There's Something Rotten! happening at Broadway's St. James Theatre, but what's in a name? A musical comedy by any other name would smell as sweet. Helmed by Tony winner Casey Nicholaw, the original tuner by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, which imagines the creation of the world's first musical in the 1590s, stars Tony winner Christian Borle as Shakespeare and Tony nominee Brian d'Arcy James as a jealous rival. Offstage and over lunch with the two chummy actors, there's much ado about nothing but respect.
By Brandon Voss
Playbill: Something Rotten! isn't based on any source material and skipped past an out-of-town tryout. What's it like to be in a completely original and unfamiliar musical?
Christian Borle: It's refreshing to watch an audience literally not know what's going to happen next. That almost never happens anymore.
Brian d'Arcy James: It's like opening a window on the first day of spring. It's also liberating not having to worry about honoring expectations or the memory of something that already exists.
CB: The only recognizable character is an absurd version of Shakespeare, so that's an anchor, but then you fall in love with all the people who are falling in love with each other. It's a simple, lovely story. Then when we flash-forward to the future and see the aliens land…
BDJ: You've said too much.
Have you worked together onstage before?
BDJ: Only in workshops, concerts, and benefits. I love Christian. He's a great guy, really funny and smart, and he's set a high bar for all of us. He's the rabbit we're chasing. That makes us dogs, which is fine with me.
CB: We have a mutual respect that brings a nice energy to the room. It's so much fun, it almost feels like we're still doing musicals in high school.
BDJ: Very true!
You both starred in NBC's Smash, which also took audiences behind the scenes of a fictional musical. How does creating a musical now compare to creating one in the 1590s?
CB: Even though it's set in 1595, the show is completely contemporary. It's very clever at folding in today's theatre issues and politics, such as the difficulty in marketing an unknown show, which we’re going through right now.
BDJ: It's essentially about taking risks and wanting to create something new, interesting, and relevant for people to ooh and aah over.
It also plays on the idea that musicals are a little ridiculous.
BDJ: We make fun of the people who don't like musicals because someone breaks into song out of nowhere. But if you stop and think twice about it, you can see the beauty in that.
CB: I contend that anyone who claims to not like musicals is actually lying. The biggest skeptics probably secretly listen to the Broadway channel on Sirius while driving.
BDJ: I love the music in our show. It's a very contemporary Broadway score set against the backdrop of Elizabethan England, which is an interesting combination.
Was any historical research necessary?
CB: I'm so happy to say that it wasn't. He's Shakespeare as rock god, so I stole from Mick Jagger, Prince, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. He's at the point in his career where he's surrounded by sycophants, so he can afford to be lazy.
BDJ: We do hint at the theories about whether Shakespeare is indeed the author of all his plays.
Brian, we know your character's name, Nick Bottom, from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Is he anything like his namesake?
BDJ: He can be a bit of an ass. Nick Bottom and his brother Nigel [played by John Cariani] are both writers who love what they do, but they can't get a break because Shakespeare's stealing all the thunder. They have to do something to outshine him.
Can you relate?
BDJ: I'd be lying if I said I wasn't competitive. I know what I want to achieve and I'm aware of the people who might be where I want to be. I think that's natural.
CB: I've worked very hard to not let the competitive part of myself rule my waking hours. I'm ambitious, but competition can be corrosive and knock you off the right track. You start off thinking you have to be like certain people, but time has taught me that what makes us unique is what helps us succeed.
BDJ: One of Shakespeare's great lines is "To thine own self be true," and that's a North Star for our show.
You're both in your 40s and have been on Broadway since the '90s. Christian, you were Tony-nominated for Legally Blonde and won for Peter and the Starcatcher. Brian, you earned Tony nods for Sweet Smell of Success and Shrek. Is there any rivalry between you two?
CB: No. We're not up for the same parts, ultimately. Look at his chin!
BDJ: Yeah, look at this scarf.
CB: I only go in for the weaselly guys.
BDJ: It's easier to play rivals when you're friends.
Did you at least arm-wrestle for the big dressing room?
CB: We didn't have to, because Brian's one of the most generous people on the planet.
BDJ: Christian likes to put a bar in his dressing room, so it was a selfish move on my part. I'm just hoping for some free booze.
CB: You'll get all the booze you want, my friend.
Playbill, April 2015 issue; extended online version.