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How 3 Broadway novices wrote 'Something Rotten!'

23 March 2015, 20:20

New York - It began with an intriguing premise for a musical: What would it have been like to be a fledgling playwright making a living at the same time as William Shakespeare?

The result is "Something Rotten!" and all it took to get to Broadway was that original idea plus 40-odd songs, endless rewriting, a brief scare from an Oscar-winning movie, some top-notch actors and some two decades.

Also read: Cossy Orjiakor produces first movie

"It's easy," joked Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote the songs with his brother, Wayne, and co-wrote the story with John O'Farrell, all of whom are making their Broadway debuts this month. "A piece of cake."

The comedy is set during the Renaissance and portrays Shakespeare as an arrogant, rock star playwright. Two brothers desperate to write a hit show in his shadow stumble on the notion of writing the world's first musical.

Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick dreamed up the initial idea in the mid-1990s. They'd both adored musical theater growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before carving out their own careers.

Wayne Kirkpatrick is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter of such tunes as "Change the World" for Eric Clapton and "Wrapped Up In You" by Garth Brooks. His brother is a screenwriter who helped write such films as "Chicken Run" and "The Smurfs 2."

A musical set in 1595 England was an idea they kicked around whenever the brothers got together. Some of their original jokes included having playwrights back then represented by William & Morris and the law firm of Rosen, Crantz and Guildenstern.

"We would go, 'That would be funny. We should write that someday,'" said Karey Kirkpatrick. "Then we would go back to our own careers. And then we'd get back together and go, 'Hey, I thought of something else. What if ...'"

"That went on for about 15 years," Wayne Kirkpatrick said.

O'Farrell, a British author and commentator known for the books "The Man Who Forgot His Wife" and "The Best a Man Can Get," joined the effort after he and Karey Kirkpatrick bonded while working on "Chicken Run."

"His books have just the right amount of humor and heart. So I knew the sensibilities would align," said Karey Kirkpatrick. He told his brother: "You'll like John. He's one of us."

Work on the show was fitful and then threatened by the release of "Shakespeare in Love," the 1998 film with Gwyneth Paltrow that portrayed a young Shakespeare stealing many of his best lines. The fledgling musical writers decided to keep going, mindful that any overlap would have to be cut.

In 2010, Karey Kirkpatrick got in touch with an old pal, Kevin McCollum, a Tony-winning producer whose Broadway credits include "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Rent." (They had both worked at Disneyland years ago). Kirkpatrick wanted to know how to pitch a musical. McCollum told him "Avenue Q," one of his hits, began as just an idea and three songs when it was first introduced.

At a pitch meeting later that year, the brothers, after dinner with McCollum in which they explained their idea, sat down with him in Karey Kirkpatrick's 10-foot-by-10-foot Los Angeles studio and played him five songs and handed him a treatment.

"He went away and read and came back and said, 'I think you've got something here,'" said Karey Kirkpatrick. O'Farrell added: "It happened to be the producer who is the most open to new ideas and the greatest developer of new material. We got incredibly lucky."

Work on the musical began in earnest in February 2011 when all three men spent a week in an apartment in New York hammering out the story.

Things went even faster when McCollum asked Tony-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw to weigh in. He, in turn, reached out to top-notch talent.

"That's what happens when you have Kevin and Casey," said Karey Kirkpatrick. "We'd do a table-read and Casey would say, 'I'm just going to get a few of my friends together and we'll read it.' And you show up and it's 'Tony-winner!' 'Tony-winner!' 'Oh, hi, I've seen you.' 'And I've seen you!'"

That's how "Shrek" and "Next to Normal" star Brian d'Arcy James, Tony-winner Christian Borle ("Peter and the Starcatcher" and Tony-nominees John Cariani and Brooks Ashmanskas came aboard.

"Everyone's the A-Team except us," said O'Farrell.

A workshop version of "Something Rotten!" was shown in New York last fall, which went so well that a planned stop in Seattle to get the show ready for Broadway was dropped. Only one song has survived from the beginning "Welcome to the Renaissance," which remains the first song.

The Kirkpatrick brothers and O'Farrell have since added three songs, moved one, corrected a lopsided first act, and sliced away at the script. They act on consensus and their guts. They are having a ball, but it's not a stroll in the park.

"I remember we'd see and show and saw, 'Yeah, we can do that,'" Karey Kirkpatrick said. "They make it look so easy. And then when you start doing it, then you go, 'This is hard!'"

- AP


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