Interview with Something Rotten! creators
As the Tony-nominated musical comedy Something Rotten!continues to draw impressive crowds at Broadway's St James Theatre, our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter!) caught up with the show's creators - John O'Farrell (Book), Karey Kirkpatrick (Book, Music & Lyrics) and Wayne Kirkpatrick (Music & Lyrics) - to discuss standing ovations, the Tony Awards, musical nods that ended up on the editor's floor, Monty Python and a heavily rumoured West End transfer.
Hayden Thomas: I recently took a trip to New York and saw 'Something Rotten!' whilst I was there and it was just my cup of tea! I think it was also the first time I've seen a standing ovation in a theatre midway through the first half! You must be delighted with its response on Broadway?
Wayne Kirkpatrick: "Delighted" is an understatement. We always felt that “A Musical” would be a fun number and it got a lot of laughs in the staged reading and the workshop. But we never imagined that it would get the kind of response that it got in front of the Broadway audience. The first night that it happened, we were surprised. The second night, we were baffled. The third night, we were giddy. By the fourth night...we were spoiled.
Karey Kirkpatrick: Probably about twice a week we get a standing O for that number - and if they aren’t standing, there is long applause - and it just makes us all smile each time we see it happen.
John O'Farrell: It was way beyond my wildest ambitions in a long career as a British comedy writer to even co-create a musical, let alone have a debut on Broadway. So to stand at the back of the theatre and see what happened when that song finished was one of those lifetime moments that will never leave me. The whole thing has been like a surreal dream - in a blink I seem to have gone from sitting on my own writing books in South London, to hearing 1700 people laughing at our jokes in a Broadway theatre!
HT: That particular number - "A Musical" - was also performed at this year's Tony Awards. Was that a career highlight for you all?
KK: What was amazing was that when Wayne and I were writing it, we said, “It has to end with a Rockettes-style kick line” - and then we went to the Tony’s and there we were in Radio City - home of the Rockettes - watching our cast do a Rockettes-style kick line. It was metta on top of metta.
WK: When that happened, it was literally a "dream come true" moment for me. That song was written rather early in the process of developing Something Rotten!, so it was around for quite awhile. Consequently, my wife and kids became very familiar with it and they loved it. There were many conversations around the dinner table about how the song would be perfect to open the Tony’s. "I can see it!" my daughter would say. I would say, "Well, let's just see if we can actually get it to Broadway, first." But we would still talk often about how awesome it would be if it could actually get that far...not only to Broadway, but to be nominated and then to have a spot on the Tony awards. One by one, much to my amazement, all of those things happened. My family was with me at the Tony's that night...my wife, and all 3 kids. And "A Musical" opened the Tony Awards. The dream. It came true. And we were all there to see it happen..together. If that's not a highlight, I don't know what is!
JOF: Being nominated for 10 Tony Awards was a wonderful endorsement from the theatre community - and to get one for the book was a great honour. I am able to enjoy the fact that “A Musical” was the first song at the Tony Awards more in retrospect, because on the night the writer in me was just too worried about it going smoothly and that it would get the response it deserved. It’s like seeing your child perform in the school play multiplied by a thousand, you are incredibly proud and very worried, all at the same time!
HT: It seemed as if every popular musical since the dawn of time was referenced during Something Rotten! Were there any more musical nods written that didn't end up making the final cut?
WK: Plenty... 'Cats,' 'Into the Woods,' 'Dreamgirls,'... So many that came and went or had to be edited down. The challenge was in knowing when to say "when". What you see on stage now, at nearly 9 minutes, is our "when." "Too much of a good thing" was not a phrase in our vocabulary.
JOF: As a Brit I kept trying to get references to 'Oliver!' into the show, but to no avail. The 'Joseph' reference only just got in at the last minute (and I think it’s a great joke!) so I was pleased about that.
HT: Some critics have argued that the first half of Something Rotten! is so phenomenal, that the second struggles to top it. Do you consider that a fair or unfair criticism?
JOF: Yeah that was a note that got going during previews, and though we were improving the show every night, we were doing it on Broadway so we were very much in the public gaze. But we felt it too, and by opening night we had cut a song and a scene in Act Two and transformed “Make an Omelette” so that by the end of previews we were delighted with the way it paid off and the response we were getting. Now there are some nights when we get a bigger standing ovation for “Make an Omelette” in Act 2 than we do for “A Musical” in Act One.
