A Chat with John Cariani, Star of Tony-Nominated Musical ‘Something Rotten!’

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We talked with John Cariani, left, one of the stars of the Tony-nominated "Something Rotten!" about the musical, his acting career and success as a playwright. (Photo courtesy of 'Something Rotten!')
We talked with John Cariani, left, one of the stars of the Tony-nominated musical ‘Something Rotten!’ about the play, his acting career and success as a playwright. (Photo courtesy of ‘Something Rotten!’)

The Tony Awards are Sunday and will honor Broadway’s best. I have a personal favorite this year, the musical “Something Rotten!” It’s the tale of two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who are struggling theater types in Elizabethan England. They can’t catch a break because this guy named William Shakespeare is getting all the attention. With the help of a soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (nephew to the famous Mr. N), they discover that the next big thing in theater is a show where, for no reason whatsoever, the actors from time to time stop saying their lines and start singing and dancing. Thus, it is a musical about the birth of the musical — and it’s hilarious.

In the role of Nigel is John Cariani, who is perhaps best known from his work on TV’s “Law & Order” as forensics expert Julian Beck or on “Numb3rs” as Professor Otto Bahnoff. His film resume includes last year’s “Child of Grace” and “Deliver Us From Evil.” In 2004, he won the Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Featured Actor In A Musical and garnered a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Motel the tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Cariani was kind enough to spend a few minutes talking to TheBlot Magazine about the play, his acting career and his success as a playwright.

Jeff Myhre: How did you get cast as Nigel in “Something Rotten?”

John Cariani: In 2009, I worked with Casey Nicholaw, the director of “Something Rotten!”, on a show called “Minsky’s.” We played the Ahmanson [Theatre] in Los Angeles as kind of a pre-Broadway try-out, but we never made it to Broadway. A few years later — January of 2013 — Casey asked me to read a part in this new show he was working on called “Something Rotten!,” and I read the role of what is now Nigel Bottom, and the rest is kind of history!

So the show has been in development for a couple of years.

Eighteen years, actually! The writers, Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, have been working on it — or thinking about it on and off for 18 years! And I guess the really intense work began as we assembled in 2013 to read that early draft. [Book writer] John O’Farrell was on board by then, and I think there are only two of us in the current incarnation of the show who did that reading in 2013 — Michael James Scott, who sings his face off as the Minstrel, and I.

The producers never took “Something Rotten!” out of town as is common with new plays. Why is that?

We did a lab last fall. We rehearsed six days a week, 10-6 for four weeks. Casey and John [MacInnis, his associate choreographer] built numbers. The writers wrote and rewrote furiously — new lines, new scenes, new songs. Songs and scenes were cut and moved around and repurposed. While we were rehearsing, I think everybody in the room knew we had something special. At the end of the rehearsal process for the lab, we did a presentation for industry folks, and when we presented what we had, well, there was no doubt that it was something special. I think [producer] Kevin [McCollum] and Casey wanted to try to capitalize on that specialness, that momentum. They had assembled a wonderful cast — we had great fun and great chemistry while doing the lab, and Kevin and Casey wanted to keep us all together, and if we had gone out of town, we wouldn’t have come to Broadway till the following season, and who knows who would have been available. Brian d’Arcy James, who plays Nick Bottom, and Christian Borle, who plays Shakespeare, are busy guys, and they might not have been available to go out of town or to do the show in the next season. They were both available this spring, as were most of us, and they decided to bottle the magic we created last fall and keep us all together. And I think it was wise because this thing really is magic!

Since you skipped that part, was the script was already set?

I’d say just the opposite. When I first read for the part, the bones were certainly there, but as I said earlier, there were tons of changes. During the lab, during rehearsals this winter, and during previews. The coolest part of all of this for me was watching everybody create their roles! Working on a new show — well, the roles are kind of custom-made for us all because we are huge participants in the creation of our parts. We were free to make suggestions, offer our opinions on what worked and what didn’t. Wayne and Karey and John were so open with us all. They let us tinker with their words. And then they’d tinker with our tinkering and make it better!

something rottenIs that responsible for the camaraderie?

