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  • Writer's pictureClosing Night

The Drowsy Chaperone Wakes Up on Broadway

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

From spoof musical to Tony Winner, the journey of Drowsy Chaperone leads it to become one of the Marquis Theatre's most successful shows.


In May of 2006, I was visiting New York City to see friends and do some auditioning. While the auditions were a bust, I did hear about this new show at the Marquis Theatre and was told it was pretty unique and really funny. So on the word of a friend’s recommendation and without knowing much else I went a bought a ticket and found my seat in the mezzanine. And when the lights went out, an agitated but friendly voice began speaking to the audience in complete darkness.


“Ugh. I hate theatre. Well, it’s so disappointing, isn’t it? You know what I do when I’m sitting in a darkened theatre waiting for the show to begin? I pray. "Oh, dear God, please let it be a good show. And let it be short, oh Lord in heaven, please. Two hours is fine, three hours is too much. And keep the actors out of the audience, God. I didn’t pay $100 to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears. I just want a story and a few good songs that will take me away. I just want to be entertained. I mean, isn’t that the point? Amen.”

The lights eventually came up on a man in a chair in his living room, and for the next hour and 40 minutes I was entertained with a story and few good songs as he introduced us to a cast of players in a 1928 musical called The Drowsy Chaperone.



 

Though Closing Night finished its first season, there's still a few shows from the Marquis Theatre that I want to take a quicker look at. So in a special mini-episode we look at the journey of The Drowsy Chaperone from Toronto to New York. This is the transcript of that story, and it has only been slightly edited for this format. You can listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast app:



 

BEGINNINGS

In 1998, Canadian actors Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaf were engaged to be married, and Martin’s longtime friend and composer, Lisa Lambert, was his best man. She was asked to take care of their stag party, which is what Canadians call bachelor or bachelorette parties—obviously our neighbors to the North do weddings very differently. Anyway, Lambert said she would take care of the entertainment and didn’t tell Martin or Van De Graaf about her plans.

So the couple arrives for their stag party at a club in downtown Toronto called Rivoli, and they and their guests are treated to a show called Oh, What a Pair, consisting of two acts—the first act being stand-up routines about the bride and groom. Then the second half was something called The Drowsy Chaperone, which was about forty minutes long and basically a spoof of old musicals, fully staged with costumes.


Lambert had joined with another composer friend Greg Morrison to write the music and lyrics, with actor and filmmaker Don McKellar writing the script. And just so you understand, “drowsy” in the context of this show is a euphemism for “tipsy” or “drunk” because too much drinking always made the chaperone tired.


Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, Bob Martin, and Greg Morrison

Though initially conceived as a one-night event, the success of that stag performance made them think there was something there. So Martin also joined the other three creatives, and together they expanded the show and created the character of Man in Chair, which became pivotal in providing a framework for the musical, as Bob Martin explains.

“Well, the show is really about a man who is in his apartment. He's a lonely man. He's had some tragedy in his life. He's sort of a low functioning person. And in order to restore himself on those days when he's feeling kind of blue, he plays his favorite Broadway musicals. And on this particular evening, sharing with the audience, a little lost gem called the Drowsy Chaperone.”

Ed Sahely as the Producer & Scott Anderson as Underling in 1999

In fact, the inspiration for Man in Chair came from a theater critic with the Toronto Star, Richard Ouzounian, who used to have a radio show on which he played old cast albums. Similarly, the Man in Chair plays The Drowsy Chaperone and informs the audience that the musical is by the famed writing duo Gable and Stein. And slowly, one by one the characters come to life in his living room and tell the story of Robert and Janet, who are engaged to be married, and the individuals and mishaps that stand in the way of their wedding day.

With an all-Canadian writing team, Drowsy had quite the run in Toronto. Its first performance was at the Fringe Festival in 1999. Later that year, commercial theatre producer David Mirvish financed an expanded production at a 160-seat independent theater. Ticket sales and reviews were really good, and it led Mirvish to finance and produce a full-scale version in 2001 at Toronto's 1000-seat Winter Garden Theatre.

The creative team also cycled through different directors for each production. And it was at that full-scale Winter Garden version that New York producer Roy Miller was invited to come see the musical. He immediately recognized its potential and optioned the rights to produce it, but with one caveat:

“And I said I would love to try to secure the rights, but I really don't want to do the show unless I have some sort of funk Good faith agreement with Bob Martin that he would be willing to star in the show on Broadway, because I never would have gone after the rights otherwise.”


PRE-BROADWAY

In 2004, Drowsy would finally make its way to New York as part of the Festival of New Musicals put on by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. This two-day festival offers 45-minute presentations of eight new musicals to an industry-only audience, and one of those is attendance was Kevin McCollum, the Tony Award winning producer behind such big shows as Avenue Q and Rent.


