Night after night on Broadway, the fifth number in the hit show Something Rotten! earns an early standing ovation. It’s called “A Musical”, sung by unreliable soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus as he explains to baffled Elizabethan-era writer Nick Bottom what the next big thing in theater will be: musicals.
“The original version of “A Musical” was a sort of a ditty for a minstrel. I said, ‘No, no, no. It can’t be like that. It’s boring’,” says director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who with music arranger Glen Kelly refashioned it into a literal showstopper with a cascade of references to famous musicals, characters and choreographers.
Associate director Steve Bebout, who worked with Nicholaw, Kelly and associate choreographer John MacInnis developing “A Musical” in preproduction, remembers how the number came together.
“Glen and Casey sat and talked through the number, then as Casey’s imagination got going, he’d say something like, ‘And then we go into a section that feels like Big Spender,’ and Glen sits at the piano and figures out a way to weave that bit of melody into the dance arrangement,” Bebout says.
The song contains lyrical, musical or visual references to Broadway canon such as Les Misérables, Rent, Chicago, Seussical, South Pacific, Chicago, Annie, A Chorus Line and many more. “The number is really Casey at his best. It gets you to a fever pitch, then steps back and says, ‘Wait, not quite yet’,” Bebout says. “He puts the audience on a yo-yo. Nobody’s got a feel for playing with the audience like Casey does. It’s really remarkable.”
However, the creators point out knowing a lot about Broadway isn’t integral to the audience’s enjoyment. Bebout says, “When you look at “A Musical”, except for the section where we quickly go through a ton of numbers (and it might be two minutes), most of it is a new song. It’s really about the art form. If you know Casey Nicholaw, this show is just an expression of who he is: joy and fun and heart. It doesn’t ever take itself too seriously. It wears its heart on its sleeve and is full of joy and laughter and energy. “A Musical” is the perfect distillation of that.”