Sometimes an opportunity lands in your lap that you feel like you just need to take advantage of – that’s how I wound up going to see the Broadway show Something Rotten over the weekend. I was already going to be in the city on Saturday to see Taye Diggs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch before the show closed the following day when I stumbled upon a deal for tickets to see Something Rotten!. I’m not one to pass up a bargain and my Broadway buddy was game, so we decided to squeeze in two shows in one day. I’ve done this before and found it kind of fun; it’s a full day, but usually worth it.
I didn’t know a ton about Something Rotten! before seeing it other than that it was nominated for several Tonys and was at least tangentially related to William Shakespeare. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but I do enjoy his plays quite a bit, so this placed Something Rotten! vaguely on my radar. It wasn’t on the top of my list of shows to see, but I was keeping it in my back pocket as an option. It wasn’t until the cast appeared on The Tonight Show to perform some songs from the show that I was really sold that this was a show that I wanted to see. The songs that they did were catchy and funny and it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a show that was stuffy or that would use the language of Shakespeare’s plays that is often a barrier to people understanding them. I was looking forward to seeing Something Rotten!, though it was drawing the unfortunate position of being the first musical that I saw after the amazing experience that was Hamilton. That was going to be a nearly impossible feat to top and there was a distinct possibility that my enjoyment of Something Rotten! was going to suffer by comparison. I was going to do my best to separate the two and judge Something Rotten! simply on its own merits, but it was going to be tough to compartmentalize the two Broadway musicals.
Something Rotten! is no Hamilton; nothing is. If you have the choice, go see the latter over the former. But Something Rotten! is still a fun show that I did quite enjoy and I walked out of the show happy (other than paying $8 for a soda – what’s up with that?). You don’t really have to have much knowledge of Shakespeare to enjoy the musical; contrary to what I thought, Shakespeare himself is more of a supporting role in Something Rotten!. Ironically, the only insider baseball in Something Rotten! was not about the Bard but about other Broadway musicals. Something Rotten! wasn’t quite was I was expecting, but I was entertained nevertheless.
The main focus of Something Rotten! is the story of the Bottom brothers – Nick (Brian d’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani) – who are struggling to make it as playwrights in the shadow of their contemporary Williams Shakespeare (Christian Borle). Older brother Nick is professionally jealous of Shakespeare and is worried about how to support his wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) in addition to Nigel. Desperate times call for desperate measures and Nick seeks out council from a soothsayer as to what he can do to compete with the “rock star” Shakespeare. Willing to risk everything, Nick decides to follow the advice of the soothsayer (Brad Oscar) in creating a new kind of play – a musical, where actors inexplicably break into song to further the plot. Nigel, meanwhile, falls in love with a Puritan named Portia (Kate Reinders) and has to keep his beautiful sonnets from falling into the hands of Shakespeare, who is struggling with some writer’s block.
Something Rotten! is fun, but it isn’t all that sophisticated. There is a lot of humor that is derived from sophomoric jokes and puns, which isn’t in and of itself a problem if executed properly. Book of Mormon certainly proves that low-brow jokes that are done right can be fantastically successful. Something Rotten! can’t uniformly pull it off – there are moments that are very funny, but they also go back to the same well one too many times for certain jokes (for example, the fact that the playwrights’ last name is Bottom is a double entendre that they beat in the ground). The jokes hit more than they miss, but when they miss, they kind of make you groan. Some of the best jokes of the show come from self-referential Broadway humor. The show has a fun idea and doesn’t lack for enthusiasm, but is a little uneven in its writing.
That doesn’t take anything away from the cast, who are totally winning in this production. Though his role is not as big as I expected, Borle’s Shakespeare is a true highlight of the show. He has the swagger and leather pants to make Shakespeare into a rock God who certainly is comfortable with the idea of “borrowing” other people’s material for his plays. The energy changes every time Borle is on stage and you just can’t take your eyes off him. His presence is undeniable. Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani are also very solid as the Bottom brothers and the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job as well. The choreography in Something Rotten! is a lot of fun and the cast pulls off all the dancing with ease. The show’s biggest number – “A Musical” – is also its most entertaining. Everyone on that stage gives it their all, even if the material doesn’t always warrant such enthusiasm and devotion.
Something Rotten! is silly and over-the-top, but is ultimately enjoyable. Perhaps because I had already altered my expectations after seeing Hamilton I was more forgiving than I would normally be, but while there were certainly some noticeable flaws in the musical, it was still a fun afternoon at the theater. It was not the transformative experience that Hamilton was, but for what it was I still had a good time and was impressed with the cast. Something Rotten! wouldn’t be my first recommendation for what to see on Broadway, but I would still recommend it. The good outweighs that bad and we overall had a good time, which is not a bad endorsement. Despite the presence of Shakespeare, Something Rotten! is not a show to be taken all that seriously. If you just sit back and enjoy the ride, you will have a good time. And sometimes that is all you are looking for from a day at the theater. There are some better options out there on Broadway, but Something Rotten! is still a solid way to spend an afternoon or evening that isn’t rotten.
Tickets are currently on sale for Something Rotten! through May 2016.