When actors say they are “playing Shakespeare,” it usually means they are holding forth as Richard III or Romeo or Julius Caesar.
But when Adam Pascal says it, he means it literally.
That’s because Broadway veteran Pascal is playing the part of William Shakespeare in the uproarious musical comedy “Something Rotten,” which rolls into Bass Hall for a five-day, eight-performance run beginning Wednesday.
But despite taking on the role of the Bard in this musical, Pascal does not profess to have extensive knowledge of his character or of this form of theater.
“I have to be honest with you, I am an ignoramus when it comes to musical theater, and certainly Shakespeare. I do not claim to know anything about him, beyond what you learn in high school,” says Pascal, who was primarily a dramatic actor before having impressive runs in the Broadway productions of “Aida” and “Rent.” “I have never acted straight up Shakespeare.”
But that’s OK, because there is nothing “straight up” about “Something Rotten.” This broadly comic romp, set in 1595, deals with playwriting brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, who are deeply envious of Shakespeare — a vain, gloating figure who is beating the Bottoms’ bottoms terribly at the box office.
In a desperate effort to catch up with their smug, conniving rival, the pair seeks the aid of a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (the nephew of the better-known visionary Nostradamus). The genes seem to have played out a bit for Thomas, however. As a seer, he often needs glasses, such as when he envisions the boys writing a play about a prince eating a Danish pastry — a work Thomas sees as having the title “Omelette.”
But the brothers think they might really have something when Nostradamus tells them to have their characters burst into song and dance for no particular reason during the course of the play, giving life to the concept of the musical. And even though all those around them find the idea strange and unworkable, the Bottoms give it a shot.
This zany and manic comedy, which features musical numbers such as “Welcome to the Renaissance” and “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” is filled with puns and jokes directed at Shakespeare, his works and every Broadway show ever done. But do not feel that you need a degree in theater to enjoy the endless humor of this farce.
“The show is written in such a way that it does not make any snobby assumptions about the audience,” says Pascal, who joined the “Something Rotten” Broadway cast for the final two months of the show’s run there. “It is not dependent on audiences getting every single reference.”
And that includes not knowing much about Shakespeare himself.
“He is written broadly, as a rock star-like character,” says Pascal, who is a bit of rock star himself, since he has mixed playing in a band with being a stage actor for much of his career. “What they (book authors John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick) were looking for when they created the character was someone who is not the Shakespeare anyone would have envisioned.”
And they certainly achieve that.
“It is so cleverly written and incredibly funny,” says the Bronx-born, Los Angeles-based actor, when asked why the show was so well received on Broadway, where it ran for almost two years before launching this national touring version. “And it is based on an original idea, not on a book or a movie, which is something that is very uncommon these days. I think people really respond to that when it is done well.”
Not Will’s First Rodeo
While it is a bit unusual to go to the theater to see Shakespeare as a character rather than as an author, “Something Rotten” is not the first show to offer that option. And there have certainly been a number of musicals, plays, television shows and films that have used Shakespeare as a starting point for something different.
Here are just a few examples of other works from across the entertainment spectrum where Shakespeare has played a role, or in which one of his works has been modernized and reinvented in an interesting or unusual way.
▪ Shakespeare in Love This is William Shakespeare’s greatest achievement as a character. It succeeded as both a film and, more recently, as a play of the same title.
The 1998 film, directed by John Madden, depicts a love-struck Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) battling writer’s block. But he finds inspiration in the lovely Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), an aspiring actress in a time and place that forbade women from appearing in plays. It garnered 13 Oscar nominations and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I) and Best Screenplay (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard).
The stage version of the film’s story, adapted by Lee Hall, debuted in London in 2014. It was not performed in this country until February of last year, but it is already such a hit that it will be the most-performed play in America during the 2017-18 season, according to a survey by American Theater magazine (which did not include productions of Shakespeare’s plays). The show will enjoy 15 productions this season, despite not yet having had a New York run. Nor has the show been seen in our area.
