Rotten Characterization: Follow-through is everything

Summer Hoagland-Abernathy, IV Leader Editor-in-Chief

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     “Something Rotten:” a musical by any other name would smell as sweet. Although, something about the
show’s failed intention to shed a light on sexism leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

     Despite the proven ability of Broadway writers to create liberating characters for all sexes and sexualities, sometimes, even in otherwise solid shows, slip-ups happen.

     Flashy, showstopping choreography and costumes abound, “Something Rotten” was one of the biggest musicals on Broadway in 2015. Christian Borle, who won the show’s only Tony Award, shined brightest in the spotlight as the main antagonist, William Shakespeare.

     And Brad Oscar was a crackup and fan-favorite as Nostradamus’s less-talented cousin.

     But who was shoved to the wings, despite the musical’s best effort to highlight the plights of women as household objects throughout history: the love interests of lead roles Nick and Nigel Bottom, Bea and Portia. 

     While Portia’s plot line appears more  prominent as half of a young, budding romance, Bea, who is married to the main character, doesn’t seem to have much of a point aside from “anything you can do I can do better.” And even then, her characterization doesn’t carry it out well.
     The character shows potential when she sings her first solo number, “Right Hand Man,” in which she explains to her husband that while he is writing and directing a play to put food on the table, she should go out and work so that they don’t starve in the meantime. 

     Lines like, “I’m more than just a woman, baby. When the pressure’s coming, baby, let me be your right hand man,” reveal Bea’s wish to erase gender stereotypes from her home. 

     She is pleading with Nick to stop seeing men’s and women’s jobs as separate, and instead see them as people’s jobs. People can stay home and clean the house. People can go outside and chop lumber for steady payment. 

     She even goes so far as to tell him, “Don’t be a sexist pig.” And as “Right Hand Man” is only the third song in, “Something Rotten” comes across as a musical that says, “I am going to tackle sexism in the Renaissance period.” 

     But instead, the only two female characters fall flatly in line behind their male love interests. 

     Yes, Bea does find a job and make money to feed Nick and Nigel, but eventually, when Nick is exiled to America, she follows him and they have a baby, and she is resigned to the home to take care of it. 

     Nick’s dream was always to be able to buy a cottage that his wife could raise their child in while he provided through his work in the theatre, and now in America without the competition of Shakespeare, he can do just that. 

     And while Portia never had a “Strong, Independent Woman” song, she did have a wish to flee from her Protestant family in order to read, an action forbidden to women of the church at the time. But even that plot was thwarted when her family too traveled to America while she fled with Nigel. 

     Again, with Bea’s and Portia’s shared character  trait of longing for independence, the audience is led to believe that this musical is meant to have feminist themes, but there are too many signs pointing away from that. 

     The failure of these characters to gain their independence and the unpunished trait of toxic masculinity within Shakespeare and Nick—along with an openly gay character who twirls and flits across the stage in a dress for the sake of a punchline—all point to this play as an attempted failure in feminist literature. 

     While the effort to make “Something Rotten” a musical relatable to women of the modern age is clear, the character arcs of the only two females lacked that final action that would have made them shine. Heidi Blickenstaff, Bea, and Kate Reinders, Portia, played the women with gusto and and sang for them brilliantly, but the writers’ hands must have slipped somewhere
during their creation.

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