PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Drowsy Chaperone: Hot and Cold Running Feats

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Drowsy Chaperone: Hot and Cold Running Feats Even the most seasoned end-of-season Broadway first-nighter is apt to get the bends going from Hot Feet to “Cold Feets,” as we just did this week. The former is the Earth, Wind & Fire songbook musical which opened April 30; the latter is a tap number that a jittery bridegroom does on the eve of his wedding to shake the nerves away in The Drowsy Chaperone, an original musical — that rarest of Broadway birds — which opened May 1.
Sutton Foster; Casey Nicholaw; Bob Martin; Troy Britton Johnson; Beth Leavel; Edward Hibbert; John Lloyd Young; Joanna Gleason & Chris Sarandon; Rebecca Luker; Hunter Foster; Liza Minnelli; Nellie McKay & Michael Cerveris; Jane Krakowski; Eartha Kitt.
Sutton Foster; Casey Nicholaw; Bob Martin; Troy Britton Johnson; Beth Leavel; Edward Hibbert; John Lloyd Young; Joanna Gleason & Chris Sarandon; Rebecca Luker; Hunter Foster; Liza Minnelli; Nellie McKay & Michael Cerveris; Jane Krakowski; Eartha Kitt. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Back to back, two different worlds that are separated by three city blocks.

The nominal, if not titular, star of The Drowsy Chaperone is Thoroughly Modern and Tony-winning Millie, Sutton Foster, back in flapper attire (and the Marriott Marquis) as a '20s musical star with the catchy moniker of Janet Van De Graaff, trying to marry her way out of the business. Her intended, he with the aforementioned “Cold Feets,” wears the unprepossessing name of Robert Martin and is played by Troy Britton Johnson.

The Drowsy Chaperone opened in November 1928 at the Morosco Theatre, a lovely rococo edifice long since razed and replaced by a big hotel complex (the unmentioned Marriott). We are told this, entre nous, by the tightly wound, fuss-budget show-buff on stage, identified in the Playbill as Man in Chair and played by the even more unprepossessingly named Bob Martin.

He has invited us in—since, after all, we’re at the very site of the show’s premiere—to share with us his private passion for this long (some might say rightly) forgotten musical, a pet of his he parades to those who venture into his otherwise cheerless cold-water flat.

As he puts needle to vinyl, Foster and Co. delightfully materialize and go into their show. What we have here, in this “revival” of a show that never was, is a love offering. Man in Chair is offering it with love, and it is received with love by anyone with a weakness for musical theatre. In point of fact, this whole show came into being as a love offering.

When Robert met Janet and popped the question, his friends from high school presented the couple (knowing their fondness for old musicals) with an original old musical as their wedding present. Don McKellar did the book, and the songs were by Greg Morrison and designated best man, Lisa Lambert. “I learned the best man’s responsibility was to organize the bachelor party—the money that you raise at that goes to the wedding—so I thought, ‘Let’s put a show on. We’ll raise money that way,’” relayed Lambert, clearly a fan-in-good-standing of Mickey-&-Judy movies, at the after-party at Tavern on the Green. “The Drowsy Chaperone was a 40-minute musical at that point. It was actually a show we’d been thinking of doing for a while—a 1920s kind of show—so it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but we had never really found the right venue or time to do it, and this seemed the time. ‘It takes place at a wedding. We’ll name it after Bob and Janet. They’re characters.’ As Bob often says, ‘Often we need events in other people’s life.’ At least for me, that has been the case.”

The show grew like Topsy, through several productions in Toronto (with Janet Van De Graaff playing Janet Van De Graaff) and an American premiere at L.A.’s Ahmanson (courtesy of its new artistic director, Michael Ritchie). “I’m so happy with the audiences’ reaction to the show,” says Martin, who surrendered his real life role to concoct the Man in Chair persona that gives the show its heartbeat. “It’s very interesting to feel the New York audiences compared to the L.A. audiences. The L.A. audiences appreciated the show and we did well there—but New York is so much more vocal, more participatory.”

