This was not an easy sell for me at all. When I caught wind that Rotten’s producers were largely responsible for pushing my beloved Side Show out of the St. James Theatre, I initially said I would not, under any circumstances, support this show. Well, I eventually had to reconsider with all of its Tony buzz.
For the first four numbers, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The crowds were eating up the anachronistic, overly homophobic (more on that later), slapstick humor. It wasn’t until the fifth number “A Musical”—well into Act 1—that I finally settled in. Playwright Nick Bottom (played by Brian D’Arcy James), in an effort to one-up his rival William Shakespeare (a sexy Christian Borle), visits a soothsayer to find out what his next play should be. He’s told to write a musical. And hilarity ensues. (You mean actors spontaneously breakout into song? Why? Because it’s entertaining!)
The whole score is filled with Broadway inside jokes in the same vein as The Producers, slapstick funny-business similar to Spamalot, and Elizabethan humor right out of Shakespeare in Love. Once I got past the boring, albeit glitzy, opening, I spent the rest of the two hours rolling in laughter. It also helped that Borle, in the Act II opener “Hard to be the Bard,” rips his shirt open revealing his gorgeous midsection. All in all, money well spent.
After a few days of sitting on it, though, I’m not convinced this is “best musical” material. Rotten could have used an out-of-town tryout (unfortunately the producers saw a chance at a Broadway theater with Side Show’s slow ticket sales, and canceled its Seattle run). The set is noisy. Beyond the laughs, we get a story that is filled with gaps. In fact, there’s barely a story here at all—everything is in service to insider Broadway jokes.
The jokes also rely heavily on gay innuendo. We get a swishy Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, whose daughter is the romantic interest of Nigel Bottom. It also felt as if the creative team gave the Nick and Nigel their surname—Bottom—for the sake of additional gay jokes. Several songs are entirely dedicated to gay innuendo, including “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top.” In this male-centric extravaganza, the women felt like an afterthought. It’s as if the creative team realized they didn’t have strong female characters, so they gave Nick a wife who serves no function in the story, other than to be a running gag (Oh look, a woman dressed as a man). In 2015, we should be beyond this kind of humor.
Interestingly, this humor stands in stark contrast to Rotten’s competitor up the street, Fun Home, which takes a serious, heart-felt look at the gay experience. Initially after the show, I felt I’d be fine to see Rotten win the Best Musical Tony. Afterall, I was entertained and rolling in laughter. After a little more thought, Rotten is just a bunch of empty calories. I think I’ll be woefully disappointed for Fun Home (or even An American in Paris) to lose to Rotten. For me, there is no there there.