Exploring Gay Panic Humor in Broadway’s Something Rotten!

In the vein of The Producers, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Book of Mormon, and Urinetown, Something Rotten! is a hilarious send-up of musical theatre. This time around, the farcical comedy is a post-modern Shakespearean riff centered on brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (Brian d'Arcy James and John Cariani) who are on a quest to write the very first musical for the stage. Alas, the Elizabethan era, so enamored with Will Shakespeare (Christian Borle)—he is a rock star in Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s book—isn’t ready for a production where actors pause mid-scene to sing.

actors on stage
Brian d'Arcy James and the cast of Something Rotten! perform "A Musical."

The show’s metatheatrical conceit garners plenty of laughs out of the seemingly ridiculous idea of musicals themselves; that it’s packaged in a musical itself adds an extra layer to the show’s ironic pose, one which is instantly introduced in the show’s opening beats. “Welcome to the Renaissance” (led by Book of Mormon's Michael James Scott) is a great opening number, its ebullience matched only by its visual and lyrical humor—where else might you find a side-splitting verse about indoor plumbing? The song sets the tone for the rest of the show:

War of the roses, Chaucer's tale
The brutal feudal system
Holy crusade, Bubonic plague
Can’t say that we’ve really missed ’em
So dark and barbaric,
So dull and mundane
That was so Middle Ages
That was so Charlemagne
Welcome to the Renaissance

actors performing
The cast of Something Rotten! perform "Welcome to the Renaissance."

This is Stoppard via Shrek, Gilbert & Sullivan via South Park. It is witty and smart about its inside jokes, forcing you to stay attentive to every throwaway line and visual gag which skewer everything from Webster and Spenser to Les Miz and Dreamgirls. And yet, at the heart of the show is a troubling undercurrent of gay panic that is both countered and amplified by the show’s own form.

And yet, at the heart of Something Rotten! is a troubling undercurrent of gay panic that is both countered and amplified by the show’s own form.

The musical garners much of its laughs from witty wordplay matched with a caustic sense of humor about musicals. There’s the extended running joke that yes, as a song tells us, “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top”—a number staged as an Elizabethan tap-dancing duel, one which both celebrates and mocks the bravado of the tapping of the shoes. Furthermore, as that song title suggests, puns all but drive the show’s plot. The improbably clairvoyant ramblings of Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) lead Nick Bottom to write what he’s been told will be the greatest piece of theater ever written: “Make an Omelette.” He knows it’s about a Danish, so the entire musical number is breakfast-themed.

an man talking to the audience
Christian Borle as The Bard.

This penchant for ironic humor is nowhere more evident than in the tour de force number, “A Musical,” where Nostradamus attempts to convince a skeptical Nick that musicals are indeed the future of theatre. “You're doing a play, got something to say, so you sing it? It's absurd,” Nick sings. The number, which visually echoes Annie, A Chorus Line, and Chicago among other iconic musicals, also jokingly points out that all the “chorus boys are kind of gay.” It’s then that the show’s over-reliance on gay humor became evident, especially when espoused by characters wearing costumes designed to accentuate their codpieces. While the show has some remarkably tame feminist takes on gender (Nick's wife cross-dresses to get a job, a gag all but elevated by the hilarious Heidi Blickenstaff), the number of cheap gay jokes were hard for me to ignore, especially as they harkened back to a time where nancies and ninnies and fags and fairies, were a punch line in and of themselves.

Take the character of Lord Clapham (Peter Bartlett), Nick and Nigel’s patron. In a sea of modern Renaissance looks that mix metallic fabrics and bright colors with the shapes and cuts of the period, Lord Clapham’s costume stands out for its bright pink accents, further enhanced by an overlong pink feather. Add in a melodramatic lisp and a limp hand and it's not surprising that when he first mentions his wife, D'Arcy James is forced to make the humorous aside “Wait, you have a wife?!”

men on stage
Christian Brole as Will Shakespeare with his groupies.

But the piece de resistance is the character of Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas), the puritan preacher who is intent on shutting down those dens of sin we call theatres, especially if they insist on including music. They lead to dancing, see? And dancing leads to lustful thoughts, see? And these lustful thoughts make Brother Jeremiah stiffen! The joke would work on its own—a repressed preacher who cannot help but find himself making sexual puns—but the show insists on making him a full-blown seemingly self-aware fag. He caresses his fellow male puritans. He stares at his nails in disdain before huffing and puffing. He relishes realizing how every line he’s uttering suggests sodomy. This is a one-note joke that nevertheless gets several encores, with every single piece of dialogue falling hard on gay double entendres. “I will smack you Bottoms!” he curses before smiling at himself upon hearing what he’s said. Of course, every exit is punctuated with suggestive limp handed gestures and a campy diva attitude that the show’s book (and not coincidentally, the entire audience around me) found hysterical.

two people on stage
Brooks Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah and Kate Reinders as Portia in Something Rotten!

Book of Mormon. Monty Python’s Spamalot. The Producers. Urinetown. Something Rotten! Once you clear away the fact that these are all postmodern pastiche musicals, you’re also left with the fact that they’re mostly written by straight men who find humor in the anxiety of writing and producing a musical. These are musicals that continually arch an eyebrow and ask—much like Nick does quite explicitly in this show—“Isn’t it ridiculous we’re singing and dancing?” This makes for great musical comedy, and it has now become an accepted and welcome aspect of contemporary musicals, ones which openly appeal to those who would otherwise never sit through a musical themselves: “I know you don’t like musicals, or may think them ridiculous,” they tell you in slapdash anachronistic songs, “but this one, this one you’ll like, for our ironic posture will protect you from enjoying those types of musicals you’re thinking about.”

There’s something oddly grating in seeing an uproariously witty and hilariously smart new musical welcome so many musical fans (and hope to make new converts) all the while mistreating its broadly drawn fey characters.

There’s something oddly grating in seeing an uproariously witty and hilariously smart new musical welcome so many musical fans (and hope to make new converts) all the while mistreating its broadly drawn fey characters. It uses one’s knowledge of musical theatre (and those mincing chorus boys) to land punch lines. It makes caricatures out of effeminate gay men while framing them within an anachronistic plot that depends on its very modernity for the jokes to work. It utilizes the very form of musicals to strike a bargain with its audience, allowing them to enjoy such a gay genre within the safe distance afforded by its irony. It’s a tried and true formula, but one that is made all the more discomforting for the way it so brashly appeals to schoolyard humor. But then, this is a show that includes the line “Don’t be a penis, the man is a genius!” so perhaps it’s not so surprising after all.

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I am so glad you wrote about Something Rotten's alienating homophobic humor, which I noticed too, but did not focus enough on in my review. My sense of why Something Rotten includes these jokes is so that the creative team would be seen as on a par with Monty Python and Mel Brooks, which used them copiously in the past. But this is 2015, and it's time to retire a vein of humor that is now out of date and unacceptable -- in the same way that once-ubiquitous minstrel humor is no longer acceptable.