If you could somehow quantify the things a section of the city’s inhabitants are afraid of, Nashvillians would score high in the "phobia of the blank page” department. Who knows how many productive hours have been lost in Music City staring at a legal pad, staff paper or a laptop screen, waiting for inspiration to strike?
Wayne Kirkpatrick has spent the past three decades fighting off that dread quite successfully as a prolific songwriter and producer for the likes of Amy Grant, Little Big Town, Garth Brooks, Michael W. Smith and more. His song “Change the World” (co-written with Gordon Kennedy and Tommy Sims) was a monster hit for Eric Clapton — it landed Kirkpatrick a Song of the Year Grammy in 1996. Behind that kind of success, you wouldn’t think fear of failure would be part Kirkpatrick’s work these days.
Kirkpatrick's first-ever Broadway musical Something Rotten! — which he co-created with his brother, screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, and author John O’Farrell, all first-time Broadway creators — has seen rollicking success. The play notched 10 Tony Award nominations in 2015, including one for Best Musical, and opens at TPAC on Tuesday. But in the 15-year span during which the idea floated between the brothers Kirkpatrick, and the four-plus years of active development, some doubts did creep in.
“Writing a musical was the hardest thing I've ever done, times 10," says Kirkpatrick. "I feel like I've done some things that were kinda difficult, but I had no idea. I was terrified, really, especially when [I was] getting thrust into that world and realizing, 'I'm the weakest link. Everybody in here knows what they're doing.' You've got a seasoned director, seasoned producers with great track records. 'What am I doing here?'”
What he did was provide the music and lyrics to a wildly original musical comedy that bypassed the traditional route to Broadway, and opened to much acclaim at the St. James Theater in April 2015.
With Rotten! rolling through its first national tour, Kirkpatrick will be the first to admit the show is not only an homage to musical theater, but also both a love-and-hate letter to the process of writing itself. Set in the 1590s — smack-dab in the middle of the English Renaissance — Something Rotten! follows two playwright brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, played here by theater vets Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti, reprising their roles from the play's Broadway run.
The brothers find themselves and their struggling theater troupe operating in the considerable shadow of “the man who put the ‘I am’ in ‘iambic pentameter,'” William Shakespeare. The Bard is played by Adam Pascal, known best for originating the role of Roger David in the original Broadway company of Rent. Nick is fed up with playing second fiddle to a man he considers a “mediocre actor from a measly little town,” and secretly takes his family’s savings to a soothsayer in order to suss out what the next big thing in theater will be.
Half a case of mistaken identity later, the soothsayer tells Nick about this revolutionary theatrical form wherein “the dialogue stops, and the plot is conveyed through song,” to which Nick responds, “Well, that is the stupidest thing that I have ever heard.” Only, he’s singing now, and the first musical, titled A Musical, is underway.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare is having his own crisis of confidence, and having hired a spy to keep an eye on what the Bottom brothers are working on next, hears of Nick’s newly acquired information about theater’s future. He decides to infiltrate the brothers’ troupe, and hijinks ensue.
“I remember walking down 44th Street, and the marquee had just gone up, and I saw a bunch of tourists laughing and taking pictures of it,” McClure says. “I walked a little further and saw that it said, in this huge font in quotes, ‘We haven't seen it yet! —The New York Times.’ I didn't even know what the show was about yet, and it already had me laughing.”
The play's lighthearted tone, which is set in part by director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, has been a Rotten! constant throughout not only the show’s development but also the New York and national tour runs, something Kirkpatrick knows is rare in the pressure-cooker atmosphere Broadway can generate.
Says Kirkpatrick, “I was sitting with Christian Borle [Rotten!’s Tony-winning original Shakespeare] one day, and I think he was referring to everybody's attitude and the joy with which they were approaching this, and he said, 'Do you realize how special this is?' And I said, "No, I don't. They're not all like this? I do get this sense that we're being spoiled.’ He said, 'This doesn't happen all the time.’"
Kirkpatrick’s success as a Nashville hitmaker didn’t buy him any slack with the tight-knit Broadway community, but the show’s excellence has kept he and his brother working in it, most recently contributing to the show-opening number from this year's Tony Awards host Kevin Spacey.
McClure has seen creators try to ride into Broadway on their non-Broadway laurels and fail miserably, but he sees Kirkpatrick’s work and approach to the opportunity very differently.
“I think it starts with somebody who not only writes great melodies, but also great story-songs,” McClure says. “He might have garnered great acclaim for his pop music, but you listen to those songs and they're great stories. The guy knows how to write songs based in great lyrics, not just great melodies.
“Wayne also has a real sense of gratitude. There's nothing jaded about him,” McClure continues. “You get this sense from both he and Karey that they are so moved by the way the community has accepted them, that they are so grateful by the way audiences are responding, you can catch them getting choked up watching it.”
True to his quiet nature that’s kept artists seeking his collaboration for years, Kirkpatrick’s favorite part of this process has been the reaction of those closest to him.
“For me, the coolest thing is that my kids lived with these songs," he says. "We were writing them for four years, and I would play them the songs, and they knew them backwards and forwards. They had CDs and would listen to them on their own. We were talking about "A Musical" around the dinner table one night, and my daughter said, 'I can see it opening the Tonys,' and from that conversation to that song actually opening the Tonys [in 2015] with my whole family being there, as far as a full circle moment, what could be better?”