Your average person tends to think of two things when they think of the theatre: Shakespeare and musicals. Something Rotten! takes that concept and asks the audience to envision a world where both of those things exist at the same time. What if the first musical was created by one of Shakespeare’s fellow writers at the end of the 16th century in England?  

The real first musical was created in 1943 by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Following the long tradition of musical comedies and operettas and then proceeded by new ideas from new generations of collaborative artists, the musical takes on many different forms over the course of the last 80 years. Still, the musical takes up a specific spot in American culture. If your experience with it was watching The Sound of Music movie, a high school production of Seussical, and community theater’s Jesus Christ Superstar, a national tour of Annie, or Hamilton on Broadway; most of us have some experience with musicals. Something Rotten! celebrates and pays homage to those musicals and more as well as their traditions like tap dancing, chorus lines, love stories, and hijinks.  

Shakespeare’s plays were much more like the musicals of today than one might get the impression based on the language some people find incomprehensible from the mandatory reading in English class. Shakespeare came from humble beginnings in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He made his way to London as an actor around 1589 and by 1594, he was an established playwright and founding member of his own company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. His plays appealed to everyone from Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI to the nobility to the groundlings who only paid a shilling to stand in the theater and watch that day’s play. And for that reason, his plays survived the test of time like no other with 38 surviving plays which are still read and performed today 407 years after his death in 1616. At the start of his career, Shakespeare was riding the success of his first plays such as Henry VI, Richard III, Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo & Juliet, but was at odds with many of his fellow playwrights due to his lack of higher education. Even still the people loved him, and it was not long until his theatre company built their very own theater, The Globe, where Shakespeare fans had a place to go see his plays all year round.  

The reality for his fans was a very different life. England was suffering from internal and external issues, and the social situation was not encouraging. Overseas, Britain's vaunted invincible navy was defeated by Spain; in Ireland, people formed an alliance to try to overthrow English domination. Inside the country, apprentices rebelled because of the growing heavy tax burden grew heavier, and the declining economy caused by poor harvests and the cost of war; religious conflicts became increasingly intensified; the physician-in-chief was even executed for trying to poison Queen Elizabeth.  

That being said, the English Renaissance had started at the beginning of the 16th century and continued on into the 17th as an artistic and cultural movement. The English Renaissance started later than the Italian Renaissance, and they are different in several ways. The most popular art forms were literature and music, while visual arts were less significant. With the rapidly growing population, the growing wealth of people, and the fondness for spectacle, England produced a dramatic literature of remarkable variety, quality, and extent. Playwrights such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, in the public theaters of London, created drama more sophisticated and psychologically powerful than anything else in Europe. 

Theatre was one of the media the Queen used to project her own glory and that of her family. The Queen was herself an admirer of plays, performances, and spectacles, which were frequently held at her royal residences. She actively sponsored artists and playwrights. Theatre troupes, which were often seen as the bottom of the social status pyramid, were allowed to stay with the nobles. Not only among the nobles but performing arts also blossomed among the common people. Towns across England had long funded public shows, which involved musicians, acrobats, and jesters, and these continued even as theatre became popular. Artists were enjoying unprecedented prosperity in artistic creation.