During a theater season where many audiences are cautiously returning back to live theater, most of us could use a little bit (or a lot) of escapism. After several pandemic delays, the resolutely unserious musical comedy Something Rotten! will finally be performed at Pioneer Theatre Company from Feb. 25-March 12. Providing catnip for drama geeks, Something Rotten! is more than just a crowd-pleasing, goofy musical—it’s a love letter to the art form that includes endless references, parodies and tongue-in-cheek celebrations of decades’ worth of Broadway favorites.
Something Rotten!, which premiered on Broadway in 2015, follows two brothers in Elizabethan England, Nick (Matt Farcher) and Nigel Bottom (Daniel Plimpton), who are struggling to find work as playwrights. Adding insult to injury, the haughty William Shakespeare (Matthew Hydzik) continues to win universal adoration for his classic works. Defeated, Nick seeks wisdom from the soothsayer Nostradamus (Robert Anthony Jones), who tells him the future of theater will be in musicals. Though plenty are skeptical, Nick and Nigel work together to write the world’s first musical, which they believe will finally give them more success than Shakespeare.
Something Rotten! is chock-full of references and in-jokes about both Shakespeare plays and a laundry list of classic musicals. Farcher calls this goofy, loving sendup “the epitome of musical theater.” “It’s just slapstick: ridiculously dumb jokes over and over and over with the soul of musical theater within it,” he says. “It’s the exact opposite of sitting through a Renaissance-era play,” Hydzik adds.
In Something Rotten!, Shakespeare is more glam-rock superstar than high-minded poet—he serves as an over-the-top, self-obsessed antagonist to underdogs Nick and Nigel. (Christian Borle won a Tony Award for his performance of the part on Broadway.) To prepare for the role, Hydzik drew inspiration from the attitude of a young Peter O’Toole (“there’s something about him that’s so delightfully British,” Hydzik says) and the vocal stylings of David Bowie. The most challenging part of the role? “Growing out facial hair,” Hydzik jokes. To look the part of an Elizabethan sex symbol, Hydzik took cues from the man he calls “the sexiest British guy in the world:” David Beckham.
In the song “A Musical,” Nostradamus predicts the future of musical theater, which Nick, of course, immediately finds ridiculous. The eight-minute marathon contains many lyrical and musical references to beloved musicals and jokes about the genre’s clichés, from chorus lines to characters inexplicably bursting into song. Both Farcher and Hydzik agree that watching Jones’ go-for-broke performance in the number is a highlight of the show. “That’s the largest section of homage to musical theater, which is really nice coming out of a pandemic and having a couple of years off, to just be reminded of all these iconic moments of theater and get to laugh at all of them and find joy in it,” Farcher says.
After a period away from live theater for both fans and performers, Farcher and Hydzik hope that the production’s kooky joy catches on with audiences. “The biggest challenge, honestly, is trying to get through rehearsals without laughing the entire time,” Farcher says. “I cannot wait to hear laughter, just nonstop, from an audience.”