At the tremulous, beating heart of the most successful Canadian musical in history is an anonymous gay man trapped in a gilded cage of his own making — golden era Broadway.
Beginning as an impromptu cabaret cum wedding gift from friends to Toronto performers Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff, The Drowsy Chaperone went from Fringe oblivion — wildly successful though it was — to storming world stages, winning awards and audiences from Los Angeles to London. After it debuted on Broadway in 2006, Drowsy received 13 Tony nominations, more than any other production that year, winning five: two for its creators Don McKellar and Bob Martin (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrisson (score), one for featured actress Beth Leavel (as the title character) and a pair for costume and set design.
I’ve seen every version of Drowsy except the one in LA, which was the out-of-town tryout for Broadway, and the short-lived London production. While the greatest satisfaction was seeing friends cavort on stage in one hilarious set piece after another, an added reward was witnessing the increasing gayification of the main character, the never-named Man in Chair. By the Broadway opening, Man in Chair was a dizzying collection of affectation, with wrists of mercury and a wistful, pleading voice that demanded audiences share his bent devotion to musical theatre.
“Since the beginning we had an ongoing debate over how much of the man we should reveal,” says Bob Martin, who originated the Man in Chair character in all the theatrical versions. “We walked a fine line in the Canadian productions.
“But once we got to LA and we had the resources to build a set of his apartment, then we could see what kind of life he led, how he was a character unable to face up to his failed relationship and his sexual leanings. I mean, once the Diahann Carroll lunchbox went up on the wall it became obvious.”
The lunchbox was the brainchild of director Casey Nicholaw who helmed the production beginning in LA. He told the story of being beaten up at school because of his Julia lunchbox, referring to Carroll’s 1960s TV series. Drowsy marked Nicholaw’s directorial debut. He had previously worked as a choreographer for such hits as Spamalot; he also received a Tony nomination for his choreography in Drowsy.
“In LA we had a gay and lesbian theatre-going group see the show,” says Martin. “In the Q&A after, they said that it was very brave of us to portray a gay character like that. Brave?” asks Martin laughing. “In Canada it’s not unsettling at all, it’s perfectly expected…. The politics are so different in the US.”
The improbable success of Drowsy with its improbable lead character has opened new opportunities for its creators — both tantalizing and bizarre.
“It’s changed the way people perceive me,” says Martin, a Second City comedy alumnus. “Now I’m a Broadway performer and writer of musicals.” In addition to winning the writing Tony, Martin was also nominated as a lead actor in a musical — a surprising achievement given that he doesn’t sing a note. “So one day I get a call from Barry Manilow asking me to work on his new musical!? Great, exciting.” Martin demurs on any future association with that project — ditto for another musical to which his name got connected. “I got a call from Donald Trump’s lawyer — Donald Trump is doing a musical? — saying how they had been sitting around the board room talking about it and my name kept coming up. And I’m like, ‘Donald Trump knows my name?'”
Tony-winning composer and lyricist Lisa Lambert went from selling greeting cards at the Yonge St Papery store and writing DVD reviews for Xtra to hobnobbing with the greats. “I met Liza Minnelli on the red carpet opening night,” says Lambert. “And the photographers yelled, ‘Lisa, Liza, Lisa, Liza.’ And she smothered me in her boobs. Then she smothered me, Greg and Don in her boobs. And then I asked her if she was going to the party and she said, ‘Fuck, yes!’ And then she quoted Halston but none of us could understand her. And then Don escorted her to the ladies’ room.”
Lambert’s star chart is definitely skewed to the wacky; she has some great stories of life in the Drowsy fast lane. “In August I was in the Catskills with JoAnne Worley,” she says. “Yes, I can say that in all honesty.” Worley played Mrs Tottendale in a latter portion of the New York run. “A few of the cast and I enjoyed 24 hours at Kutsher’s Resort, one of the last of its kind,” says Lambert. “Our visit there was Dirty Dancing meets The Shining meets Cocoon.
“One of the great joys of my life was hearing Ms Worley mutter, ‘We’re losin’ ’em,’ under her breath as the old regulars shuffled out of our Drowsy Q&A. She won them back, of course, with spit-take and pearl-twirling demonstrations.”
With all the hoopla surrounding Drowsy, it’s good to refocus on the central story of the musical. Hilarious though it is, Drowsy would never enjoy such success without something true and heartfelt at its core: the fantastic loser character Man in Chair.
“Myself, I struggle with personal happiness and how to achieve it,” says Martin speaking of the character’s universal appeal. “There are so many simple things [Man in Chair] could do to be happy and he can’t do them.”
New to the later versions of Drowsy is a heart-wrenching scene where a building super comes into Man in Chair’s apartment and extends to him an invitation, which Man declines. “It made some people angry,” says Martin. “Eric Idle [who saw the show in London] came backstage after and said that we had to have the Man in Chair hook up with the super. But would Eric hook up with the super? It’s not how life works; it’s not that easy to be happy.”
But while happiness is elusive, love of musicals never fails.
“Man in Chair is enthralled by the romance of it all,” says Martin,” but his romance works on a fantasy level only.”
The musical’s tender heart is reinforced with the return of Georgia Engel who originated the delightfully ditzy role of Mrs Tottendale. Still evoking the breathy, childlike innocence of her Mary Tyler Moore character Georgette, Engel provides a curious counterpoint to the musical’s more madcap antics. When she sings, “Love is always lovely,” you believe her.
Toronto will see Broadway Drowsy swing Andrea Chamberlain as Janet (with the showstopping number “I Don’t Wanna Show Off”) and Gypsy’s Nancy Opel as the chaperone. In an intriguing twist, the Toronto show is produced by upstart company DanCap Productions; when Drowsy first stepped onto a big Toronto stage, it was produced by the Mirvishes.
Beginning its life as a gift, Drowsy keeps on giving. Jonathan Crombie, a good friend of the show’s creators, has already wowed New York audiences with short stints as Man in Chair; he’s since bagged the rest of the tour.
Also fittingly for a wedding gift, this production was capped with the recent arrival of Martin and Janet Van De Graaff’s healthy baby boy. “We’re over the moon,” says Martin. “Baby is going to be the priority for now. Boy is he a lot of work.”
As the man said, happiness is never easy.