The last creative brick to come into place was Casey Nicholaw, who showed up the morning after his Broadway debut (as Spamalot choreographer) to apply for a hyphen and be Chaperone’s choreographer and director. (No grass growing on this one!) “Looking at the script,” he says, “the show needs to move like that. It needs to go from one thing seamlessly into the next. It was really great I was able to do both and just keep the whole thing flowing and moving like it was a dance number, y’know — and just keep that comedy I do in the scenes the same as the comedy I do in the dance and just keep it all feeling like one piece."

“What’s fun about it is that so many people do feel like it’s them or everybody knows someone like that. ‘You know me? I was a kid growing up with album after album and movie posters on the wall.’ It’s about someone who loves something that much. And also this musical, to this guy, is a guilty pleasure because it’s not necessarily the best musical in the world, but he loves it for so many sentimental reasons—and it’s a way to escape.”

As the chief figment of Man in Chair’s feverish imagination, Foster has the star credentials, but she doesn’t flash them around. “The reason I did this show,” she says, “is that I wanted to be in the ensemble. I really wanted to be a part of a real group. That was my primary goal. I still have my moment, and then I can go backstage and pee.”

Foster’s “moment” has showstopper stamped all over it. “It’s basically a song called ‘Show Off,’ but it’s all about this woman who doesn’t want to `show off,' quote-unquote, and then proceeds to show off.” (We’re talking cartwheels, splits, spinning plates, playing glasses, jug-blowing, charming snakes, escaping from a straitjacket, shooting a bird out of the sky, diving through hoops—methinks she protests too much, right?) “It’s an incredible number, and it’s a real ensemble number. Most of the cast is on stage with me, and they’re all incorporated. Everybody’s participating. It’s like a well-oiled machine.”

Johnson, like Foster, has a real-life reference for his role—which he, too, completely ignores. “I only took Bob’s name,” he admits. “The great conceit of the show, of course, is that we play famous actors from the '20s playing parts in musicals, so I’m actually an actor playing an actor playing a part in a show. We watched a lot of those '20s musicals where the acting style was a little bit heightened and things were very broad and in direct contrast to the way actors are taught to act today; where everything was presentational. It was hard because you feel like you’re doing things you’re not supposed to be doing.”

At one point in the show, Johnson puts his “Cold Feets” on roller skates, blindfolds himself and sings, not inappropriately, “[I’m an] Accident Waiting to Happen.” Yes, he confirms, “It is tricky. It’s tricky to sing and be blindfolded and dance on roller skates all at the same time. I’ve fallen a couple of times. And then, of course, there’s the story of when we were in Los Angeles when we were rehearsing the number and Sutton actually fell, broke her wrist and performed most of the Los Angeles run with a cast on her arm.”

Beth Leavel won one of the show’s five L.A. awards in the title role of Sutton’s lady-in-waiting and p.a., a drowsy chaperone who nips more than she naps. True, Leavel is gleefully pleased to report, every word of it. “Absolutely. Just on occasion. Every day. I don’t think I’m ever without a glass in my hand, as a matter of fact. There are many, many, many things I like about my character. One thing is her view of life is a little heightened because Mama likes to have a martini with her at all times. She’s not drunk. She just has a happy, heightened sense of reality, and she kinda lives up there. She enables me to be extremely funny. My roots, my comfort, my soul—is in comedy. If I can have some comedy that has some pathos and some humanity at the root center, I’m the happiest girl on the planet.”

She credits Nicholaw’s velvet glove with shaping her performance. “Casey gave me permission to explore everything, then he would help pick and choose and edit and go, ‘Why don’t we cut that? Go smaller with that.’ It was such teamwork in exploring.”

A large, large helping of incurably uncured ham is served up by Danny Burstein, playing an actor with an impenetrable and indefinable accent. “Oh, man, it’s an absolute blast. The only time I’ve ever gotten to be this big and this broad before is when I did an episode of ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ with the girls from BBC. They just encouraged you to be big and fine and have a great time, and Casey Nicholaw has done the exact same thing. Such a smart, creative, funny person—and the writers are the exact same way. He has taken their energy and just helped it to blossom. Tonight was like fulfilling a wonderful dream I’ve had ever since I was a kid. It was really that kind of an opening night for me.”

