NEW YORK — In the cheeky Renaissance England of “Something Rotten!,” the Broadway musical-comedy whose national tour kicks off at the Opera House beginning Tuesday for a two-week run, Shakespeare appears as a swaggering, leather-clad glam-rock god with a weakness for stealing other people’s ideas, an obsession with his own celebrity, and an ego as inflated as his oversize codpiece.
As imagined by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, their book writing partner John O’Farrell, and director Casey Nicholaw, Elizabethan-era London is also a raucous place where struggling writers, such as brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, can’t seem to catch a break, thanks to Shakespeare’s supremacy. Out of desperation, the cantankerous Nick consults a soothsayer (with murky visions), who predicts that the next big thing in the theater will be something called “a musical.” This form of entertainment, he says, will find characters spontaneously bursting into song and dance in the middle of a play for no apparent reason. A baffled Nick deems the whole prospect “absurd” and decrees that an audience would never buy it.
Despite those doubts, Nick and Nigel, a hapless, starry-eyed dreamer with a gift for poetry, attempt to write one of these musicals, with cockamamie results. Impish puns, delicious double-entendres, and winking references to Shakespeare’s plays fly by fast enough to induce whiplash. “Something Rotten!,” which was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, gleefully skewers and celebrates the musical genre in all its glorious excess, while tossing off in-jokes and zingers mocking “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “A Chorus Line,” “West Side Story,” and other ubiquitous classics.
“We were trying to walk that line between getting into the minds of both people who hate Shakespeare and people who love Shakespeare; people who hate musicals, people who love musicals. So having a little bit of both,” says Wayne Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote the music and lyrics. “As they say, it’s a love letter to theater, but it’s also poking fun at it.”
“We’re making fun of what people who hate musicals hate about musicals, what they can’t get their head around,” adds Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote the lyrics and book. “If you don’t buy that conceit, I could see where it would be torturous for you. I’ve had many husbands who come up to me [at the theater] to commiserate and say, ‘OK, I gotta tell you, I was dragged to this thing, because I do not like musicals. But I really loved this show.’ ”
Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., the Kirkpatricks had no hate in their hearts for musicals. In fact, they were unabashed fans of the genre, and both did theater all through high school. Music, too, was a big part of their upbringing — their father was the music director at their Baptist church before he became a preacher.
Wayne says it had always been a “goal and a dream of ours to write a musical,” but for years it kept getting put on the back burner as their careers took off in separate arenas. Wayne became a successful Nashville-based songwriter. He co-wrote Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” which captured a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, and top 10 singles for the likes of Amy Grant, Garth Brooks, and Little Big Town.
Karey, 51, who lives in Los Angeles, is a Golden Globe-winning filmmaker who got his start in animation and has written screenplays for “James and the Giant Peach,” “Chicken Run,” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” among others, in addition to writing and directing “Over the Hedge.”
Still, both point to their early stab at writing a musical after they graduated from high school as the experience that whet their appetites. The resulting show, called “Stages,” centered on a famous Broadway writer-director who comes to a small Southern town to do a workshop with high school kids. One of the students idolizes the director, but the man ends up stealing material from the session and creating his own show with it.
“It’s about this young kid who gets disillusioned and realizes that this older guy has run out of ideas. So there’s similarities to ‘Something Rotten!’ ” Karey says.
Years ago, he says, he got to talk with Paul McCartney, who wondered aloud about how he would be remembered. “He goes, ‘Because we know how John [Lennon’s] being remembered.’ Then he’s looking around the room and saying, ‘I’m not just the cute one. I wrote ‘A Day in the Life.’ I wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ And I’m like, dude, you don’t have to impress me! I think I know how you’ll be remembered — as one of the greatest songwriters ever.
“It was interesting to see, no matter what level you’re at, everybody has their demons. Everybody has their insecurities. Everybody thinks their last, great thing is behind them. You realize, they’re all just people struggling to create something.”
That doubt is something the character of Shakespeare, the Bottom Brothers’ wicked, wisecracking nemesis, is grappling with as he struggles to come up with his next great work. For Adam Pascal, the former “Rent” and “Aida” star who’s playing Shakespeare on the tour, the character represented “a rare opportunity” to don the skin of an iconic figure who we actually don’t know much about.
“In this version, he’s an arrogant, insecure buffoon,” Pascal says. “Writing’s made him famous, but being famous is just so much more fun. He’s sort of that ultimately hollow shell of a celebrity.”
‘We were trying to walk that line between getting into the minds of both people who hate Shakespeare and people who love Shakespeare; people who hate musicals, people who love musicals.’
Pascal says he engaged in his own bit of thievery with the character, borrowing ideas and little line readings from an array of comedic characters that have stuck with him over the years. “There’s Newman from ‘Seinfeld.’ There’s Ned Flanders from ‘The Simpsons.’ There’s a drop of Austin Powers in there, and a little bit of Monty Python and Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap mixed in,” he says. “That’s so much fun for me because I get to draw upon my wealth of completely useless knowledge.”
As for the rivalry between Shakespeare and the Bottom Brothers, the Kirkpatricks say that’s easy to relate to. “Our Shakespeare represents that person in all our lives [for whom] everything they touch turns to gold,” Wayne says. “You just want a little bit of that success.”
Do they have anyone specific in mind?
“Two brothers who write a show that gets overshadowed by this genius wordsmith?” Karey muses, with a wry smile. “Oh, hypothetically, Lin-Manuel Miranda. But unlike in our show, Lin’s a great guy and super-talented and, as far as I know, not stealing anyone’s ideas.”
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Boston Opera House, Jan. 17-29. Tickets: Starting at $44, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.