Drowsy Chaperone Is a Sweet Musical Valentine — With Salty Color Commentary

News   Drowsy Chaperone Is a Sweet Musical Valentine — With Salty Color Commentary You may have heard the name, you may have read the newspaper ads, you may have spied the marquee at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, but the unusual title of The Drowsy Chaperone — no matter how much exposure it has — is sure to get mangled by some theatregoers.

From Top: Sutton Foster; Bob Martin; Casey Nicholaw at a March 14 press preview for The Drowsy Chaperone.
From Top: Sutton Foster; Bob Martin; Casey Nicholaw at a March 14 press preview for The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The Droopy Chanteuse? The Drunken Chanticleer? Drowsy Sharon?

Box-office managers and telephone ticket operators are known for keeping a running list of mispronunciations of titles. If you were trapped in an airless room selling tickets all day, such a list would be a life preserver. Two tickets to The Drowning Chaplain, please!

Feeling trapped in an airless world is central to the life of the main character in the new Canadian-written, American-produced musical comedy beginning previews at the Marquis April 3 toward a May 1 opening.

The leading player is called Man in Chair, and although he's the chatty host of the 90-minute intermissionless evening, he lives a somewhat sad life in his apartment.

But one great joy — a thing that makes him feel less stuck — is his rare cast album of the 1928 Gable & Stein musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, which he lovingly swipes with a dust-catcher before placing it on his hi-fi. He wants to share it with us. When needle meets vinyl, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw's company comes to life in the apartment, re-creating segments from the never-was musical about a playboy, his actress fiancée and her jaded chaperone. In a plot that might have been ripped from any number of Gershwin or Kern works from the period, the population of the show within the show includes gangsters, a Latin lover, a producer, a dowager, a butler named Underling and an aviatrix named Trix.

As the numbers flood in around him, filling the stage with color and period-flavored pastiche songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, Man in Chair provides running commentary about the show's daffy plot — and dirt on the performers who starred in the original production.

"He's the audience's way in," said Bob Martin, who plays Man in Chair and co-wrote the libretto with Don McKellar. "Basically, I'm the voice of the audience. He's a sad man. Like all of us, he's had some…issues in his life. So many people have come up to me after the show and said, 'I'm Man in Chair'! Casey Nicholaw did when he came on board. He said, 'I am so that character.'"

A SPOOF?

The creators, and lead producers Kevin McCollum and Roy Miller, are not calling the show a parody of musicals. It's an homage to old-fashioned shows that is aimed at, as McCollum said, "people who love musicals and people who are suspicious of them."

Man in Chair loves The Drowsy Chaperone, and his passion for it is not reduced by his encyclopedic knowledge of the gritty backstage gossip.

In the vintage show that Man in Chair describes, Tony Award winner Sutton Foster plays Janet, a stage star who is quitting showbiz to marry Robert, a playboy. In addition to seeing the Gable & Stein musical numbers come to life, we learn choice details about the lives of the performers who created the roles back in 1928. For example, Jane Roberts, who played Janet, was best known as "The Oops Girl," for reasons not to be revealed here, and starred in a string of "Oops Girl" pictures.

Nicholaw, who was Tony Award nominated for his choreography of Spamalot, is making his Broadway directorial debut with The Drowsy Chaperone. He told Playbill.com, "Someone said it's a cross between 'The Daily Show' and No, No, Nanette, and it kind of is — because [Man in Chair] is commenting on all this stuff through the whole thing. You get this one guy's skewed point of view as well as looking at an old-fashioned musical."

We learn more about Man in Chair as the evening progresses, giving this comic musical something of an emotional, sympathetic center.

"We've all been through that at one time or another where you escape to something that makes you not feel what you're going through," Nicholaw said. "I think that's what makes people respond on an emotional level."

And who, exactly, is this "drowsy chaperone"? Beth Leavel (a recent Dorothy Brock in Broadway's 42nd Street) plays the title character with arched eyebrow and cocked wrist. In one hand, a cigarette. In the other, a martini.

