknowledges his fear that he’ll never be able to write a better play than Romeo and Juliet (a bit of dramatic irony in a play about Hamlet). I wish the writers (Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell) had explored this theme further as it would have added depth to a rather silly play. Instead, they cling to one quote from Shakespeare “to thine own self be true.” This is the play’s mantra and its repetition communicates the theme that all artists should rely on their own personal experience rather than compare themselves to others.
The conflict between artistry and spectacle is present throughout the storyline. What makes this interesting is that Something Rotten doesn’t have much of the authenticity it so much admires. It scrutinizes Broadway’s frivolity, while also being more jazz hands Broadway than many of the hit shows it parodies. I chose to see Something Rotten because I enjoy musicals and because I love Shakespeare, and it didn’t disappoint: I was entertained, which as the play acknowledges, is the whole point of musicals. The problem lies in the fact there are many plays out there which explore complex themes while still providing plenty of entertainment. It reminded me that I would rather pay to see The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, or one of the other more thematically rich plays that it references. These types of plays are a testament to the fact that musicals can strike a balance between depth and spectacle. There is a middle ground between Shakespearean high art and mindless entertainment.
Comedy comes from truth, and so in the end I began to wonder: are the writers satirizing Shakespeare because they are insecure about not being capable of writing as well as THE Bard? Are they using the mantra of “to thine own self be true” as a copout to avoid pushing beyond the spectacle and the mockery? They even pull the play’s title from Shakespeare, using “something rotten” as a reference to Hamlet, a pun on rotten eggs, and possibly, a self-effacing jab about their own work product. But really, as Shakespeare would put it, “what’s in a name”? Maybe in this case it’s best just to sit back, enjoy the dancing omelets and be entertained.