By Marc Snetiker
Updated May 06, 2015 at 07:20 PM EDT
Joan Marcus

Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have never written a musical before. Neither have Nick and Nigel Bottom. At Broadway’s St. James Theatre, both have finally done it—the only difference being that the Kirkpatricks are real and the Bottoms, to be sure, are not.

Broadway’s splashy new show Something Rotten! chronicles the efforts of two brothers (the aforementioned Bottoms, played by Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani) who wind up inventing the musical while trying to escape from under the celebrity shadow of Shakespeare (played with cocky Jagger swagger by Christian Borle). With 10 Tony Award nominations, Rotten! is one of the beefiest entries in this year’s race for Best Musical, but love on the awards circuit is merely one accomplishment at the end of a very long journey to Broadway for the Kirkpatrick brothers and co-book writer John O’Farrell.

Sitting on the idea for almost two decades, the Kirkpatricks connected with mega-producer Kevin McCollum, who guided the project into the hands of director Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) and brought the not-too-self-reflexive story of two siblings blindly navigating musical theater to literal life. Now it’s one of the season’s buzzier tickets, and with showstoppers abounding throughout, it’s a marvel for three first-time musical writers to be sitting on top of a golden egg, finally confident that it won’t crack.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve written a show where there’s a standing ovation in the middle of act one after the song “A Musical.” According to Twitter, it happens every single night. The first time you saw that happen…

WAYNE KIRKPATRICK: We were giddy. And stunned.

KAREY KIRKPATRICK: I’m not sure we trusted it. The first night, it was everybody’s friends and family, and people who had bought tickets way back in December for $15. There was so much adrenaline and electricity.

JOHN O’FARRELL: It was still something, though, to see them all leap up like that.

KAREY: We thought, okay, this might be an anomaly. And it wasn’t.

WAYNE: It was so thrilling and unexpected. We felt like it was an exciting number—

JOHN: But we never thought it was a showstopper in that way. But if you had said to us before, that one of our songs was going to get a standing ovation, I suppose by the start of rehearsals we would have guessed that one. [laughs]

KAREY: The more rewarding comment that I’ve gotten is that people cried during the number. They felt that it was properly celebrating everything that they loved, and these are people mostly our age, and music theater has been a big part of their lives, like it has been for ours.

How long ago did you begin toying with this idea?

WAYNE: We bounced back little nuggets of ideas along the way. It progressed every time Karey and I got together, for about 15 years.

KAREY: It must be a 15-year-old joke, us saying, “Oh, it’d be funny to have Nostradamus…” and we looked him up and he wasn’t alive in Shakespeare’s time, so we’d say, “Well, what if it was his nephew, Thomas?”

JOHN: There was a whole song there. “My Name is Thomas Nostradamus.”

What was the kernel of the idea?

WAYNE: The kernel was two writers trying to make it in the shadow of Shakespeare, who everything he touches turns to gold, and they can’t get a break. But the other bit was, wouldn’t it be cool if the theater scene in Tudor England was like the theater scene in ‘40s Broadway?

WAYNE: Which instantly set the anachronistic tone.

KAREY: The very first joke was that we wanted the piece to open with a scene in iambic pentameter, and someone stops and goes, “I just don’t think this is going to catch on.”

JOHN: And that’s sort of how we open it now!

KAREY: We wanted people to be scared that it was going to be like that. A cold open and people are like, “Oh no, Shakespeare…” and then the song “Welcome to the Renaissance” starts, and we wanted people to feel the relief. And that’s the first piece of music that Wayne ever played for me at my house. He played “Welcome to the Renaissance” and sang it with a bunch of random “-ance” rhymes.

WAYNE: That’s when we said, if we’re going to do this, we need to get serious about it. Here’s a tone, a style of music we might use, so that kind of stepped it to the next level. But we didn’t really know how to write a musical in terms of the process. To pitch a musical, do we have to write the whole thing first, and then pitch it? Fortunately, we knew Kevin McCollum, so we called and asked him.

Avenue Q was just three songs when it was pitched.

WAYNE: That’s what he told us!

JOHN: We were incredibly lucky that we went to Kevin, of all producers, who’s a great champion of new work. Hand to God is just around the corner, and that’s new as well. We were very lucky that that was our connection and not some producer who was just looking to do a jukebox musical or a film adaptation and take no chances. He took a chance.

KAREY: Wayne and I were at the last day of tech rehearsal for Rent and Kevin came in and we said, “We have an idea for a musical.” And that was in 1996, and we said it again every single time we’d see him.

When did John enter the picture?