Co-librettist McKellar said, "She's basically an Auntie Mame character who is negligent in her duties as a chaperone, so all sorts of madness ensues."

"A mixture of drinking and boredom has rendered her drowsy," songwriter Lambert said. "We always liked that title. It sounded like an odd relic from the '20s…"

THE CHAPERONE'S ROOTS ARE SHOWING

The Drowsy Chaperone began in 1998 when Lambert, Morrison and their pals put together a show to celebrate the impending marriage of Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaf, cohorts in the Toronto comedy and theatre community. They created a mock musical called The Wedding Gift, with characters based on Martin and Van De Graaf, whose names remain in the show within the show to this day (Foster plays Janet Van De Graaf and Troy Britton Johnson plays Robert Martin).

When he saw what his friends created, Martin's first thought was, "We've gotta do something with this material!"

There was no Man in Chair character in the early sketch-like presentation, but the narrative glue was later added when Martin himself stepped into a revised version of the piece that was produced by his wife, Janet, for the Toronto Fringe Festival. That tiny staging caught the eye of the Mirvishes, the Canadian producing family, and two Mirvish-backed productions followed in Toronto, causing a lot of buzz and catching the ear of American producer Roy Miller (formerly of Paper Mill Playhouse, who co-produced the recent Broadway revival of I'm Not Rappaport).

Miller banged the drum for the show, attracted producing partners and got an airing in Manhattan in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's 2004 Festival of New Musicals. The show that so few had heard of — created by Canadians, who are not exactly known for sending new musicals into the world — was suddenly on its way to a pre-Broadway tryout with Michael Ritchie's Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in fall 2005.

When the Marquis Theatre became available on Broadway, the spring move to New York was possible — with the entire 2005 company.

"The show started as a series of sketches, it was based in comedy and not the world of musicals — so it was feeling at one point a little 'sketchy,'" Nicholaw said of his participation. "There were… segments that all felt like sketches, so I felt like we had to get back to the story. Thank God this group loves to work, and I love to work."

Changes since L.A. include a new number, and an extension of a sequence that includes Sutton Foster.

"I like bringing comedy to musicals," Nicholaw said. "That's what's so much fun about this show, because the writers are so based in comedy. I've been able to make it dance and sing — and keep building things — in a way they're not used to. For me to be able to get people to laugh in dance is huge because it doesn't always happen."

When they learned they had snagged Sutton Foster for their show, the writers got excited. Co-librettist McKellar said: "That's when we thought, 'OK, we're a real Broadway show.' At first when we heard she was interested we didn't totally believe it. A lot of this experience has been a kind of experience of disbelief for us."

What's the secret to the process so far?

"This show has always worked because there's a group of people who like each other and work together as a group of friends," McKellar said. "It was very important to find people who not only were exceptionally talented but were likable. The show is all about the audience liking and identifying with the people who are performing."

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

The American musical theatre of the 1920s boasts musical comedies with bubbly, perishable plots, melodic songs that would become standards and improbable titles such as Well! Well! Well!, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Chee-Chee, Heads Up!, No, No, Nanette, Sunny, Sitting Pretty, Hit the Deck, Treasure Girl, Funny Face, Oh, Kay!, Tip-Toes, Lady Be Good!, Good News, Tell Me More and Whoopee.

What sort of research did the writers do?

"A lot of it was just absorbing stuff, watching really old films from the early '30s and late '20s," said Lambert.

"We're all old friends from high school," McKellar said. "When we were in high school, for Lisa's birthday I would always dig through record bins and try and find the most obscure old albums —albums of the composer singing, that kind of thing. We sort of had that in our brains already."

Lambert added, "The Marx Brothers were huge to us. Early, early Marx Brothers, the Paramount movies. And the early Fred Astaire movies. And 'Love Me Tonight' and 'One Hour With You.'"

"This is a valentine to that era," Nicholaw added.

THAT TITLE

Did the producers ever have meetings about changing the title?

"Oh, yes!" McCollum said.