Sure — the fact that we were all creating this show together. That’s what’s so cool about “Something Rotten!” It’s not based on a book. It’s not based on a movie. It’s a brand-new musical. It’s truly new! And creating a new story in the room together, a cast bonds in a special way under those circumstances. And we all really like each other, and there is a lot of respect circulating backstage. We helped each other so much during rehearsal. We’re still helping each other. Our assistant director, Steve Bebout, gives us notes every week to keep everything in check and to maintain the integrity and spirit of the show. Kate [Reinders, who plays my love interest, Portia] and I are constantly checking in to make sure we’re telling the story in the best way we can. And it’s such a playful bunch, such a bunch of clowns. It’s never dull out there. Never not fresh.

Tell me more about Kate.

She’s the greatest girlfriend a guy could have on stage. She’s super funny. Killer timing. And she always has this devilish sparkle in her eyes. I feel like were always on the edge of laughing when we’re out there together — which is right where you wanna be for comedy!

And Christian Borle as Shakespeare?

He is hallowed! He plays the Bard as a Mick Jagger kind of rock star, and it’s inspired. Absolutely inspired. The guy is the most inventive actor I have ever been in a rehearsal room with. I love that “Something Rotten!” isn’t afraid to stick it to The Bard. The show doesn’t discourage the idea that Shakespeare plagiarized, perhaps — adding fuel to the debate whether or not Shakespeare really wrote all of his plays!

How is the show doing as a commercial enterprise?

Great! We’ve been building every week. We just did our second million-dollar week, which is great, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that we came out of nowhere. I love that they’ve kept the pricing pretty reasonable. You can still get in for $39, and the balcony seats at the St. James are great. Also, tickets through January are for sale, so that’s a good sign!

You are an actor and a playwright in a show playing the role of actor and playwright.

They really wrote for the cast, didn’t they?

“Almost, Maine” was your first play. And it’s become quite successful.

Yeah, but it wasn’t at first. When it played here in New York off-Broadway in 2006, it ran for about 67 performances, and the reviews were mixed. But Dramatist Play Service caught the show during its short run and decided to publish it. It first became very popular in small professional theaters and then had some wildly successful productions at some terrific theaters like Milwaukee Rep, Geva and Syracuse Stage, Florida Rep, and then it started to take off in the high school, college and community theater worlds. To date, it’s had nearly 3,000 productions all over the world, and it’s been translated into over a dozen languages. It’s huge in Eastern Europe — maybe it’s because they understand winter and cold! It’s kind of one of those “who knew” situations. I never imagined this trajectory for the play .

Last year, The Washington Post said it had surpassed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the most-frequently produced play in America’s high schools.

Nigel finally wins!

The play’s set in very rural northern Maine using the Northern Lights to mark the change of scenes, and you feature the stars, the place, snowmobiling, heavy clothing. Is that just because you grew up in that part of the world, or is there more to it?

Yeah. I grew up there. And I love it there. It’s special place. It’s empty. The sky is huge. Winters are harsh. Cold, cold, cold. Dangerous. What’s wild wins over what’s not. And the Northern Lights appear pretty regularly. And they are magical and otherworldly “Almost, Maine” is about that magic, that otherworldliness. And it’s about what it’s like to fall in and out of love in that cold, wild place, in the midst of that magic and otherworldliness. It’s very much a love letter to my home. It’s a very special part of the world. And it’s a love letter to the people, too. People think that northern Mainers — New Englanders — are cold. And they are. Literally. Which is why I think they’re slow to hug you when they meet you! When you open your arms to hug, you lose a lot of heat! And the fact that they’re wearing a lot of clothes to stay warm for much of the year, well, I guess it’s a neat counterpoint. “Almost, Maine” is about people baring their souls to one another, but they’re all bundled up. So un-baring takes time! And it’s difficult to un-bare yourself! And that makes the play dramatic, I think.

Since “Almost, Maine” you’ve also written “Cul-de-sac,” “Last Gas” and “Love/Sick.” Do you think they will be as successful?

I think they’re good plays, so that’s a start! I guess I really don’t think about whether they’ll be successful. When you start worrying about successful or popular or whatever, you start to lose the whole reason for writing and acting, which should be the work itself. For me, it’s about finding the story. As a writer. As an actor. Sure, I want all of my work to be successful, but that’s a by-product of being honest with the work, being true to yourself, to quote Nigel. Let’s see, “Last Gas” is being published as we speak. “Love/Sick” is soon to follow. “Cul-de-sac” will follow “Love/Sick.” I don’t sit down to write thinking, “What will the audience like?” I write my story — and then as I edit, I try to respect the audience’s time. I learned that from the writers of “Something Rotten!” Take only the time you need. Or your play dies.

Something Rotten” is playing at the St. James’s Theatre in New York.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.

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