KAREY: We started working on it, all three of us together, in February of 2011. We had been adapting one of John’s novels as a screenplay. When I first told this idea to John, we didn’t know each other before we started working, and he said, “Oh, that sounds like fun. It’ll never happen.”

JOHN: They liked my British can-do attitude. [laughs] But I thought it was fun, and you never know where these things lead. Karey and I met on Chicken Run, and we kept in touch. So after he pitched me this musical idea, I spent time out in LA, Karey spent time in London, and we spent a lot of time in Skype batting scenes back and forth. We found we could write a script in two different time zones, but cracking story with cards on the wall, you need to be in the same room.

KAREY: We did this lab in September last year, and that was the first time we saw the music being staged by Casey Nicholaw and arranged by Glen Kelly.

WAYNE: To see it, presented, to us… up until that point, we would write everything and present it to other people, and we were on the chopping block. So now it was our turn to sit and see someone else on the block. I just remember sitting there and watching the first number, which was “Welcome to the Renaissance,” and when it was over I leaned over to Karey and said, “Well, our work is done.”

JOHN: I’m still pinching myself. Every night in the theater, when a laugh rolls up from the orchestra to the balcony, I think, well, we wrote that!

You did a four-week lab presentation after which you decided to skip your scheduled out-of-town tryout in Seattle and go straight to Broadway. Did you ever wish you had that extra time in Seattle?

KAREY: There were probably a couple of days in previews where we were a little bit like…

JOHN: …are we making it worse?

WAYNE: We kept wanting to say, you do realize we’ve never written a musical before, right?

JOHN: I mean, we’re fast writers, and we came back after one weekend with two new scenes written and a new song and the assistant director came up to me and said, “Wow, well done guys.” And I was quite proud of that moment, because yeah, we had done a lot that weekend!

KAREY: But really, it was Kevin’s courage to watch the lab and take it from there. There was something that happened in the lab with the cast that we had assembled that we might have lost if we went out of town. If we went out of town and lost that cast and then had to play the waiting game for a theater again anyway, we might have lost momentum. Who knows?

WAYNE: There was something special happening in the lab that even us as rookies were able to recognize. I think from Casey to Kevin, there was a certain wanting to maintain and not lose that joy, and part of that we would have lost out of town. Not that we wouldn’t have found other joyous people in the cast, but there was something…you just didn’t want to upset the apple cart.

NEXT: “Too many musicals, and too much Shakespeare.”[pagebreak]

The thing that really characterizes Something Rotten! is the abiding love for theater throughout it. How many theater references were left on the cutting room floor?

KAREY: Too many musicals, and too much Shakespeare.

JOHN: It’s quite interesting, because my knowledge of musicals is not as encyclopedic as Wayne and Karey’s, so they’d say, “You know that song at the top of act two of Sunday in the Park with George?” and I’d go, “No.” [laughs] I know Oliver!, Sound of Music, Joseph, and My Fair Lady. My knowledge is much more like the tourist in Times Square, which was actually quite useful for us.

KAREY: In “A Musical,” there’s a little piece of accompaniment that we had worked out when we did demos, and when Glen Kelly, who is super encyclopedic, suggested taking this little piece out, we freaked out. “You can’t take this piece out, that’s The Fantasticks!” And he goes, “It is?!” Just a totally obscure reference to “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” that even he didn’t know.

JOHN: The same with Shakespeare for me. My knowledge is quite deep, I think, and I could test things on them and see if they worked.

Was there one particular Shakespeare reference and one musical reference that you each remember fighting to keep in?

JOHN: We all love, “And the man who murdered the Prince’s uncle is called Scar.” It hits The Lion King, it hits Hamlet.

KAREY: And Lion King is loosely based on Hamlet, so it’s three jokes in one.

JOHN: All of us, coming together on that!

KAREY: We wrote ten versions of the musical within the musical.

JOHN: That was hell, I think.

WAYNE: We backed ourselves into a corner and we clawed our way out of it.

JOHN: That was the toughest thing about coming into Broadway, because at the lab, we played it to the audience and at that point, Casey jumped up and said, “Guys, we’re still working on this bit!”

KAREY: We had actually written something and the actors said, “Please don’t make us do this in front of people.” It was a bit hard to follow. It was massive and it had a massive amount of Shakespeare. It started out as Hamlet, and then it had the three witches of Macbeth, and then they went into Into the Woods, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Puck was in it…

At what point do you realize that the references are getting too out of hand?

KAREY: We don’t want to exclude anyone.

JOHN: We don’t want anyone in the theater going, “Ha ha ha, I get that reference” and the rest of the audience going, “I don’t actually know Coriolanus that well.”

