There’s Nothing Rotten about the Kirkpatrick Brothers:
NAfME 2015 In-Service Conference Keynote Presenters
Talk about perseverance: Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick called themselves “musical theater nerds.” In the mid-1990s, they conceived the idea of a musical about two playwrights trying to find an audience in a time when William Shakespeare cast such a wide shadow.
The Kirkpatricks’ first Broadway effort, Something Rotten!, opened on Broadway in April 2015. The New York Post raved that it was “Broadway’s new, big fat hit!” And it is a rare Broadway creature indeed: a musical that is completely original, and not based on a movie, book, or play.
The Kirkpatricks are the Keynote Speakers for the 2015 National In-Service Conference of the National Association for Music Education (NAFME). The conference dates are October 25-28. Register here.
Sponsored by Quaver’s Marvelous World of Music, the keynote will take place at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee, at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 25.
See the Kirkpatricks at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this coming October in Nashville, TN! Don’t miss the Hotel Room Block Deadline: September 25!
The conference theme is “Empower Creativity.” What might attendees expect from the Brothers Kirkpatrick on that topic?
Wayne Kirkpatrick (WK): “We hope to touch on several aspects of the creative process, including songwriting, screenwriting, and storytelling, and, of course, writing a musical for Broadway. But also our perspectives on making the transition from one genre to another and the challenges, risks, and rewards of leaving your comfort zone to pursue new ventures.”
Karey Kirkpatrick (KK): “You can also expect pyrotechnics, male dancers, a moving stage, and special guest stars. Oh wait—that’s a Taylor Swift concert!”
Conquering the Worlds of Film and Popular Music
After kicking around their kernel of an idea for a musical, their separate careers took off, and the Broadway project was put on hold.
Karey began his career as a screen and songwriter for Walt Disney Feature Animation where he penned The Rescuers Down Under and James and the Giant Peach. Additional film credits include Chicken Run (Golden Globe Award nominee for Outstanding Comedy Film); Charlotte’s Web; Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; The Spiderwick Chronicles; and Over the Hedge, which he also codirected.
Wayne is the Grammy Award-winning songwriter of “Change the World” as performed by Eric Clapton (Song of the Year). Other top-10 singles include “Every Heartbeat,” “Good for Me” (Amy Grant); “Wrapped Up in You” (Garth Brooks); “Place in This World” (Michael W. Smith); “My, Oh, My” (The Wreckers). He has written in pop, rock, country, R&B, Americana and alternative formats, and has had songs recorded by Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Wynonna Judd, Joe Cocker, Gabe Dixon, George Strait, Mindy Smith, Trisha Yearwood, Babyface, Peter Frampton, and Bonnie Raitt. His music has also been heard on television shows like Gray’s Anatomy, Hart of Dixie, and Nashville.
Rotten’s Meandering Path to Broadway
The Shakespeare idea percolated for years. In 2010, they finally began work on their musical, writing more 40 songs, only 18 of which survived by the time Something Rotten! opened on Broadway.
Wayne wrote music and lyrics, while Karey also wrote music and lyrics and cowrote the musical’s book (or dialogue) with John O’Farrell, with whom he had worked on Chicken Run. All three were nominated for Tony Awards. Kevin McCollum, the Tony-winning producer whose credits include The Drowsy Chaperone, Rent, and Avenue Q, produced Something Rotten!
The New York Post proclaimed, “Something Rotten! brings down the house!” In its review, the Associated Press said the musical, which is set in the 1590s, was “fresh, hysterical and irreverent.”
Rotten, which was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, tells the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, two brothers who are desperate to write a hit play, but are stuck in the shadow of the Renaissance rock star known as “The Bard.”
When a local soothsayer (Thomas Nostradamus) foretells that the future of theatre involves singing, dancing, and acting at the same time, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s very first MUSICAL!
In addition to 2015 Tony Award winner Christian Borle of Smash fame who plays Shakespeare as the leather-clad Bard, the show also stars Broadway actors Brad Oscar, Brian D’Arcy James (also of Smash), Kate Reinders, and Heidi Blickenstaff. Casey Nicholaw, who codirected The Book of Mormon, directs Something Rotten! He also choreographed the show.
“A Musical,” the show-stopping centerpiece of the show, has echoes of productions ranging from Rent to Music Man to A Chorus Line to Sweet Charity to Annie. The song was showcased on the Tony Awards ceremony in June. The brothers told Blouin ArtInfo that the song reflects how much they revere musical theater.
But the number wasn’t originally written as a showstopper. Co-book writer John O’Farrell said it was just a light “little ditty”—until they showed it to director Nicholaw. The three collaborators told Variety:
“That was Casey’s first note to us. He jumped up and went, ‘This is your chance to have a big musical production moment! You want it to go, Ya da da da da!’ (making the requisite jazz hands.) And it was a great note. We went away and listened to ‘We’re in the Money’ [from Gold Diggers of 1933] and ‘Forget about the Boy’ [from Thoroughly Modern Millie], and we came up with the big chorus that’s in there now.”
