Baker relishes the thrill of the Will in Broadway San Jose’s ‘Something Rotten’

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
William Shakespeare (Matthew Baker) swings through San Jose in the national tour of “Something Rotten.” (Jeremy Daniel photo)

If you were William Shakespeare, how full of yourself would you be?

You’ve written 38 plays and 154 sonnets that have shaped, and in many cases, invented the English language. Your writing has been translated to every language possible. You have written quotes that go on for days, including one of the most quoted phrases in all the English language – “To be or not to be.”

Knock knock jokes? Those are yours. Dead as a door nail? Yup, that’s yours too. All the world’s a stage? If you’re Shakespeare, all the world is YOUR stage.

It’s safe to say that if Shakespeare’s head were as big as the old globe, and that’s any old globe, it would be completely justified. He just may be the most arrogant SOB around.

Actor Matthew Baker takes a personal approach to this Shakespeare stuff. He inks up his quill pen every night and takes his shot at Elizabethan rock star status. The money, the fame, the parties and the praise are his nightly.

That’s because Baker plays the man. The head honcho. The big cheese. The Bard.

The wild and wacky Broadway musical “Something Rotten” is making its second run through the Bay Area, stopping for a week in the South Bay via Broadway San Jose. The show, which opens Tuesday, Jan. 29th takes a fictional look at the year 1595, when Shakespeare was knocking out the competition with his unmatched brilliance. In the story, two theatre brothers are on the receiving end of a Shakespearean uppercut – the total ass Nick Bottom and his brother Nigel, a pair who is tired of hearing about Stratford-Upon-Avon’s favorite son. To them, Shakespeare is a hack playwright that’s making their lives and careers extremely difficult.

Baker, 30, spends the first hunk of the show waiting in the wings, while everyone shares their thoughts about Shakespeare, and not all good. And in his favorite moment of the play, the first time he sees the audience is when he turns around, and bam! – thousands of adoring fans ready to love them some Will.

“(In the staging) It’s quite amazing to not see the audience, and then when I turn around there are 2500 people watching,” said Baker. “There’s no ready, set go – it’s just go. That first number is like being at a live concert.”

Baker’s path to the role was built in his native England, where he was raised. His university studies in London focused on musical theatre but were filled with training in all the triple threat disciplines – acting, singing and dancing. And a few years ago, when he saw Christian Borle in the role of Shakespeare in New York as part of the original Broadway cast, a role that got him the Tony Award, Baker yearned for an opportunity.

“I thought to myself that I would love to be that, but you don’t always get what you want in this business.”

This time, he got it. And he was ready to carve out his own niche.

“Watching Borle is so iconic, he created the role, and when I got it, I had very much the freedom of reign with acting choices,” said Baker. “There are certainly isms of his I aspire to be like, but I was told to make my own choices and be my own self.”

Baker is a part of a larger fraternity – those actors who have played Shakespeare. On a relative scale, not a lot is known about the life of the Bard. So, the fascination with how a man of simple means from Stratford went on to become the greatest playwright in the Western world has always manifested itself in fun, fictional what ifs.

Even though “Something Rotten” turns the entire world of the late 16th century Elizabethan England on its head, Baker still feels a sense of duty to bring dignity and truth to the role.

“In a sense, knowing I’m from English heritage, I feel I’m paying homage to an ancestor,” said Baker. “This is my home country’s history playing through a musical theatre genre. We are characterizing and modernizing him because he was very much a rock star of the age.

“Shakespeare is a very real person who, throughout the years, stood the test of time.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway San Jose presents “Something Rotten”
Music and Lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Jan. 29th – Feb. 3rd
San Jose Center for Performing Arts
255 S. Almaden Blvd, San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $43 – $158
For tickets, call (800) 982-2787 or visit www.broadwaysanjose.com

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