The first few numbers in Something Rotten! are so catchy—clever, wordy, colorful, full of tap-dancing men in codpieces and tap-dancing women in flowing hair—your first impression might be, "This is as good as Book of Mormon." I sat there thinking: "No wonder this show got canceled from the 5th Avenue's 2014-2015 season and went straight to Broadway."
The setting is Renaissance England, the year is 1590, and the protagonist is a suffering playwright named Nick Bottom (played by Rob McClure), jealously toiling in Shakespeare's shadow. His first song is called "God, I Hate Shakespeare." The ensemble—horrified—sings back, "How can you say that? How can you say that?" and Nick sings, "It's easy, I can say it 'cause it's absolutely true." The ensemble: "Don't be a penis, the man is a genius..." And so on.
Nick Bottom, desperate for an idea he can sell to theatrical investors, spends the last of his family's money (and deceives his wife by) paying a soothsayer to predict the future. Specifically, he wants to know what future ideas in the theater are going to be crowd-pleasing, history-making hits. The soothsayer closes his eyes and predicts that the major theatrical trend of the future is... musicals.
"What the hell are musicals?" Nick asks.
"It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops and the plot is conveyed through song," the soothsayer says.
"Wait, wait, wait. So an actor is saying his lines and then out of nowhere he just starts singing?"
"Well, that is," and then without missing a beat, Nick sings, "the stupidest thing that I have ever heard."
A show-stopping song ensues:
That number is still in my head two days later.
It pains me to type this, but the moment the show turns is when Adam Pascal, who played Roger in the first Broadway cast of Rent—he was the guy in the lower lefthand corner of the cover of the original cast recording and was my number-one worldwide crush from 1996 to 1998—comes out late in Act Two and sings. He plays William Shakespeare as a pompous rock star, and pretty much fails to get a single laugh the rest of the night. "See what I did there?" he says, several times, underscoring puns. He fights, unfunnily, with his quill. It may be the material, or it may be the delivery, or it may be the crushing expectations of a Broadway legend who was never known for his acting (he got cast as Roger after they opened up auditions to people who had no prior acting experience) meeting with mundane reality, but he failed to connect with the audience. The energy flagged whenever he was in the spotlight. My date, a real musician and an ardent Rent denier, wasn't surprised.
Nevertheless, the tap numbers are to die for, the costumes are hilarious, and the audience whooped and hollered and clapped and guffawed through the non-stop, catch-them-if-you-can inside jokes about musicals. There are more references than any one person will be able to catch the first time through. (Consider it a challenge, theater nerds. Better know your Cabaret, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Cats, Seussical, Man of La Mancha, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, Pippin, Mary Poppins, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Dreamgirls, Les Miserable, West Side Story, Sweet Charity, South Pacific, Putting It Together... wait, that's not all!) The dig at Rent ("some musicals are very serious") is pointedly satisfying, given the circumstances.
The crowd laughed and laughed, although the jokes got less and less funny. Or maybe it was impossible to hear all of the good ones, given a sound design that seemed to bury lead vocals whenever the chorus was also singing? There are some stellar supporting performances, including Scott Cote as a very gay Puritan scold. But by the end, my date and I were looking at each other with puzzled expressions. The last line of the show is both a non sequitur and a cliche.
Nevertheless, I walked out of there singing to myself, "It's... a... musical, a musical...." I found myself whistling it on my walk to work today. And then I forced a heterosexual colleague to listen to it with me.
So am I glad I saw it? Yes.
Something Rotten! plays at 5th Avenue Theatre through October 1.