If you haven’t yet heard about “Something Rotten!,” the Broadway musical that was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and received two, that’s OK. Kevin McCollum, the powerhouse Tony Award-winning Broadway producer (”Rent,” “In the Heights,” “Avenue Q”), says that “Something Rotten!” — now in its second year of touring after a successful two-year run on Broadway — is right on track and, according to his 10-year plan, will continue to make its way to theaters across the U.S. and maybe back again a time or two, then the rest of the world after that.
The show opens this month at Bass Hall in Fort Worth. We caught up with McCollum recently at his New York office to talk to him about “Something Rotten!” and the challenges — and joys — of putting together a Broadway show today.
Let’s talk about the wacky storyline behind “Something Rotten!” First of all, it’s set in 1595.
Right. It’s about two brothers who want to write a hit musical; they’re in rehearsals for “Richard II,” but it’s shut down because Shakespeare already has a “Richard II” in production. These brothers always get one-upped by Shakespeare. The beauty is it’s all historically accurate, yet it has a contemporary feel — the jokes and humor are in the competitive spirit of today, plus everyone’s trying to gain favor with the queen. It really is a romp.
The show was written by screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (”James and the Giant Peach,” “Chicken Run”) and his brother, Grammy Award-winning songwriter and musician Wayne Kirkpatrick, both from Louisiana, and best-selling British author and comedy scriptwriter John O’Farrell. Did you already know these three, did they pitch the idea to you, or what?
The show actually came out of a 35-year friendship with Karey Kirkpatrick. We met when I was a young actor singing at “Broadway at The Top” at Disney World, a supper club with 14-piece orchestra, and Karey was there, too, doing improv street theater at Epcot Center, and we got to know each other. We both ended up at USC; he went for screenwriting and I went for film producing. He got hired by Disney for animated musicals and he would have to pitch different ideas, and he knew I sang, so Karey would call and he’d ask me sing to part of the squirrel or the frog, and I would sing. Somewhere out there are demo reels with me singing as a chipmunk.
So how did you and Karey work together on “Something Rotten!”? How did the process begin?
In 2013, he said, “My brother and I have this idea for a musical, but we can never find time to finish it,” and I said, “Do you have songs? If you have two or three songs and an idea, that’s what I do, I put a team together and we finish it.” So I go to L.A. to see them, and they have a few songs, and they sing the opening song, “Welcome to the Renaissance.” Ba, ba, bah, bum, bum. I said, “You might have something here. Let me think about it.” So I get back to New York, and I’m going through scripts thinking about what to work on next, and I’m going through papers, and I’m finding myself going, “Ba, ba, bah, bum, bum — what is that?” Was that on television? What was that theme? Then I realized, “Oh, my God, that’s ‘Welcome to the Renaissance.’”
I picked up the phone and called Karey and I said, “I want you to know I’ve been singing your song, ‘Welcome to the Renaissance.’”
The only other time that happened to me was when I heard the song “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” And that’s how it came to be.
Besides hearing a catchy tune that you can’t get out of your head, what else do you look for in a show’s DNA when deciding what to produce?
I go with my gut, but I also go with stories about finding family. “Rent” is not about paying rent, but how to feel safe and find people to love in this world. “Something Rotten!” is a powerfully funny and heartfelt show about being true to yourself — and when you take a shortcut and don’t pay attention to those you love the most, you’ll get in trouble. For me, it’s all about trying to connect with people because we’re only here for so long. Sometimes failure is where you have the most growth.
Your parents died when you were young and you’re an only child. How did this shape you — were the arts a source of comfort?
As a kid, my mother was an actress and worked for CBS in Hawaii, so I was always around show business and did plays at night. So it did give me a sense of belonging and family, even though I wasn’t neglected on any level. I had great people around me and I pursued my passion, which was to figure out how to put on shows.
Today’s Broadway is filled with mega-hits — “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King” — and so many others with familiar name derived from something else, something we already know: a book or a movie. Your shows don’t fall into this camp; they have funny names, like “Something Rotten!” or like “[title of show],” none at all.
I don’t purposely pick difficult titles, I like original. In today’s world, where we’re so overwhelmed with information, it’s hard to rise above the clutter. We’re only on the first national tour of the show, but I’m educating Americans on how to laugh again, which is what we’re doing with “Something Rotten!”
Considering the state of what’s happening in our own country and the rest of the world, we could all use a little levity. How does the current political climate impact what you do?
Whenever the world is in chaos, theater thrives because we want to have a better understanding of our lives, and when we’re feeling anxious, comedy wins.
You’ve opened 22 shows on Broadway, which have been nominated for 126 Tony Awards and received 26. Your shows have received dozens of other awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for “Rent.” How do you know when something is going to be a success?
You don’t, but you fall in love. This is a business about passion, and you fall in love, and soon you’re saying what if we could make this happen, and my job is to find other collaborators in the journey. Because I love it. It’s all I can do.
You can also sing.
You’ve not seen me dance.
Wanna see Something Rotten!
Something Rotten! kicks off the “Broadway at the Bass” season for 2018, and runs January 17 – 21 at the Bass Performance Hall. www.basshall.com
Upcoming shows include: Finding Neverland, March 20-25; Waitress, June 19-24; Love Never Dies, August 7-12; and School of Rock, August 28-September 2.