Once he was brought onboard, the creators began to hone the musical, envisioning great voices, dancers, costumes, and a set that could transform from a living room to a musical stage. It became clear what they needed now was a director who could reconceptualize the whole production. And so the day after Spamalot opened on Broadway in March 2005, that show’s choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, interviewed to be both choreographer and director of Drowsy’s Broadway production. Yet as excited as he was for the show and to work with this team, this was to be Nicholaw’s Broadway debut as a director, so he knew he had his work cut out for him.


Casey Nicholaw with Kevin McCollum

“You know, right off the bat too, I was a little nervous about it, because it doesn't read as well as it plays at all, you know, and me not knowing any of these guys and knowing that the lead character is already cast by someone I've never seen perform that I know nothing about, you know, was a little daunting. But once we met, I was like, okay, I have nothing to worry about.”

So with Martin as the Man in Chair, it was now to fill out the rest of this cast, and what a group of actors they found: Tony Award winning Sutton Foster was cast as Janet Van De Graff, TV star Georgia Engel was Mrs. Tottendale, British actor Edward Hibbert played Underling, and the inimitable Beth Leavel took on the title role of the Chaperone.


And so as rehearsals began in the fall of 2005, the cast was given a chance to flesh out the backstory of their characters. To do this, Nicholaw orchestrated a unique acting exercise called the "Hot Seat" in which one by one each actor would have their turn in the hot seat, where fellow cast members would encircle them and pepper them with questions about their character. In addition to this, the creative team would work to tailor each character to the strengths of the actor. In the case of Beth Leavel she told Playbill this process was “revelatory." And on a panel discussion, Greg Morrison talks about the process of working on a song for the Chaperone called “As We Stumble Along” sung by Leavel.


“This is the number where she had to win over the entire audience, and they all had to see why this man in the chair loves this person so much, loves this performer. And as the number grew and we saw what Beth could do, you know, kept notching that up a few notes. And that's very much how we work anyways—once we come with a song to someone, we like to work with them and the musical director, whoever that may be, and fiddle with it as we go on.”


This collaboration and focusing of the individual strengths of the cast into one harmonious ensemble was actually one of the biggest reasons Sutton Foster wanted to join this show. Despite her leading lady credentials, her primary goal in this show was to be a part of an ensemble, to contribute to the collective magic of the show. She certainly had her moment in a showstopper called "Show Off," where she dazzled with cartwheels, splits, and a myriad of stunts, but at its core it was a real ensemble number, a well-oiled machine where every cast member played a part. Yet while other actors had scene partners and duets and ensemble numbers, Martin was basically doing a one-man show in a chair.


“It's a very strange process for me because, like, I mean, rehearsal wise, I'm never performing with anyone. And so much of my material is geared to, how the audience reacts to something that I say. Rehearsal is absolutely torture for me because my scene partner is not there, basically. And then actual development is difficult as well, because the tough part for me is knowing a couple of days beforehand, saying lines that I know are gonna be cut and hearing actors say lines that I know are no longer there. And moments that I know don't work, and I know why they don't work and having to turn that mechanism off.” - Bob Martin



AHMANSON IN LOS ANGELES

Even with seven years behind them, the creatives were still in this evolutionary phase of creating, rewriting, and finessing as they headed to Los Angeles for the show’s American debut at the Ahmanson Theater on November 18, 2005.


But at one point before they opened, Foster was rehearsing with her scene partner Troy Britton Johnson who played Robert Martin. She’s singing in a dress and heels, while he has to sing and be blindfolded and dance on roller skates. This duet number between Robert and Janet is called “Accident Waiting to Happen” and true to its name Sutton Foster took a tumble during this rehearsal and broke her wrist. Well, the production opened on time, but Foster was in a cast for most of that LA run. Nonetheless, LA critics largely praised Foster and the cast for their performances, noting that while the music may not have soared it was still very good and were the production as a whole. Here’s what Variety had to say:

“This is an elaborate show, and first-time director Casey Nicholaw manages to keep it all crystal clear and humming along. He’s helped enormously by David Gallo’s ever-inventive set design, which transforms the dreary apartment into a Cole Porter-like party. It’s all one big paean to theatrical imagination…and its commercial appeal is unquestionable. It’s certainly an awful lot tighter and polished than Thoroughly Modern Millie, another example of a 1920s tribute, in its Southern California tryout. And overall, The Drowsy Chaperone is a more satisfying show than Millie, equally mood-lifting but less problematic.”


Drowsy left LA with other encouraging reviews as well as five Drama Critics Circle awards, with the next stop being its Broadway opening at the Marquis Theatre on May 1, 2005. It was to be the only original musical that Broadway season that didn’t come from a book, play, or movie. It was pure imagination at work, which wasn’t that common 20 years ago and is even less common now.


