Host, narrator and guide, the main man in the cast of characters goes by the name of Man in Chair. Played by Canadian actor Bob Martin, who also co-wrote the show's libretto (with Don McKellar), he wears a natty brown cardigan, baggy corduroys and comfortable shoes. Unlike Harry Connick's turn in The Pajama Game this season, Man in Chair does not appear bare-chested in the evening, but audiences might find his work just as memorable, despite the muted earth tones of his homely garb.
What Man in Chair leads theatregoers to — when he plays an old LP on his Hi-Fi — is an obscure 1928 Broadway musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, by Gable & Stein, a pair of never-were songwriters whose show was as daffy and throwaway as any now-forgotten score from the golden age of American musicals.
But lonely Man in Chair, like so many other musical theatre mavens, finds treasure in the trash — he knows the plot is silly, but revels in the gems within the score, and delights in the backstage stories of the fictive showfolk who created the musical way back when.
The reason you've never heard of The Drowsy Chaperone, which began Broadway performances April 3, is that it's brand new — not a revival, not based on a play, not inspired by a movie.
The producers of the musical comedy at the Marquis Theatre are hoping musical theatre addicts who love surprise — and who love backstage stories — will take a chance on a newcomer. And why not? The experience is all about backstage gossip, breezy show tunes and finding refuge from a bad old world in a good old musical.
Did we mention the entire show is set in Man in Chair's tiny, shabby studio apartment?
Directed by Casey Nicholaw, the experience is constructed to be more potent and three-dimensional than a "Desert Island Discs" radio show, of course. It's not just about spinning a record, it's about how art can transform your sense of the universe.
Thus, when Man in Chair plays the LP on his stereo, brightly-costumed sections of the musical burst to life in that shadowy apartment (David Gallo is the scenic designer who conjures visual surprises throughout). A tap number, a rousing inspirational anthem (belted by Beth Leavel in the title role), comedy routines, bad jokes, pastiche tunes, hoary ethnic songs, and a deus ex machina (with a propeller) will fill the stage before 100 intermissionless minutes have passed.
Along the way, Man in Chair can't help sharing juicy tidbits about the (mostly dead, one imagines) people who created the show 80 years ago. As we travel along, we also learn more about the blue-mood narrator, played by Martin with a quality that suggests an uncomfortable, lonely but forging-ahead Danny Kaye.
Songwriters Greg Morrison and Lisa Lambert, and Martin and McKellar, are writers and performers in the theatre and comedy community in Toronto, where Drowsy began as a lark (as a lengthy musical skit at a 1998 stag party celebrating Martin's marriage) and was developed in three separate stagings there before being snatched up by American producer Roy Miller.
Following a well-received test run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in late 2005, when Casey Nicholaw directed and choreographed and Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster starred in a major role, The Drowsy Chaperone now makes its Broadway bow. On April 27, it was nominated for 14 Drama Desk Awards.
Foster and the L.A. company are back for the Broadway run. The musical plays in the same house where Foster played (and won a Tony for) Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The title show-within-the-show is a 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 Drowsy Chaperone includes a producer, gangsters, a Latin lover, a producer, a dowager, a butler named Underling and an aviatrix named Trix.
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 sweetens the experience. Orchestrations are by Larry Blank, dance and incidental music arrangements by Glen Kelly (The Producers) and music director/vocal arrangements by Phil Reno.
Technical supervision is by Brian Lynch. 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.
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.
Who is Man in Chair?
"He's the audience's way in," Bob Martin told Playbill.com. "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.'"
The creators, and lead producers Kevin McCollum and Roy Miller, are not calling The Drowsy Chaperone 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."
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…"
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. …Once you see it, you will talk about it."
"It's a word-of-mouth show," Miller said.
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. "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.
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."
On Nov. 18, 2005, Center Theatre Group opened the U.S. premiere of the musical comedy at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.
The show's development included a presentation in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's 2004 Festival of New Musicals.
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.
Tickets are available via Ticketmaster by calling (212) 307-7171 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.
For more information, visit www.drowsychaperone.com.