The surprisingly deep themes of Something Rotten!
On first glance – or maybe even fifth – Something Rotten!
doesn't seem anything like Breaking Bad
. After all, the former is a raucous musical comedy about Elizabethan playwrights who actually invent musical theatre while trying to compete with Shakespeare, and the latter is an era-defining television series
about a high school chemistry teacher who evolves into a homicidal meth kingpin.
But according to Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote Something Rotten
's music and lyrics with his brother Wayne and co-wrote the book with John O'Farrell, there's a real connection between the two. Take a look, he says, at how aggressively Walter White defends his terrible choices on Breaking Bad
, then notice how Nick Bottom, one of the struggling brothers, does exactly the same thing in the musical.
If you haven't seen Something Rotten!
, which is now in previews at the St. James Theatre, here's a clarification: The Bottom brothers want to compete with Shakespeare because the Bard is sucking up all the money and fame in town. If they don't write a hit, they're going to be broke, and since Nick has a wife to support, he can't let that happen. Therefore, he hires a fortune teller to reveal what the next theatrical trend will be, and when the mystical man tells him about musicals, Nick commits one hundred percent. Even though his brother Nigel wants to write a heartfelt show about their own lives, Nick insists they have to create a song-and-dance spectacular called Omelet
. (To learn the story behind that particular title, you'll have to see the show.)
Complications – and comedy – arise because once Nick has decided he's making Omelet
, he refuses to be talked down. "Nick is desperate for something that's gonna turn his life around, and the analogy is that it's like he went to somebody and got a hot tip on a pony," says Kirkpatrick. "And if someone says, 'This might be a little bit crazy,' Nick is saying, 'I've got to see this race run. Because if I don't, I've spent all my money and I just have to admit I was a fool.'"
This twisted train of thought recalls Walter White. As Kirkpatrick explains, "If you use Breaking Bad
as an example, it's like, 'I'm gonna leave this money behind for my family, and they won't resent me.' And you go, 'Hmmm… right idea, but they'd probably respect you more if you just went in and said, "I'm struggling here."' And that's what Nick's wife is saying. 'Don't take this all on yourself. Let me help you.'"
So Nick Bottom, then, is part of a long line of misguided heroes – both comic and tragic – whose best-laid plans lead to disaster. "The story could be he robbed a bank, or the story could be that he's a playwright who's taking rewrites from a thug in the mob, like in Bullets Over Broadway
," Kirkpatrick says. "And we're sitting here going, 'I understand your motive, but your actions are wrong.'"
If we recognize Nick's failings, then the show is succeeding. Kirkpatrick hopes audiences will enjoy themselves, but he also wants them to see the humanity beneath the manic jokes and the musical numbers about making breakfast. "We are all flawed individuals, and we have all been in situations where we are doing things out of good intentions that may not be the wisest choice," he says. "Some of my favorite comedy is comedy that comes out of that desperation. How do you still sympathize with their character? How do you understand their plight?"
Mark Blankenship is the editor-in-chief of TDF Stages
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Brad Oscar as Nostradamus and Brian D'Arcy James as Nick Bottom.