There are love songs. Also, “Will Power,” sung by The Bard, echoes the rock group Queen, while other songs have an R&B flair. Another song, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” which opens the Broadway show, talks about how all artists strive to create something new.
The video of the actors recording the Something Rotten! Cast Album explores the musical’s creative process.
A Creative Q&A
And speaking of creativity, Wayne and Karey answered questions from NAfME about their own views of creativity and how they view music and arts education.
Our conference theme is “Empower Creativity.” We believe that music plays a collaborative role in education, encourages critical thinking, and helps students understand the world around them. Can you tell us what creativity means to you?
WK: Creativity is everything to me. It is like oxygen. I cannot live without it. It is what drives me, it is what motivates me, and it is what excites me.
KK: Creativity is something I can’t shut off. I can’t stop thinking of ideas. It’s like a sickness. I don’t think I’ve had a day in my life where I haven’t thought about something I want to create—be it a story, a song, a bookshelf, a new form of elastic that doesn’t make that crunching sound when it gets old . . . even on the golf course I have to think of creative ways to make up for the last sucky shot I hit. It’s never ending! And I sort of love it.
Creativity is everything to me. It is like oxygen. I cannot live without it. It is what drives me, it is what motivates me, and it is what excites me.
You’ve both written many songs for other mediums, pop and country songs for Wayne, screenplays and film songs for Karey. How was writing the music and lyrics for a Broadway musical different than those mediums?
WK: The process of writing pop, country, or any other form of commercial music generally tends to center around finding a central theme in a chorus and having verses that support the chorus, usually by trying to find different ways of saying the same thing. There is a basic structure . . . verse, chorus, verse, chorus, sometimes a bridge, then a chorus and that is what 90% of all commercial songs are based on. With musicals, you are free of that structure. It doesn’t always serve you well to stay within the confines of a standard pop song template. You want to move the story forward with the lyrics and the music as opposed to staying in one place. You also have to be aware of so many other moving parts. Staging, choreography, acting, etc. Just because a song works well on a recording doesn’t mean it will work well theatrically. You have to think beyond just the aural experience, something you don’t often do when writing commercial music.
KK: A musical is all about the songs, really. If the book doesn’t work, it can hurt a musical with good songs. But if the songs don’t work then you have nothing. And the songs have to be a servant of many masters. They have to move the story forward, they have to reveal character, they have to be the right kind of song for that moment in the show—and in our case on Something Rotten! they had to be funny (which was always the hardest part). But mostly, they have to be a part of the whole. It’s completely different than writing a stand-alone song.
I read that one of the hardest parts of writing Something Rotten! for you both was deciding some songs had to go because you realized it didn’t work for the musical’s structure. How did you decide whether a song worked?
WK: This was a collective effort and a good example of the collaborative process. Songs that you have labored over and lived with, sometimes for years, are hard to let go of. Usually, the director or producer would help to give an objective opinion on what was working and what wasn’t. And the general motto for what to cut and what to hang on to was: “The show will tell you.” This proved to be true throughout the process. As the show was developed, there was a sense of what worked and a sense of where the pace was dragging. We had to be willing to “kill our babies” for the greater good, always in service of the show.
KK: The producer and director kept saying “the show will tell you what it needs,” and indeed it did. And the show was often mean and ruthless. You just have to watch the show and ask yourself is this song moving us forward, is it telling us something new, is it giving us new insight into the character that’s singing it. But mostly you ask yourself, “Would the story work if we removed it?” That was usually the guiding factor. If it ever felt like we were stopping the show to hear a song, and at the end of the song we didn’t have any new information, then the song had to go.
There is nothing I love more than creating music with others and sharing that experience, and I love the people who encourage that form of expression—especially in our kids.
Many music teachers can point to students who’ve gone on to professional music careers, whether in a concert hall, on a Broadway stage or in an arena. Can you tell us a little about your music training, and do you have a teacher or two you’d like to give a shout out to?
WK: I actually don’t have any formal training to speak of. I took basic piano lessons in elementary school with a woman named Miss Courtney. Later, I taught myself to play guitar in high school, which is when I started writing songs. So, I am basically self-taught and play by ear more than actually reading music. My teachers were the recording artists and songwriters that I admired and tried to emulate. I do feel that I missed out on a lot by not having that student/music teacher mentor, especially since I admire teachers of the arts so much.
KK: I had some great teachers in junior high and high school. Mr. Sherlock was my band teacher at Sherwood Forest Jr. High in Baton Rouge, LA. He was great, and I always admired his commitment to his students and to what he was doing. In high school, I had a great drama teacher, Sylvia Martinez, and a music teacher my senior year named Beth von dehr Lehr who taught choir and music theater and allowed me to direct GODSPELL (my directorial debut). And now my kids are in a great jazz music program at their school in Santa Monica and have two amazing teachers, Evan Avery and Tony Hundtoft. I so love how they instill their infectious love of music into the kids. There is nothing I love more than creating music with others and sharing that experience, and I love the people who encourage that form of expression—especially in our kids.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
Roz Fehr, NAfME Communications Content Developer, September 23, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).