Rob McClure, who was nominated for a Tony last season for best performance by a lead actor in the musical “Chaplin,” is on tour with “Something Rotten!,” a musical that lampoons the Shakespeare era.
We managed to get him on the phone for a Q&A session about the show, which will be at the Wharton Center through Sunday.
“Something Rotten!” goes back to the dawn of musicals, telling of the fictional Bottom brothers, who realize plays can have not only drama, but singing and dancing. What can you tell us about them?
Nick and Nigel Bottom are writers in the Renaissance trying to compete with Shakespeare. Now, we say all of that tongue-in-cheek, because the show is a contemporary comedy. It’s brought to you by the director of “The Book of Mormon” and “Aladdin,” so it has a very contemporary sense of humor.
There are no “thees and thous” of the Renaissance that the audience is going to have to translate to enjoy themselves. And the Shakespeare in our show is quite literally a rock god. He’s like a Freddie Mercury or a David Bowie sort of superstar of the age, and the Bottom brothers hate him.
As competitors, they are desperately trying to compete. And so they go to a soothsayer to find out what the future of theater will be in order to compete. And he informs them that it is the musical. So the brothers set out to write the world’s first musical.
You are very experienced with comedy, obviously since you starred in “Avenue Q. “How did you prepare for this role?
Well, Nick Bottom, as Shakespeare-aficionados will know, is actually a character lifted from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There’s a troupe of actors called the mechanicals and Shakespeare sort of writes them to be a troupe of buffoon actors.
The character of Nick Bottom is the one who famously gets turned into a donkey. We are sort of seeing a very comical take on his origin story. And that he was a competing writer with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare writes him into that play as a bit of revenge for what ensues in “Something Rotten!” So, in terms of research, I had to familiarize myself with all of the Shakespeare that’s referenced. And being a guy who primarily works in the musical theater, I had a lot of that stuff up my sleeve already going into it.
You’ve played Charlie Chaplin, who relied a lot on physical slapstick. Are you bringing that into “Something Rotten?”
Absolutely. I think playing Chaplin, changed the way I will do anything for the rest of my life.
When you dive into the mind and work of a genius like that, or a genius like Shakespeare, it can’t help but influence the way you perform. Charlie taught me so much about comedy as an entity. You can slip and fall on a banana peel and somebody might chuckle for a second, but it’s the story of the guy who slipped on it, what his deal is and what he’s going through that really makes it timeless.
And in Charlie Chaplin’s age, everyone was getting hit in the face with pies and falling off of ladders. What made him so universally renowned and such a superstar was the heart of the character that he created.
He was sort of like the downtrodden every man who is just trying to get by. Audiences were going to his movies to laugh and left with tears in their eyes, because he got them not only to laugh, but to care. And I think that’s the root of any great comedy: getting the audience to sort of lean in and care about the characters, so the laughter is coming from a really honest place.
You’re working with one of the co-directors from “The Book of Mormon,” an absolutely massive musical. What’s it like working with him?
I mean, no one knows musical theater better than Casey Nicholaw does. He started as a performer, as a really incredible dancer, choreographer. So there’s a reason the South Park guys reached out to him when they needed someone to co-direct Book of Mormon.
He gets funny, he gets comedy and he gets musical theater. That’s why when people come to see our show, they’re going to get everything they want in a really great musical comedy. They’re going to get huge production numbers. We’ve got a production number in act one called “A Musical.” It’s the moment the soothsayer’s sort of revealing his visions of the future of theater to me.
That number can get standing ovations in the middle of the show. He’s crafted such incredible numbers.
We have extraordinary costumes. These gorgeous Renaissance costumes that we’re rocking out in, dripping with sweat onstage. And amazing tap numbers. Casey has a really strong tap background.
So, there’s not a lot of people coming to a show about the Renaissance expecting these huge Broadway tap numbers, but they’ll get them.
There’s so many surprises. I think that’s what Casey’s the best at, having a bag of tricks that the audience doesn’t know is coming and revealing them in the most impressive way possible.
How do you think the actual Shakespeare would react to “Something Rotten?”
I would love to see that. Man, I would love to see that. Because we also poke fun at sort of the notion that maybe not all of his ideas were actually his ideas. So I would love for him to see this and maybe straighten out some of his reputation.
But, I would also like to think that he would really appreciate the sort of tried and true storytelling. Because we have two couples, and we have the young lovers, and we have the successful everyman and the tortured artist. We have things that he built, that are of his creation.
What can you tell me about the chemistry you have with your co-star, Josh Grisetti?
He’s a great guy. We got to do the show on Broadway for a while before we hit the road. And he is very much Nigel. Out of the two brothers, Nick, the character I play, is sort of the hot-headed, sort of success-driven brother. And he is very much the artistic type. He is the softer spoken poet of the two of them, who is responsible for a lot of the sort of romantic content that they write. And Josh is very much that way.
He’s pretends to be this super hip, cool guy, but the more you get to know him, he has a huge heart. And I think the audience responds to that heart every night onstage. And I’m lucky, before we even met, we had people telling us most of our lives, “Oh, you know Josh Grisetti? You guys should play brothers.” And we had never even met, but when we met we finally shared with each other that everyone had been telling us, up until that point that we should play brothers.