WAYNE: For the amateur Shakespeare reader or music theatergoer, there’s something. You can reference Sound of Music or Music Man or some of these that are very widely known. If you know a bit more, you can go deeper, but you can enjoy it on many levels.

KAREY: Invariably, every night, there’ll be one line where a lone “Ha!” comes out in the crowd, and you know it’s some Shakespeare scholar.

JOHN: And we have security take him out.

As theater lovers who have never written a theater score before, what were the biggest influences in the music?

WAYNE: I can’t help but be influenced by the music that I grew up on, which was the ‘70s. Because of the subject matter of the show, it was such a great platform to do traditional music theater and pop-contemporary. You’re talking about a Renaissance, where everything is new, and we wanted to have this modern approach while still maintaining our love of traditional music theater. So when you go into it saying Shakespeare is going to be the equivalent of a rock star, that gives us a platform.

KAREY: We said he would be like Tom Jones with a little James Brown. The riff of “Will Power” just started as a straight-ahead pentatonic blues riff, and then “Hard to Be the Bard,” which is his other rock song, became heavily influenced by Queen and Freddie Mercury.

WAYNE: And Michael Jackson. “The Way You Make Me Feel.” But also the Temptations. All of those elements, we were able to explore because within this version of Shakespeare, we still have a modern character. It’s a rock god doing his hits, and his hits were sonnets.

How does having an actor in place change the game?

JOHN: There were points in rehearsals where an actor would be a little confused about what they’re saying, and when actors that smart say that to you, you better listen. Those parts changed and evolved according to those actors we wrote for. I can’t imagine anyone other than John Cariani being Nigel Bottom.

KAREY: He’s been with us the longest.

JOHN: Right from the beginning. And Christian Borle’s comic talent is so immense.

KAREY: We have a running joke that Christian will come to us in the aisle with fingers on his lips, like, “Gentlemen! A pitch…” [laughs] He’s constantly looking for a great exit line and it’s a lot of back and forth, and completely welcome on our part.

WAYNE: They’re owning their craft.

JOHN: And they’re actors volunteering to cut their own lines. I love to hear that from actors because that means they’re thinking about the whole thing, not just their own part.

What’s been the surprising hard part about all this?

JOHN: Cutting out songs that have been there with us the longest.

KAREY: There was one song that was struggling to exist in the story.

WAYNE: It was a quartet ballad that was really hard one to let go of. But what I remember realizing was, everybody loved the song but the show didn’t. And I had to come to terms with that and realize that you could write the greatest song in the world, but if it’s not in the right place, it won’t get recognized, and I see that happen in situations all the time. It’s better to let it go and let it find its other place than to force it on people when they’re not ready to receive it.

KAREY: You don’t want people resenting a song because it’s in the wrong place and they’re annoyed.

WAYNE: It’ll be somewhere.

JOHN: People are quite quick to look at their Playbills if there’s a down moment. You watch them standing up at the back of the theater. They check their watches. That’s how much you’ve got to keep people into it, and Casey’s always pushing us to keep it going.

KAREY: We’ve made a contract with the audience. Don’t worry, something’s coming. It’s a lot of pressure, and anytime we weren’t fulfilling that, the show would tell us. This was the danger of having a number like “A Musical” 25 minutes in. It can’t be your climax.

Now that the show’s out there and open, what surprises you most about the big picture?

KAREY: That it’s on that stage. Honestly.

JOHN: And that it works. I watched it about three or four days ago and I thought, well, that really does work—as a collection of some great songs, fun story, and some half-decent jokes along the way. Somehow the chemistry of all that is this emotional experience and this great night out, and for me to go into the balcony and look out at these people having a really great time is just the most amazing thing. We did that with just our laptops. It’s just incredible.

KAREY: Nothing can top the day the marquee went up.

How do you feel about this Tony Awards battle where you’re this big splashy show pitted against this intimate Fun Home, which is the complete opposite?

JOHN: That show was fantastic. I’m full of admiration for it, and I’m moved by it. It seems sort of unfair. It’s like putting a hockey team against a basketball team.

WAYNE: The great thing is that two shows like that can co-exist at the same time on Broadway. You can go see something like that and something like ours, and get something enjoyable out of both.

So, you’ve got one musical down. Would you consider a second?

JOHN: I think Matt Stone’s quote was, you wouldn’t ask a woman who’s just given birth, “Do you want to have another baby?”

WAYNE: But the reality is, we have already talked about doing another musical. We won’t do it again next month, but we’ll give ourselves a break. Start talking in another 20 years.

Something Rotten! runs on Broadway at the St. James Theatre.

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