The butler Underling is played by Edward Hibbert, who is anything but, dispensing his usual high-hatted haughtiness regardless of his station in life, which, in this case, happens to be manservant of the manor where the wedding is to take place. His scene partner is Georgia Engel, the daft biddy who owns the joint. Her tentative squeak of a voice hasn’t deepened with the years. “I’m Eric Blore to her Billie Burke,” summarizes Hibbert.

“That’s really nice of him to say that,” simpers Engel. “Edward is great fun. We have a duet near the end of the show called ‘Love Is Always Lovely in the End.’ It replaces a song we did in Los Angeles called ‘I Remember Love.’ It was a very beautiful, funny, little delicate song, but it didn’t have enough punch. But it’ll be on the album.”

Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records expects to have the original cast recording in stores on June 13—sooner than that if you’re a Tony voter, according to company president Kurt Deutsch. Another bonus cut: a complete version of “Message From a Nightingale,” which gets Act II off to a bizarre false start (a la Spamalot’s “Finland” number).

Press and celebs converged at a new spot at the Marriott—the breezeway connecting 45th and 46th Street (or, if you’re mythically inclined, approximately where with the first first-nighters arrived for the "original" The Drowsy Chaperone). It was a felicitous arrangement, far better than the celebrity clusters that previously coagulated in front of the second-floor theatre. Plus, there was the added photo advantage of a long receiving line for cameramen and scribes, as well as an unbroken string of stars ascending the escalator at the Marquis.

Liza Minnelli luxuriated on the receiving line, as befitted the top-billed arrivee of the evening. Lyricist Lambert was all a-dither about meeting her, and Minnelli pretty much went the distance of the party, sticking around until stars reached Tavern’s press alcove so she could congratulate them. Immediately, she went into a long, intense huddle with Foster, while Martin patiently (probably in vain) tried to get her attention on the sidelines.

In the No. 2 slot, Eartha Kitt put out her ever-persuasive Sparkle Plenty, as did the back-from-London-and-rarin’-to-go Jane Krakowsi—both graduates of the last Nine.

Acting couples seemed to be in abundance: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Allyson Tucker (he’s between albums right now—his critically cheered concert version of South Pacific is in stores, selling well after its PBS airing, and his solo album, cleverly tagged “Brian Stokes Mitchell,” arrives June 6. Then comes One Last Thing, his Cynthia Nixon flick in which he plays a doctor); Stephen Bogardus and Dana Moore (he’s Philly bound to be one of Terrence McNally’s Some Men); Maxwell Caulfield with wife Juliet Mills and Tryst co-star Amelia Campbell; Based on a Totally True Story’s Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry; The Light in the Piazza’s Chris Sarandon and Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s Joanna Gleason; Mrs. Danny Burstein (or Rebecca Luker, as she will be billed May 9-30 at Feinstein’s at the Regency and Aug. 9-Sept. 2 at Primary Stages for a very unmusical A. R.Gurney Jr. play titled Indian Blood) with her former—and the current—Phantom of the Opera, Howard McGillin; The ProducersHunter Foster (Sutton’s bro) and The Pajama Game’s Jennifer Cody; and the “American Idol” couple, Constantine Moroulis and Kellie Pickler: Since she had more to tell the press, he stood off to the side and waited. “I’m working on my album now and looking for other acting opportunities,” she says. “And seeing a lot of Broadway lately. This is my home. I grew up in the theatre so I’m just trying to catch up because I have been away for so long.”

Giving off solo glows: Christine Ebersole and Sara Gettlefinger, who played the same role in Grey Gardens (quite differently!); Tarzan’s Tony-winning Jud Fry, Shuler Hensley; Sweeney Todd Party Animal Michael Cerveris; Jersey Boy John Lloyd Young, doubtlessly checking out his biggest Tony threat (Bob Martin); Entertaining Mr. Sloane’s Richard Easton; “Daily Show’s” Mo Rocco; Paper Mill Playhouse’s upcoming Dolly Gallagher Levi, Tovah Feldshuh; The Light in the Piazzi’s Tony-winning Victoria Clark and her original babe, now Babe Williams in The Pajama Game, Kelli O’Hara.

