From "Stag" to Stage

Special Features   From "Stag" to Stage
 
The Drowsy Chaperone, an homage to musicals of the past, began its unique journey to Broadway at a bachelor party.

Bob Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone.
Bob Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone.

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The Drowsy Chaperone, which bows (or is it curtsies?) May 1 directly on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre, first saw the bleary light of day in the back room of a Toronto club called The Rivoli as the centerpiece entertainment of a bachelor party - a "stag," as Canadians call it.

Back then - "then" was August 9, 1998, for any showbiz buffs out there - it was a faux 40-minute musical created, just for the fun of it, for the happy couple: Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff. It was the work of several friends from the groom's side of the aisle. Among them, lyricist Lisa Lambert and book writer Don McKellar were buds since high school, and composer Greg Morrison came from a TV series Martin wrote called "Slings and Arrows."

Knowing the Martin market (both were leading lights in Toronto's Second City troupe) and the couple's love of arcane Jazz Age shows, the creators concocted their own Golden Oldie - a wedding present that grew, in eight years, into the gift of Broadway.

The Drowsy Chaperone pretends to have gotten here in 1928, months after the December docking of Show Boat, which, with a strong dramatic storyline that anchored the songs in place, transformed musical theatre. Prior to that landmark improvement, it was all giddy, flimsy, flighty Chaperones - classic songs flapping in the wind on a clothesline of plot fluff. (Which is why they're rarely revived, despite the beloved Kern/Porter/Gershwin evergreens.) Thus, we have an irony here: the instant revival of a show that never happened and that rarest of Broadway birds - a totally original musical, based on nothing more than its own overheated imagination. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw and scenic designer David Gallo have jacked the initial vision up to Broadway size, but its sense of fun-for-fun's-sake remains unfettered. "Most of the songs are changed now," says Martin, "and the show has been thoroughly rewritten, but it's still about a bride giving up showbiz for true love."

And that bride is still named Janet Van De Graaff. When the show took its first baby steps in Toronto (before the quantum leap to L.A.'s Ahmanson), the role was played by the genuine article, who also produced it. Now she is played by that thoroughly modern, Tony-proven twenties heroine Sutton Foster, who gets an all-stops-out showstopper called "Show Off" that builds a great case against true love.

Other comic creations on the loose: Danny Burstein as Adolpho, a vaguely European lothario ("We didn't want his accent to be recognizable of any particular genus," says Martin. "Like everyone in the show, he's an actor playing a part, and Danny embraced that idea"); Georgia Engel as Mrs. Tottendale, the dotty dowager who needs reminding she's hosting the wedding party; Edward Hibbert, the only person in the show by birthright (his dad, Geoffrey Hibbert, was in the archetypal twenties musical spoof, The Boy Friend), as the snooty Tottendale butler, Underling ("As soon as he opened his mouth, we knew he was perfect"); Lenny Wolpe, going with the Flo as Feldzieg, Janet's showman producer who insists she and the show go on and even dispatches gangsters-disguised-as-pastry-chefs (Jason and Garth Kravits) to make this happen; Eddie Korbich as George, the best man, prone to heart attacks and tap dances; and, last, Beth Leavel as the tipsy, titular chaperone maintaining a half-lidded watchful eye on the proceedings ("Beth is the perfect example of a performer coming along and changing the material for the better. Most actors went for the booziness. She was more about maintaining her dignity and being above it all").

And oh, yes, Chaperone's groom - one Robert Martin - is played by Troy Britton Johnson.

The real Bob Martin, radically reworking the book with Don McKellar, came up with a part for himself, too, a character who, if he doesn't upstage the whole shebang, stands off to the side, calling the play-within-the-play. In trying to frame The Drowsy Chaperone, they found its heart and soul - a tightly wound, know-it-all nerd identified only as Man In Chair - but be warned: MIC is given to TMI (Too Much Information - about the show under his loving scrutiny as well as, heaven help us, about himself). You're visiting his drab flat, and he's sharing his Show of Shows, respinning his sacred two-record set of this forgotten bauble. At the drop of a phonograph needle, the show miraculously materializes, and we're off to 1928, but he sticks around as tour guide, providing the running DVD-like commentary, gleefully flicking off acerbic critical asides or grisly Hollywood Babylon data on the cast - but mostly glorying in it all.

"He's had some kind of major failed relationship that defined his life and caused him to squirrel himself away in his apartment, but he gets such succor from these old musicals. He's like somebody talking about muscle cars from the early 70's, talking about how the carburetors worked. You're going, 'Uh-huh, yeah, yeah.' You appreciate the enthusiasm, but you don't relate to the information. You do relate to his obsession - the degree to which he's in love with this type of theatre - and you understand the healing nature of this.

"People come up to me afterward and say, 'I'm that guy.' Which is funny since he's such a flawed, fearful, low-functioning kind of fellow. Some are in tears. They relate to the desire to be transported by a musical. It's touching to see that. This is my favorite kind of comedy - the kind that really gets inside you and touches you. You feel moved at the same time you're laughing at it.

"It's all done with love. We never intended to do just a parody of anything. It was always about creating an homage to an entertainment we love."

Right now, Martin admits Man In Chair feels like Man In Hot Seat: "I'm not thinking about the opening. Such a mythical thing, opening night on Broadway. It's the kind of thing the character I play could never in a million years imagine, but he'd fantasize. I see him with a sheet around his shoulders, bowing slowly to an invisible audience."

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