Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick: Servants to the Show

Fifty-four songs.  

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Brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick lovingly created a total of fifty-four songs for their 2015 critically acclaimed musical Something Rotten!and the two brothers loved and cared for and believed in each and every one of them. But as destiny would have it, a majority of those fifty-four songs ended up falling with a thunderous thud on the cutting room floor, never to see the light of the day.  

But on a cold April night in 2016, in a packed nightclub in the heart of New York City, the Kirkpatrick brothers allowed some of those songs to emerge as they took a moment to pay homage to the ones that didn’t find their way to Broadway. 

And they still didn’t have time to play all of them. 

“We had to cut songs of an evening of cut songs,” Wayne says with a brief laugh during an interview with American Songwriter. “Everyone loved the songs. The show just didn’t.” 

“When someone says a song doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad song,” Karey then proclaims. “The fact is that you have to check a lot of boxes when you are writing a song for a Broadway musical. Is it the right song for that moment? Is it moving the story along? Should it be an ensemble number or a duet? You have to become a servant to the show and let the show tell you what it needs. Essentially, you have to become egoless and pretend you are not the writer.” 

Certainly, that’s easier said than done for two exemplary writers.  

Indeed, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick make up one of the most successful writing partnerships of our time. Besides their shared work on Something Rotten!, the two individually have equally impressive resumes. Karey is best known for his screenwriting credits on films such as The Rescuers Down Under and James and the Giant Peach, while Wayne is best known for his lyrical contributions to albums from artists such as Garth Brooks, Amy Grant and Little Big Town.  

Their shared love for writing began when they were just kids growing up in Alexandria, Louisiana, creating shows on cassette recorders and wearing matching red and white outfits as they sang “Yankee Doodle” in unison. But it wasn’t until they moved to Baton Rouge and were taught how to play the old gospel hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” on the guitar at a summer bible camp in Florida that the two began to feel songwriting tugging at their teenage hearts.  

Well, as least Wayne did. 

“Songwriting became a therapeutic process for me,” remembers Wayne, who grew up listening to the songwriter heavy mix of music of the Eagles, Dan Fogelberg and James Taylor. “I was pretty shy, and it was a way to express myself and explore what I was feeling. I basically hibernated in my room and immersed myself into music and writing.” 

“I was often the first audience for whatever song Wayne had just written,” Karey remembers fondly. “Wayne did some shows starting in high school, and I remember thinking that the girls really seemed to like this songwriting thing. (Laughs) But still, I ended up getting heavy into musical theatre. I wanted to perform. I was definitely more of the extravert.” 

Soon, California called Karey’s name, and he embarked on a career that began as a staff writer at Walt Disney Feature Animation. At the same time, Wayne settled into the songwriting euphoria found in Nashville. But somewhere around 1995, the budding playwrights began to throw around the somewhat lofty idea to write a musical of their own.  

“Everything happened so organically,” remembers Wayne, who served as a co-writer on some of Little Big Town’s biggest hits, including “Little White Church” and “Boondocks.” “It became this game of what ifs. We would have these little tidbits of ideas that we thought would be funny. We would talk about it for five minutes, and then we would casually mention that we should write it someday, and then we would move on to something else.” 

That game of creative catch went on for nearly 15 years. 

They eventually chose to collaborate alongside renowned author and comedy scriptwriter John O’Farrell in 2010, and the creative trio then began writing songs that they would eventually pitch to producer Kevin McCollum to build out the story they had been envisioning for so long. In 2015, Something Rotten! opened on Broadway and earned ten Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.  

But getting a seat at the Broadway table had its challenges. 

“When you get into theatre, it’s such a different animal,” Wayne says. “Writing screenplays for movies is different than writing a book for a musical, and writing songs for an album is different than writing for a theatrical experience.” 

But it was a lesson that they both had learned by the time they came together again to write the music for the Broadway musical adaption of Mrs. Doubtfire, which was knee deep in previews when the pandemic shut the world down in 2020. 

“We wrote 18 songs for Mrs. Doubtfire, and 18 songs were part of those previews,” remembers Karey. “Of course, now we have some reworking and rewriting and fixing, but that’s the way it goes. The process never ends.” 

The brothers grow silent, if only for a moment. 

“I can easily say that writing for the theatre is the hardest thing I have ever done… times ten,” concludes Wayne. “It’s so incredibly exhausting and so incredibly challenging, but probably the most rewarding.”

Photo courtesy of Karey Kirkpatrick

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