There was even a Miss America glamming up the line of arrivals—1998’s Kate Shindle, who made her Broadway bow as a replacement in Jekyll & Hyde and is now on her way to originating a role on Broadway—the brunette nemesis Selma Blair played to Reese Witherspoon’s 2001 "Legally Blonde." Laura Bell Bundy from Hairspray has the title role in the new show, adapted by Heather Hach and musicalized by the husband and wife team of Laurence (Bat Boy) O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin. The Wedding Singer’s Richard H. Blake is the ex she pursues into Harvard Law School where she finds her true calling and her true love (now played by Spamalot’s Christian Borle); those roles were played in the movie by Matthew Davis and Luke Wilson, and Jennifer Coolidge originated the role that has gone to “Saturday Night Live’s” Rachel Dratch.

Such is the workshop cast assembled by producers Hal Luftig, Fox Theatricals and Dori Berinstein, in association with MGM Onstage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber. New hyphenate in town, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, will do presentations May 18-20.

“Jerry’s terrific,” says Shindle. “I expected him to be able to make pretty pictures on stage, but I didn’t know that he’d be such a good director as far as character and choices and stuff like that. They just announced that we’ll be going out of town at the end of the year [world premiere is set for January 2007 at San Francisco’s Orpheum], so, all things staying as they are, that would be really, really great. Everybody is sorta burned out about musicals made from movies, but, if they’re good, who cares? That’s all that matters.”

Stars twinkled and shined with the firefly lighting of Tavern, everybody basking in a happy post-show after-glow. The ticket of admission carried a cautionary warning—“The bearer of this pass is entitled to be a bit sluggish at work tomorrow morning”—and quite a few guests requested the ticket back as they were exiting for the evening (just in case . . . ).

It was one of those parties where wherever you turned there was a classy happening. Jim Dale, who’s a little bit of all right himself in his amazingly energetic turn in The Threepenny Opera, rushed up with praise aplenty for Eddie Korbich for his perpetually panicked best man in Chaperone. (Both are up for the same Drama Desk Award.) “When you’ve actors out there,” says Korbich,” you know you’ll do a good show. They get every single joke.” Annie author Thomas Meehan got quite a few himself and bothered to look up McKellar, who wrote the book with Martin, to tell him how much he enjoyed their work.

A case of well-dressed grace under pressure was Matt Wolpe, reduced to crutch ‘n’ tux after a mishap doing The Rocky Horror Show in Boston. His father, Lenny Wolpe, plays Chaperone’s conniving producer, and he didn’t want to miss Dad’s party.

Playwright Martin Sherman, whose adaptation of The Cherry Orchard just got Annette Bening back on stage (at the Ahmanson in L.A.), arrived with elegance on each arm: Doubt’s redoubtable Eileen Atkins on the right, and on the left the lovely Sian Phillips, who is bound for Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre to form Ronald Harwood’s Quartet with Simon Jones, Kaye Ballard and Paul Hecht May 23 through June 4.

Still lingering around with a contact high from the 10th anniversary reunion concert of Rent by its original cast were Gwen Stewart, Tony-winning Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Anthony Rapp. The first two were gearing up to head back West to California (Heredia has two films coming out—"Nailed" with Roger Daltry and "Descent" with Rosario Dawson—but “I’m hoping to get back in theatre. I miss it a lot.”).

Rapp was positively rhapsodic about how many emotional bases Martin touched in his performance. “I thought it was unbelievable,” he said, “and I hope that people appreciate his work. It is so subtle and unusual and alive and heartbreaking and joyful and sweet and sad and everything. It truly is one of the greatest performances that I’ve ever seen.”

As you might imagine, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen were easy converts to The Drowsy Chaperone. “At one point,” said Bell, “I looked over to Jeff and said, ‘I know this dude.’” They have their own backstage musical musings going Off-Broadway—or, rather, will have when their [title of show] resumes performance July 14 at the Vineyard. “We can get eight to ten weeks, then they start their regular season up again. I’m thrilled to be down there again. I just want to reopen and see if we can get a little more time of it.”

