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Something Rotten Mostly Isn’t

February 6, 2016

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I got to see Something Rotten which has been playing on Broadway for a good amount of time (and is doing well). Despite my professional connections to theater, maybe because of them, I love going to see shows and appreciating them on their own terms. I do not go with a clipboard (literally or metaphorically) to keep track of what is wrong with a show. Even going to see a musical with a name like Something Rotten, which of course invites all sorts of critical hijinks, I do my best to watch with an open mind. I just try to be audience. Here’s what I thought of the show:

  • The premise is silly and brilliant, in a Spamalot meets The Producers sort of way. Essentially a play writing team of brothers living during the English Renaissance try to out do none other than William Shakespeare. (It plays better than I can describe it.)
  • The dialogue, with its constant Shakespeare references and in jokes about Shakespeare AND modern musicals, AND it’s winking acknowledgement of modern times (“Who talks like that?,” asks one character after reading some typical ‘older English’ verbiage) is wonderful. And I do not use that term lightly.
  • The song lyrics are consistently witty (often laugh out loud funny, which is a much more difficult reaction to get from an audience than by straight out telling jokes as dialogue).
  • The actors (among them, Brian D’Arcy James) are superb. (One quibble; see below.)
  • The orchestrations were top notch, as was the orchestra.
  • The scenery was extremely well done, as were the costumes.
  • It turns out that the show was written by a team of brothers (one of them a well-known Nashville songwriter to the country stars including Garth Brooks) and an also well-known English writer of things humorous.

So why was I slightly disappointed?

Afterward my wife and I talked about it. She felt as I did, and her explanation as to why hit the nail on the head. The music is serviceable, she said. There is nothing wrong with the score per se. Every song is logically and emotionally where it should be (no song felt out of place in any way, no spot seemed to be missing a song, and so on). All of the actors sang with gusto, passion, whatever the song and the moment called for. But except for one number that came back a couple of times, both as “Welcome to the Renaissance” and, the last time, as “Welcome to America,” there was no tune that either of us could remember after an hour past the final curtain. (Disclosure: I had a couple of song fragments in my head for that time, but those too fell out of my memory within 2 hours.) The tunes were professional; they did what they were supposed to do. The lyrics for the songs, as I said, were consistently witty — better than the tunes, frankly. But the music didn’t, couldn’t, raise the level of the score from “okay” to even “interesting,” let alone “wonderful.”

The music was indeed serviceable, or as some of my students might say, it was meh. (Is that even still a thing?)

One casting disappointment: The female ingenue was played by someone with one of those extremely reedy, nasal, piercing voices that seem to plague Broadway these days thanks, methinks, to pop music where it lives in infamy. Pity. Once in a while she “slipped” and sang with a rounder tone that would have made it a real pleasure to hear her if she continued that way, but then she didn’t.

Disappointments aside, it really is a good, funny show, especially if you’re a fan of The Bard and also of musical theater. It’s worth seeing. Who knows maybe you’ll remember more of the score than I could.

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