WK: I saw an interesting transformation happen with our show. Act 2 was where most of the rewriting work was done in previews so, consequently, when the show opened, Act 2 was the newest material for the actors to get under them. It took a little while for everyone to find their groove, so to speak. In the first couple of weeks of performances, it was a little feeble. Sort of the like the wobbly new born baby deer, trying to find its footing. But bit by bit, it took shape and every day it got stronger and stronger. The material didn't change, but the confidence in it did. And with that, the show began to feel more solid and the audience reacted accordingly.
HT: How do you feel about the comparisons to Monty Python's 'Spamalot'? Are you all fans of Monty Python?
KK: I love Monty Python, was reared on Python and any comparisons to Python are seen as a compliment.
JOF: I am also a massive fan of Monty Python and any comparison is a massive compliment. It was great to meet Eric Idle at the theatre and hear him say how wonderful he thought the show was. But I don’t think it is particularly inspired by Spamalot, it’s just about show business and set in the olden days. In fact Wayne and Karey had the idea for Something Rotten! so long ago, it probably not only pre-dates Spamalot, it also predates the life of King Arthur!
WK: I think there is a natural comparison to 'Spamalot' because of the relative time periods. (I know 'Spamalot' is the Middle Ages and our show is the Renaissance, but who are we kidding? We're Americans. We don't REALLY know the difference.) And they are both zany comedies. We didn't set out to copy 'Spamalot.' We didn't set out to steal from Python. But growing up being exposed to their comedy, I'm sure their influence is in there somewhere. And if that is a problem, then I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberry.
HT: What is the latest status of the heavily rumoured West End transfer?
KK: I love London and hope we end up there. After all, one of us is a Brit! But for now, we’re just happy to be on Broadway.
JOF: Obviously as someone who lives and works in London I would love it to come over to the UK, but there’s no hurry. I’m quite enjoying the excuse to keep going out to New York.
HT: I feel it really worked that all the cast had American accents (except the 'rockstar bard' Will Shakespeare, of course) despite the fact that the musical is set in Renaissance England. Would this be altered for a West End production?
KK: For the Broadway production, we put the comedy first - so whichever accent the actor was most comfortable using for comedy was the one we went with. We didn’t want dialect getting in the way of funny. I imagine we would use that same logic no matter what country we are in.
WK: In London, it would obviously be more natural to speak with English accents so i would assume they would do that. Unless German is funnier. Then, we do the whole thing it in German.
JOF: I actually liked the way that Shakespeare sounded different to the other actors, in that he had a British accent, somehow setting him apart. It might be an interesting discussion to make Shakespeare sound like he just flew in from Hollywood! But that’s a conversation to be had with the actor and the director, if the time comes...
HT: Do you foresee any other changes to the Book for a West End transfer?
WK: There might be some alterations if there was a word or phrase that didn't translate across the Pond. And we have John O'Farrell to keep us in check for that. He has constantly pointed out that we pronounce Renaissance differently (or wrong) here. We have a song called “Welcome to the RenaisSANCE,” with the accent on the last syllable which works with the phrasing of the melody. If we did it with his pronunciation, it would be “Welcome to the ReNAISsance,” with the accent on the second syllable. That would not work, musically, so as we say in my hometown of Nashville..."That ain't gonna happen."
JOF: There are some musical references that I don’t think would work for a West End audience. 'Music Man' and 'Dreamgirls' are two shows that don’t yet resonate in the UK. Plus of course I will be lobbying for references to 'Oliver!' as always.
KK: And if it ever went to London, we would also change all spellings of “color” and “labor” to “colour” and “labour”.
HT: Who would your dream cast include in London?
JOF: It’s never a good idea to publicly declare your preferred casting in advance of announcing the actual cast, so I’m just going to say ‘Dame Helen Mirren’ to play every part in a revolutionary quick change one-woman show. Actually now I’ve said it, that idea is growing on me.
WK: Can the "Game of Thrones" cast sing? I hear they're very popular.
KK: I would say Laurence Olivier as Shakespeare and John Gielgud or Paul Scofield as Brother Jeremiah. Oh wait… do you mean someone who is still alive?...
Something Rotten! is currently booking through to 3 January 2016 at Broadway's St James Theatre.