As two out-of-work actors who write a musical about two out-of-work actors who write a musical, Bell and Bowen resisted the idea of a director reinterpreting their material, but they finally relented and hired Michael Berresse to direct and choreograph the piece.

“It was so great to have another pair of eyes,” Bell now admits. “He’d say, ‘I’m telling ya: This is what I see. Trust it.’ He really stuck it to us, too. He was our secret weapon.”

An up-from-the-chorus-line dancer, Berresse has evolved into actor (Kiss Me Kate) who turned director for [title of show] and is now writing a vehicle for Christine Ebersole, while workshopping a Martha Clarke-Arthur Uhry piece about the Shaker movement called Ann: The Word and performing The Light in the Piazza eight times a week.

“At this point, I’m so happy because so many fantastic things are happening,” he said, “but, at the end of the day, I don’t know where I am I’m so confused. I can’t collect my thoughts. I’m, like, ‘I’m a writer.’ ‘I’m an actor.’ ‘I’m a director.’ ‘I’m an Italian.’”

Thank God, he has a job to go while he sorts all of this out. “It’s funny, but the calmest two and a half hours of my day are doing The Light in the Piazza. When I’m actually at work is when I can come down and focus on one thing. Listen, if you can find a ticket to its last performance July 2, grab it because it’s going to be a red-hot show. I can already feel it. Never before, in all the great things I’ve worked in, has there been such a passion from the artists for the material. The actors love each other. It’s a great family, but I’ve had that before. I’ve never, however, been in a show where the company was just a little bit afraid to let go of the beauty of the show that was provided for them. Meryl Streep has seen the show eight times, maybe. Richard Greenberg has come 11. They come back for a reason. There’s something about it that reminds them of why they want to do this for a living. I’ve learned more doing that show than from anything I’ve ever done.”

All the hats he has been wearing of late come in handy for his next role: Zach, the director, in the revival of A Chorus Line. Its reformation on a Broadway stage, at its recent press event, was a moving spectacle, according to Berresse. “The vamp started, we walked down, we hit the line, we did the poses, and they got their shots. I looked out in the house, and the photographers were literally wiping tears away from their eyes. There’s something about being in that line that is so striking. Until that day, I wasn’t fully engaged in what it was I was about to do. I’ve had so much on my mind. And I looked down the line, and half the line was crying. Suddenly, everyone understood the privilege.”

Bill Rosenfield, himself a producer of original cast recordings, feigned not understanding what all the fuss was about with The Drowsy Chaperone: “There was nothing I related to—sitting alone with cast albums on a rainy afternoon—nothing at all. But I would like to go out in the first national and tour with it—that’s what I want to do. Pass the word.”

A Londoner these days, Rosenfield is in town to see new musicals and more History Boys (his favorite play)—and also, unexpectedly, to receive The Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for writing the book for True Fans, a new musical with songs by Chris Miller and Norman Kissler. He can see himself now, freaking out in the control room like Daisy Clover. “‘No. I don’t want any dialogue on it, even thought I wrote the dialogue!’ It’s weird to be on the other side of the tables. Now I have such respect for all those writers who are writing musicals. It Is Very Hard Work.”

The Drowsy Chaperone, on one level, seems light years removed from Rent, which brought Chaperone’s lead producer, Kevin McCollum, to Broadway 10 years ago this week. Both reflect his attraction to new voices and visions in theatre. “Well, you know, I love original stories. I love musicals that have completely original ideas. We’re a theatre with 1,600 seats, and the wonderful thing about this show is that it’s a very opinionated show. Everybody who comes to this show has got their own opinion about the arts. The great thing about the show is that it celebrates ‘Go to the theatre. Have an opinion about what you see.’ And, if you love something original, come to The Drowsy Chaperone.”

These words pour out of him effortlessly, passionately, and reach an evangelical pitch at the end. I have to ask him: Who writes your stuff?

“I live my stuff. I don’t write it,” he says. Yea verily, Mr. Producer, and yea team!

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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