Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have never written a musical before. Neither have Nick and Nigel Bottom. At Broadway’s St. James Theatre, both have finally done it—the only difference being that the Kirkpatricks are real and the Bottoms, to be sure, are not.
Broadway’s splashy new show Something Rotten! chronicles the efforts of two brothers (the aforementioned Bottoms, played by Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani) who wind up inventing the musical while trying to escape from under the celebrity shadow of Shakespeare (played with cocky Jagger swagger by Christian Borle). With 10 Tony Award nominations, Rotten! is one of the beefiest entries in this year’s race for Best Musical, but love on the awards circuit is merely one accomplishment at the end of a very long journey to Broadway for the Kirkpatrick brothers and co-book writer John O’Farrell.
Sitting on the idea for almost two decades, the Kirkpatricks connected with mega-producer Kevin McCollum, who guided the project into the hands of director Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) and brought the not-too-self-reflexive story of two siblings blindly navigating musical theater to literal life. Now it’s one of the season’s buzzier tickets, and with showstoppers abounding throughout, it’s a marvel for three first-time musical writers to be sitting on top of a golden egg, finally confident that it won’t crack.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve written a show where there’s a standing ovation in the middle of act one after the song “A Musical.” According to Twitter, it happens every single night. The first time you saw that happen…
WAYNE KIRKPATRICK: We were giddy. And stunned.
KAREY KIRKPATRICK: I’m not sure we trusted it. The first night, it was everybody’s friends and family, and people who had bought tickets way back in December for $15. There was so much adrenaline and electricity.
JOHN O’FARRELL: It was still something, though, to see them all leap up like that.
KAREY: We thought, okay, this might be an anomaly. And it wasn’t.
WAYNE: It was so thrilling and unexpected. We felt like it was an exciting number—
JOHN: But we never thought it was a showstopper in that way. But if you had said to us before, that one of our songs was going to get a standing ovation, I suppose by the start of rehearsals we would have guessed that one. [laughs]
KAREY: The more rewarding comment that I’ve gotten is that people cried during the number. They felt that it was properly celebrating everything that they loved, and these are people mostly our age, and music theater has been a big part of their lives, like it has been for ours.
How long ago did you begin toying with this idea?
WAYNE: We bounced back little nuggets of ideas along the way. It progressed every time Karey and I got together, for about 15 years.
KAREY: It must be a 15-year-old joke, us saying, “Oh, it’d be funny to have Nostradamus…” and we looked him up and he wasn’t alive in Shakespeare’s time, so we’d say, “Well, what if it was his nephew, Thomas?”
JOHN: There was a whole song there. “My Name is Thomas Nostradamus.”
What was the kernel of the idea?
WAYNE: The kernel was two writers trying to make it in the shadow of Shakespeare, who everything he touches turns to gold, and they can’t get a break. But the other bit was, wouldn’t it be cool if the theater scene in Tudor England was like the theater scene in ‘40s Broadway?
WAYNE: Which instantly set the anachronistic tone.
KAREY: The very first joke was that we wanted the piece to open with a scene in iambic pentameter, and someone stops and goes, “I just don’t think this is going to catch on.”
JOHN: And that’s sort of how we open it now!
KAREY: We wanted people to be scared that it was going to be like that. A cold open and people are like, “Oh no, Shakespeare…” and then the song “Welcome to the Renaissance” starts, and we wanted people to feel the relief. And that’s the first piece of music that Wayne ever played for me at my house. He played “Welcome to the Renaissance” and sang it with a bunch of random “-ance” rhymes.
WAYNE: That’s when we said, if we’re going to do this, we need to get serious about it. Here’s a tone, a style of music we might use, so that kind of stepped it to the next level. But we didn’t really know how to write a musical in terms of the process. To pitch a musical, do we have to write the whole thing first, and then pitch it? Fortunately, we knew Kevin McCollum, so we called and asked him.
Avenue Q was just three songs when it was pitched.
WAYNE: That’s what he told us!
JOHN: We were incredibly lucky that we went to Kevin, of all producers, who’s a great champion of new work. Hand to God is just around the corner, and that’s new as well. We were very lucky that that was our connection and not some producer who was just looking to do a jukebox musical or a film adaptation and take no chances. He took a chance.
KAREY: Wayne and I were at the last day of tech rehearsal for Rent and Kevin came in and we said, “We have an idea for a musical.” And that was in 1996, and we said it again every single time we’d see him.
When did John enter the picture?
KAREY: We started working on it, all three of us together, in February of 2011. We had been adapting one of John’s novels as a screenplay. When I first told this idea to John, we didn’t know each other before we started working, and he said, “Oh, that sounds like fun. It’ll never happen.”
JOHN: They liked my British can-do attitude. [laughs] But I thought it was fun, and you never know where these things lead. Karey and I met on Chicken Run, and we kept in touch. So after he pitched me this musical idea, I spent time out in LA, Karey spent time in London, and we spent a lot of time in Skype batting scenes back and forth. We found we could write a script in two different time zones, but cracking story with cards on the wall, you need to be in the same room.
KAREY: We did this lab in September last year, and that was the first time we saw the music being staged by Casey Nicholaw and arranged by Glen Kelly.
WAYNE: To see it, presented, to us… up until that point, we would write everything and present it to other people, and we were on the chopping block. So now it was our turn to sit and see someone else on the block. I just remember sitting there and watching the first number, which was “Welcome to the Renaissance,” and when it was over I leaned over to Karey and said, “Well, our work is done.”
JOHN: I’m still pinching myself. Every night in the theater, when a laugh rolls up from the orchestra to the balcony, I think, well, we wrote that!
You did a four-week lab presentation after which you decided to skip your scheduled out-of-town tryout in Seattle and go straight to Broadway. Did you ever wish you had that extra time in Seattle?
KAREY: There were probably a couple of days in previews where we were a little bit like…
JOHN: …are we making it worse?
WAYNE: We kept wanting to say, you do realize we’ve never written a musical before, right?
JOHN: I mean, we’re fast writers, and we came back after one weekend with two new scenes written and a new song and the assistant director came up to me and said, “Wow, well done guys.” And I was quite proud of that moment, because yeah, we had done a lot that weekend!
KAREY: But really, it was Kevin’s courage to watch the lab and take it from there. There was something that happened in the lab with the cast that we had assembled that we might have lost if we went out of town. If we went out of town and lost that cast and then had to play the waiting game for a theater again anyway, we might have lost momentum. Who knows?
WAYNE: There was something special happening in the lab that even us as rookies were able to recognize. I think from Casey to Kevin, there was a certain wanting to maintain and not lose that joy, and part of that we would have lost out of town. Not that we wouldn’t have found other joyous people in the cast, but there was something…you just didn’t want to upset the apple cart.
NEXT: “Too many musicals, and too much Shakespeare.”