Perks of Being the Bard: Q&A with ‘Something Rotten!’ Performer Matthew Baker
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Matthew Baker portrays William Shakespeare in the national tour of 'Something Rotten!' Photo courtesy of Overture Center for the Arts.
While none of us know what it was like to be in the same room as William Shakespeare, the creators behind Something Rotten! concocted him in away that may surprise you.
In his showstopping number, “Hard to be the Bard,” the literary genius sings, “Be it theater freak or the autograph seeker, they all want a piece of this….It’s a cross that I bear, I’m like Jesus I swear, it’s a burden, but I suffer through it.” Hey, the man did write his own language—he must have carried some sort of an ego!
Matthew Baker, who portrays Shakespeare in the national tour of Something Rotten!, describes him as the Justin Timberlake of the Renaissance era.
Set in 1595, Something Rotten! follows Nick and Nigel Bottom, two brothers who are living in the shadow of Shakespeare. Desperate to stick it to the Bard by writing their own hit play, Nick visits a local soothsayer who foresees that the future of theater involves singing, dancing and acting—at the same time. Consequently, the duo sets out to create the world’s first musical.
The life of a traveling performer isn’t new to Baker, as he previously starred as Tony Manero in the U.S. and Canada tour of Saturday Night Fever, a role made famous by John Travolta in the popular film. The Kent, England native has also had performing contracts with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, where he met his wife Dorothy, and Disney Cruise Line.
Something Rotten! is set to make three stops in Wisconsin this month: Oct. 9 – 14 at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Oct. 16 – 21 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee and Oct. 23 – 28 at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton.
We chatted with Baker about his experience so far with this high-speed comedy musical.
Can you tell us a little bit about what life on tour is like?
Basically we can absolutely wake up in a new city, which is a wonderful thing, but can be quite challenging. We will be doing a show in the evening and then the next morning we are up on a bus traveling to our next destination. It can definitely take its toll on your body, your voice and a little bit on your mind as you get towards the final month of your contract. We are pretty much nine months on the road, but Work Light Productions (the shows’ touring company) gives us the entire month of December off so that we can see our families for the holidays. It’s lovely that they’ve taken that into consideration.
Another wonderful thing about this tour in particular is that we finish in South Korea. With the trials and tribulations of being away from your family all the time, you get to visit all these wonderful places, which you may never do in your lifetime.
Were you a fan of Something Rotten! prior to being casted in the national tour?
Oh yea! I saw it on Broadway when it first opened. Luckily I saw the original cast, and instantly fell in love with it. I’ve studied comedy and musical theatre from an early age, so to put the two together is a dream. Playing William Shakespeare is a dream role anyway; he’s kind of the celebrity within the play as it were, the only nonfictional character in the play itself. That does come with a sense of pressure, but at the same time it’s something that’s worth living up to.
What do you think makes this show so special?
As most shows strive to do, it’s a show for everyone. There are jokes in there that the younger generation will get and jokes in there that the older generation will get. There is such a wonderful mix of all of that, at any given time in any given scene. That just all comes down to the wonderful work of our songwriters, Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, and our writer of the book, which is John O’Farrell. It really is so so clever, how they mix language, old English language and contemporary script together, and create something that is going to be received so well, and is consistently received well every single night. That is pure genius. We’ve actually had the pleasure of working with those guys (the Kirkpatricks and O’Farrell) on the project as well. They didn’t just open Broadway and disappear. They came in and were a huge part of this process with us.
Working with a show’s creators sounds like a unique experience in itself. What was that process like?
For the most part we worked with Wayne, who is currently working on Mrs. Doubtfire (new Broadway musical based on the film) with his brother (Karey Kirkpatrick), and they just released Smallfoot, the Warner Bros. animated movie, which they did some songs for. Obviously alongside our director Steve Bebout, it was ridiculous. The team itself has so much talent; it would be a crime if we failed. They gave us all the tools we needed to succeed. We just loved every minute of it.
What is your favorite part of playing the iconic role of William Shakespeare?
It’s overwhelming. It’s almost like you are a rock star and you are coming into this and the crowd is just going wild. You have that internal crowd on the stage, which is our cast members, and then you have the audience itself, who is seeing Shakespeare for the first time. There is such a build up to his name that it’s always going to get a good response.
What is the most challenging part of playing Shakespeare?
It’s to get a good balance of ego and humor. You also have to be loved because people can’t forget what a legacy Shakespeare had, and still has to this day. His character traits might not be 100% accurate from when he was alive, but what we are trying to do is give him the respect he deserves, while amplifying a little bit and modernizing who we thought Shakespeare was.
To learn a little more on your background, what made you want to pursue a career in theatre?
From an early age my sister was a dancer, we are talking three or four years old when she started attending dance classes. A young lad I knew growing up wanted to go to classes, but his mom was worried that he would be on his own. So my mom perked up and said, ‘oh yea Matthew will go with him.’ After about two weeks the boy never went back and I just continued for the love it. In my early life I had a ball. It didn’t come without tough times going through school and all that, being the only male dancer in my circle of friends. It wasn’t easy, but you push through and you know what you love and you aren’t going to give that up so easily. When I turned 16 I decided to do it professionally and go to college in London for musical theatre. The rest is what it is.