"We have a hundred of them," Miller added.

"As we were looking for a title, we realized 50 percent thought it was a great title, 50 percent thought, what is that?" McCollum said.

The Oops Girl was a title idea for a moment. But the idea of "Chaperone" seemed to fit. It felt period. Not only is there a character in the show within the show who is the "drowsy chaperone," but "Man in Chair is our chaperone," McCollum said. "It worked on a lot of levels…"

McCollum, who had a smash hit producing an unknown title called Rent, explained, "Once you start performing it, the reason it's called The Drowsy Chaperone will reveal itself. I'm a great believer that people go to the theatre to be surprised."

He admitted, however, "It sat on my desk for a year because it was called The Drowsy Chaperone. I don't produce shows like that! When I finally opened it up and realized: Oh, this is using theatricality as theatrical form and it's not cynical — that's a completely original idea."

Everyone involved in the production seemed to agree that it doesn't matter if you understand the title — or correctly remember the title. Once you see it, you will talk about it.

"It's a word-of-mouth show," Miller said.

*

In addition to Sutton Foster and Bob Martin, the company includes Danny Burstein (Titanic), Andrea Chamberlain (Little Me), Jay Douglas (The Full Monty), Georgia Engel ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Stacia Fernandez (Lone Star Love), Linda Griffin (42nd Street tour), Edward Hibbert (Noises Off), Troy Britton Johnson (Joe Hardy opposite Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees), Eddie Korbich (Wicked), Garth Kravits (Toxic Audio), Jason Kravits (Sly Fox, "The Practice"), Beth Leavel (Dorothy Brock in the 42nd Street revival), Kecia Lewis-Evans (Once on This Island), Angela Pupello (Grease), Kilty Reidy (White Christmas, In My Life), Jennifer Smith (The Producers), Joey Sorge (Follies), Patrick Wetzel (The Producers) and Lenny Wolpe (The Sound of Music).

A 15-piece orchestra will sweeten the experience.

The creative team includes scenic designer David Gallo, costume designer Gregg Barnes, lighting designers Ken Billington and Brian Monahan and sound designer Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations are by Larry Blank, dance and incidental music arrangements by Glen Kelly (The Producers), music director/vocal arrangements by Phil Reno and technical supervision by Brian Lynch. Hair design is by Josh Marquette, make up design is by Justen M. Brosnan. Karen Moore is the production stage manager.

The Drowsy Chaperone is produced by Kevin McCollum, Roy Miller, Boyett Ostar, Stephanie McClelland, Barbara Freitag and Jill Furman.

Here's how the show is explained by producers in production notes: "To chase his blues away, a modern day musical theatre addict known simply as 'Man in Chair' (Martin) drops the needle on his favorite LP — the 1928 musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone. From the crackle of his hi-fi, the uproariously funny musical magically bursts to life on stage, telling the tale of a pampered Broadway starlet (Foster) who wants to give up show business to get married, her producer (Wolpe) who sets out to sabotage the nuptials, her chaperone (Leavel), the debonair groom (Johnson), the dizzy chorine (Smith), the Latin lover (Burstein) and a pair of gangsters who double as pastry chefs (Garth and Jason Kravits). Man in Chair's infectious love of The Drowsy Chaperone speaks to anyone who has ever been transported by the theatre."

*

The word "original" is a rare thing in the world of musical theatre. On Nov. 18, 2005, Center Theatre Group opened the U.S. premiere of the musical comedy not based on a play, book or film — The Drowsy Chaperone.

Tickets are available via Ticketmaster by calling (212) 307-7171 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.

From Monday April 3 through Monday May 1, The Drowsy Chaperone will play Monday–Saturday at 8 p.m. with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM.

From May 3 on, The Drowsy Chaperone will play Tuesday–Saturday at 8 PM with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. There will be no performance on May 2. There will no performance on July 4. A performance will be added on Monday July 3.

Tickets range in price from $25-$110. The Marquis Theatre is at 1535 Broadway.

For more information, visit www.drowsychaperone.com.

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