Ironic Canadians Hit Broadway

Don McKellar on The Drowsy Chaperone

The story behind the new Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone is like something, well, out of a Broadway musical. Back in 1998, three young Toronto artists — Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison — wrote a goofy 1920s-style musical to perform at the stag before the wedding of their theatre friends Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff. The couple loved it so much that Martin joined the cast and Van De Graaff produced a revised version of it for the Toronto Fringe Festival.

From there, the group began to develop it into a full-fledged musical, with McKellar and Martin writing the dialogue and Lambert and Morrison, the music and lyrics. As it evolved, the show moved on to bigger theatres in Toronto, a run in Los Angeles, and now, finally, to the Great White Way, where it’s directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the Tony-nominated choreographer of Spamalot. The production also features Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster. Musical theatre fans were already burning up internet chat rooms with raves about the previews, but the show got an even greater boost on April 27 — four days before opening night — when it received 14 nominations for the New York Drama Desk Awards.

The show is structured as “a musical within a comedy.” Bob Martin plays Man in Chair, a lonely musical theatre enthusiast, whose cherished possession is a rare cast recording of the faux 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone. As he plays the album and begins to tell the story of the show, it comes to life in his apartment, complete with its motley cast of gangsters, a butler, a playboy, an actress, an aviatrix, a Latin lover and, of course, the titular drowsy chaperone. While the show gloriously plays out around him, Man in Chair periodically pauses the action to comment on the hammy performances, explain the silly plot and dish about the actors who starred in the original production. It’s both a legitimate musical and a loving satire of one. Nicholaw described it best on, when he called it “a cross between The Daily Show and No, No, Nanette.”

The Drowsy Chaperone opens at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre on May 1. CBC Arts Online spoke to McKellar about the talk in New York, being a Canadian on Broadway and exactly what $10 million buys.

Q: Congratulations. The play already had great buzz and now there’s the Drama Desk nominations. What does that mean for the production?

A: Buzz in New York is a strange thing. A deafening thing. We keep telling ourselves that it’s just people talking and they’re saying nice things to make us feel good. The validation is wonderful, but I think the heightened expectations are making us more nervous. The critics are seeing it this week, in previews. That’s how it works for Broadway. So by opening night, we’ll be clear of that and can relax a little bit.

Q: I saw the show at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, back in one of its earlier incarnations, when it was still pretty low budget. What does $10 million — which is the Broadway production budget — buy you?

A: You mean compared to the buck-fifty it cost us to mount the play at Passe Muraille? The show had to be re-imagined for each production. When we first did it, it was on a tiny stage at the Rivoli [a Toronto bar]. There’s something kind of poignant about that — remembering all the cast in their period costumes. I mean, who wears period costumes at a bar? Now that it’s on Broadway, we had to fill the stage. We had to have actors who could really sing and really tap dance. In a sense, we are actually putting on the musical that we only suggested at before. But it’s still an intimate show. It has the same spirit as that first performance at the Rivoli. But to answer your question, I will say this: there’s a scene with an aviatrix. In the original, someone twirled a cane or something to suggest a propeller. For Broadway, we could finally afford a real propeller. That’s what $10-million buys you.

Q: One of the jokes of the show is that The Drowsy Chaperone was not that great a musical. Now that you’re on Broadway, has the musical itself gotten better?

A: Well, it was never meant to be a classic show. It’s a forgotten show, one of those collage shows of the 1920s — veering from Vaudeville to spectacle to operetta to a Noel Coward parlour comedy. There were zillions of musicals just like it in the 1920s, most of which have been forgotten. When Showboat premiered, that changed everything. Musicals became more structured; they became an art. When we were writing The Drowsy Chaperone, we were reacting to the big, earnest musicals of the 1980s and 1990s, and did something funny and comedic instead. In the same way, the musicals that emerged in the 1920s were a reaction to the European operettas that came before them.

Q: Are you nervous about being a group of Canadians coming in and poking fun — albeit with affection — at a classic American art form?

A: I think a lot of people really relish our outsider status and are curious about the show because of that. They’re excited: “The Canadians are coming! The Canadians are coming!” Of course, being Canadian is central to the show’s observational humour. I think our distance really helps us. Some of the humour might be considered a little too nasty coming from an insider. As outsiders, we get a little more latitude.

Q: One of the biggest struggles for Canadian theatre artists is having the time and money to develop a play. You’re lucky if you get a year to write and workshop and revise. You’ve been involved with this for eight years now, on and off. What kind of difference has that made?

A: It is a huge luxury, especially for a comedy, where you can’t be competent with the laughs until you’ve tested them in front of an audience. At each stage, we made radical discoveries about the show and were lucky enough to have terrific collaborators who were the right people for each incarnation of the show. We benefited enormously from that time, although lots of people didn’t understand why we were still working on it and re-writing it.

Q: Bob Martin has been with The Drowsy Chaperone almost since the beginning. It was even written for him. Can you imagine anyone else in that role?

A: I can’t. No one can. When we wrote the show for Bob and Janet, we were appealing to his weird sense of humour and making the kind of asides and comments he would make. So right from the start, we were addressing him. And when we decided to add Man in Chair as a kind of narrator, it was a device to let other people into the world of the musical. It is so much him and so much his personality, that as the show has grown, we’ve pushed the dramatic arc of that character to the fullest.

Q: One last question. How are you going to celebrate on opening night?

A: To be honest, I think we’re all dreading it a little. We all have friends and family coming down for the show, plus former cast members and, of course, there’s the random celebrities who will drop by. All of us are aware of all the obligations of hosting people and greeting people. But there’s no show the next day, so now we’re thinking about an after party, when we can all be together and just take it in.

Rachel Giese writes about the arts for