BROADWAY PRODUCTION

Until Drowsy came along, Jersey Boys was the juggernaut of the 2005-2006 season and the hands down favorite to win the Tony for Best Musical. But Drowsy Chaperone lived up to its name and became the sleeper hit of the season, garnering almost universal praise among critics—even forcing the opinionated Michael Reidel of the New York Post to walk back his self-assured proclamation that no show could pose a threat to Jersey Boys at the Tonys.

J. Robert Spencer, John Lloyd Young, Daniel Reichard and Christian Hoff in JERSEY BOYS

Instead, Drowsy became the show to beat with a total of 13 Tony nominations. The next closest production was The Color Purple with 11 nominations. And Jersey Boys? Well, they landed a respectable 7 nominations. But among the nominees for Best Musical like The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer, Drowsy’s only real competition was Jersey Boys. Here’s Michael Reidel talking about what made The Drowsy Chaperone so special:


“The audience I went to was full of a lot of insider theater people who loved it. But, you know, there were a lot of people, I think, who were just there staying at the Marriott Marquis—in town, you know, for a weekend trip who are not show queens, who felt the same way about it, who are as moved and touched and enjoyed it as much as the insider theater crowd.”


The Drama Desk Awards also showered 14 nominations on Drowsy, which would go on to win 7 of them, including Best Musical. But when it came to the Tonys, there was a bit more complex of a dynamic going on. Drowsy had stirred up nostalgia among Broadwaygoers and revived backlash against the jukebox musical, reminding theater purists that Jersey Boys lacked originality and was basically an all-male version of Dreamgirls. On the other hand, Drowsy Chaperone encountered its own detractors, who deemed it a weak parody of old musicals and criticized the thinness of the score. Nonetheless, box office was strong for both shows but decidedly in Jersey Boys favor, with weekly grosses routinely going above $1 million, while Drowsy hadn’t reached that milestone yet.

So Tony voters were split, questioning the direction of musical theater and the inclination towards jukebox productions. When the dust settled in June 2006, Drowsy walked away with five Tony wins—more than any other musical that year—but ultimately it was Jersey Boys on top with Best Musical and Drowsy with notable wins in Best Book and Score. It also marked the very first Tony nomination and award to the wonderful Beth Leavel for Best Featured Actress.



Having seen both Drowsy Chaperone before the Tonys and then Jersey Boys after, I will freely admit that I’ve held a grudge against the Tony Awards ever since for giving Best Musical to the wrong show. I mean, one show came off like a tedious and overly dramatic concert, while the other showed originality and gave me that joyous spark that only real musical theater brings. Yes, it’s been 17 years but as you can see I still haven’t let it go. But such is the way with Tony Awards and their voters, 40 percent of whom are touring-production presenters, so the road has always had this outsized sway in what wins in New York City.


Danny Burstein and Beth Leavel

Still, Drowsy recouped its initial investment of $7.8 million after 30 weeks, which puts it in good company with other shows that recouped in that amount of time like Kinky Boots, Mamma Mia, and yes Jersey Boys. Drowsy also spawned a well-reviewed national tour (with Bob Martin in the chair), a London production that did not last long (also with Bob Martin), a successful cast recording, and the first Broadway cast album to appear in vinyl LP form in nearly 20 years.


Throughout the course of the musical’s run on Broadway, some notable and celebrity replacements joined the show: for the Man in Chair there was Jonathan Crombie, Bob Saget, and John Glover. Upon Georgia Engel's exit, Jo Anne Worley and Cindy Williams became Mrs. Tottendale. And Mara Davi assumed the role of Janet once Sutton Foster left. But after the two-year mark, ticket sales slowly started to decline as the celebrity stunt casting just wasn’t bringing in new audiences. By November 2007, the show played to less than 50 percent of capacity at its 1,600-seat theater. And so on December 30th of that year The Drowsy Chaperone ended its 10-year journey from a wedding gift to a Broadway hit with 32 previews and 674 performances. And to this day, it remains one of the first and best shows I’ve ever seen at the Marquis Theatre.


 
Closing Night theater history podcast cover art

A big thank you goes American Theater Wing, Tony Awards, and CUNY Theatre Talk for their resources that made this episode possible. Closing Night is a production of WINMI Media with Patrick Oliver Jones as host and executive producer of the show. Dan Delgado is the editor and co-producer, not only for this podcast but also for his own movie podcast as well called The Industry. Maria Clara Ribeiro is co-producer. Join us next time as another production makes its way to closing night.

 

Sources and materials used to create this episode...


Pre-Broadway


Ahmanson

Broadway Production

Tony Awards

Financials


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