‘Something Rotten!’ lampoons Shakespeare and Broadway

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How to go

What: “Something Rotten!”

Where: Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati

When: Feb. 21-March 5. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Cost: $30 and up

More info: 513-621-2787 or www.cincinnatiarts.org

One thing critics seem to agree on about “Something Rotten!,” the Tony Award-winning musical opening at the Aronoff Center this weekend, is that it’s an absolute mess, albeit a entertaining and reasonably coherent mess.

Set in 1595 London, the show chronicles the troubles of Nick and Nigel Bottom, two theatrical brothers who find themselves unable to compete with a puffed-up, possibly fraudulent superstar named William Shakespeare, who is monopolizing the profession. When Nick goes to a soothsayer named Nostradamus (not the Nostradamus, but a lesser relation), he’s told the solution lies in the creation of a brand-new theatrical genre called “the musical.” Nick responds by saying the idea of an actor suddenly breaking out into song is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard (naturally, he’s singing as he does so). What ensues is a send-up of both Shakespeare’s entire canon and every famous musical of the 20th century.

The narrative chaos is partly due to the fact that real-life brothers, Wayne and Carey Kirkpatrick, have nurtured the idea for “Something Rotten!,” in their heads since the 1990s. Only when they collaborated with John O’Farrell, a popular British comic novelist, did the musical start to take shape.

“Neither of them were quite sure which of them had the original germ of the idea, but frankly I think it’s too clever for either of them,” O’Farrell said. “So it was probably written by the Earl of Oxford around 1595.”

It’s a joke that also happens to capture the spirit of the musical, which toys with longtime, underground suspicions about Shakespeare’s actual authorship.

“Karey was quite keen to present Shakespeare as a fraud who was a front for another writer,” O’Farreill said. “But I kept challenging him to produce any sort of academic evidence for this conspiracy theory. I think because this would have meant reading some books, Karey accepted my argument, but we shared a conviction that Shakespeare would have been like any other writer, hoovering up everything in his everyday life to put in his plays, and grabbing ideas wherever he could.”

Despite the playful digs, O’Farrell gives the impression the collaboration was a harmonious one.

“Without sounding too arty or pretentious about it, I think there is a link between the way Wayne writes songs, Karey writes screenplays and I write novels,” he said. “There is an economy and rigor to all of our work that means we work hard at structure and avoid self-indulgence. I don’t spend ten pages describing a flower and Wayne doesn’t produce prog-rock concept albums.”

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