▪ Dark Lady of the Sonnets This is a little-known play by George Bernard Shaw, but it is one of the few in which Shakespeare delivers lines, rather than writing them. Shaw had something of a love-hate relationship with the Bard of Avon. He uses him in this work to deliver a very pointed message that is highly relevant today: Shakespeare sets out to have a rendezvous with the mysterious “dark lady” mentioned in one of his sonnets, but he winds up meeting Queen Elizabeth I, whom he lobbies to provide more funding for the arts.
▪ Will This short-lived TNT television series (one season) offered a rather dark imagining of the Bard’s life, focusing on the theory that he was a closet Catholic. Huh?
▪ Upstart Crow This Britcom is the latest example of Shakespeare as a character (and one that I have not seen). It debuted on the BBC in 2016 and is written by Ben Elton, who is known for writing much of the popular “Blackadder” series, among several other shows and novels. It has had two seasons and been renewed for a third. The title comes from an insult hurled at Shakespeare by one of his rivals. Don’t be surprised if you tune in to your local PBS affiliate a few years from now and find this show waiting for you.
Shakespeare With a Twist
Much more numerous are stage and screen works that parody or rework a Shakespeare classic. They include:
▪ Kiss Me, Kate This 1948 Cole Porter musical deals with a dysfunctional theatrical troupe trying to do a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” But, in addition to the challenges of making the Bard’s characters sing, the cast has plenty of problems of its own offstage, most of which revolve around romance and unpaid debts to mobsters.
It ran on Broadway for more than 1,000 performances. In 1949, it won the first Tony Award presented for best musical. And the 1953 film version is a classic example of its genre, thanks to Porter’s tunes and a who’s-who-of-film-musicals cast that includes Howard Keel, Ann Miller and Bob Fosse.
▪ West Side Story Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t this a lot like “Romeo and Juliet”? Indeed it is.
Arthur Laurents’ book for Leonard Bernstein’s famous musical from 1957 is based on that star-crossed romance. Originally, the story was going to center on conflicts between Jewish and Catholic families in New York, under the title “East Side Story.” But, somewhere along the way, the creators switched to the Latins vs. Anglos structure we know so well. The show had a respectable (but not fabulous) Broadway run of better than 700 performances. And it was hammered at the 1958 Tony Awards by Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.”
The 1961 film version, which starred Natalie Wood (with Marni Nixon’s voice dubbed in for the vocals), is legendary. It won Academy Awards in 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director.
▪ Forbidden Planet Robby the Robot, the mechanical star of this 1956 sci-fi film, recently sold at auction for $5.3 million. But of course he should have. He is no ordinary bucket of bolts. In this movie, he is doing Shakespeare. When astronauts visit a distant planet, they find their host to be oddly unwelcoming. Once his obviously cloistered daughter shows up, it does not take long to realize that you are watching “The Tempest” in spacesuits, with a very serious Leslie Nielsen taking the lead role.
While it may sound outlandish, it is one of the more faithful and creative Shakespeare adaptations to ever come out of Hollywood.
▪ Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead One of the more off-the-wall, but gloriously fun, twists on a Bard work. This 1966 absurdist comedy by Tom Stoppard takes two minor players from “Hamlet” and treats them like the spying little toadies they are. It was also made into a 1990 film starring Richard Dreyfuss and Gary Oldman.
▪ Throne of Blood, and Ran Some of the most eloquent examples of the astonishingly universal appeal of Shakespeare’s works are two of the greatest films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. That cinematic genius’ “Throne of Blood” (1957) is an Asian-ized “Macbeth,” while “Ran” (1985) echoes “King Lear.” It is an eye-opening thing to see Shakespeare’s timeless tales told so well by samurais and geishas, rather than the usual lords and ladies.
▪ King Charles III This is a bit of a stretch, but this stunning piece of theater from British playwright Mike Bartlett about the imagined succession to the throne by Prince Charles, owes many debts to Shakespeare. This 2014 drama is written in iambic pentameter (which gives it a Shakespearean feel), and it is impossible not to think of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear” while being blown away by Bartlett’s astonishing wordsmithing. It was also adapted for television by the BBC last year.