July 18, 2008

Hit Musical ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ Got Its Start at a Stag Party

By Pat Craig, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jul. 18--Broadway musicals have come from books ("South Pacific" and "Ragtime"). From movies ("Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,""Beauty and the Beast"). Even from straight plays ("Hello, Dolly!" from "The Matchmaker,""My Fair Lady" from "Pygmalion").

But only once, it is believed, has a musical lifted itself from the steamy embrace of a Canadian stag party.

"The Drowsy Chaperone," the multi-Tony Award-winning 2006 hit that opens in San Francisco on Tuesday, is the one show that can trace its roots to a late-'90s evening of premarital entertainment. The innocently hilarious spoof of '20s musical comedy began life as featured attraction at a stag party for two members of the Toronto comedy and improv scene, Robert Martin and Janet Van De Graaff.

"That's how dull we all are -- instead of going out for a lap dance, we did this silly play," says Jonathan Crombie, who has been with the show since its earliest workshop days.

Actually, since many of those in the wedding party were well-known comedy lights in Canada, with big-time theater and television credits, the party was turned into a silly show business spoof, which itself turned into a big hit.

Crombie, who played the chef in the initial incarnation, now takes the all-important Man in Chair role in the San Francisco production.

The Man is a pivotal fellow -- a lonely musical comedy fanatic who cheers himself up by playing the remastered original

cast album from "The Drowsy Chaperone," a 1928 smash Broadway hit that comes alive garishly in his tiny apartment as soon as the needle hits the grooves. In seconds, the apartment is filled with the lavish sets and scanty costumes of the fictional Broadway tuner. As it explodes to life, illuminated with clamshell footlights, the musical turns the Man's dingy little apartment into something close to the Ziegfeld Follies.

What "Chaperone" demonstrated almost immediately that was clear there was a pent-up demand for skillful parodies of old-time musicals, if someone was able to capture the form with all its cliches and excesses intact.

"We'd been talking for quite awhile about putting together some kind of spoof of the old musicals," says Crombie, who has performed for several seasons with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, was a featured player in the Canadian TV series "Slings and Arrows," and played Gilbert Blythe in the "Anne of Green Gables" movies.

He also worked in sketch comedy since college, where he met Martin and several of the others involved in "Drowsy Chaperone," along with Van De Graaff, whose name was immortalized in the musical as the spoiled young starlet who wants to give up show business to marry.

Her wishes are opposed loudly by her producer, who does everything in his power not only to sabotage the wedding, but to throw a monkey wrench into the plans and schemes of everything and everyone around young Janet.

That's pretty much the story upon which the Roaring Twenties craziness spins. And in a sense, says Crombie, it reflects the sensibility of the Canadian comedy scene that spawned the musical. For years, the company has included songs in the '20s style by Lisa Lambert (one of the creators), who is particularly fond of the era and its musicals.

"I think what makes it work as a sendup and satire is that it is done with a real affection and as a homage to that period -- cliches and everything," says Crombie. "It plays to people's familiarity, which gives the period a certain coziness and grounding. I'm not surprised, particularly, that the show took off. I've known for a long time how funny Lisa and Bob are; I'm just happy so many other people were able to see what they can do."

The device of having a slightly shy musical fan start things off by simply putting a record album on his turntable was not part of the original story. The detail, which has become one of the show's most popular features, is something that came as the group prepared the piece for the 1999 Fringe festival in Toronto, becoming a fortunate piece of genius that made the show even more endearing.

"I can't tell you how many people came up to me after the show to talk about the Man in the Chair and say, 'Oh, that's me.' I think everyone can kind of identify with that putting on a cast album and having the show come alive in his mind," Crombie says. "This was especially true with Bob, because he also wrote it, and people always want to come up and talk about old musicals. People really take the show very personally and see it as their own."

Crombie, who claims to be the kind of person who never puts any personal touches in his apartments, says that's why he particularly enjoys being on the road with the show. "Living out of a bag suits me fine," he says, "and I love to travel."

The Canadian actor is also pleased to be in a show created by Canadians -- only the second, he believes, to make it to Broadway. The other was "Billy Bishop Goes to War," which was a huge hit in Canada and had a very brief Broadway run in the late 1970s.

Reach Pat Craig at [email protected]


PREVIEW -- WHAT: "The Drowsy Chaperone," by Bob Martin & Don McKellar and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison -- WHERE: Orpheum Theatre, Hyde and Market streets, San Francisco -- WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, July 22-Aug. 17 -- RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 45 minutes -- TICKETS: $30-$99; 415-512-7770, www.ticketmaster.com


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