What, exactly, is the point of a musical? Man in Chair, the narrator figure in the musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone, echoes millions of theatergoers when he says, "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?"
If unsullied entertainment is the goal toward which all musicals aim, then The Drowsy Chaperone ought, by many people's standards, to be one of the greatest assemblages of hoofin', singin', and goofin' ever to have graced the Broadway stage. From the peppy production numbers and guffaw-inducing puns to the flamboyant costumes and careening scenery, this effervescent homage to Jazz Era musicals leaves us feeling as high as the old-fashioned biplane that takes off into the rigging at the end of the show amid sherbet-colored lights and bubblegum grins. Unlike the plane, however, I soon crashed, discovering that the high had been of the sugar variety. I felt strangely empty afterward, as if I had been to a fancy restaurant but could barely recall anything I'd eaten. If this is entertainment, then I'll take indigestion. It's more memorable, at any rate.
That The Drowsy Chaperone boasted considerable popularity via Broadway, a London transfer, and a national tour is remarkable when you consider that the show started out as a Canadian party trick. In 1999, composer-lyricists Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and actor-writer Don McKellar performed a spoof on old musicals at theater chums Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff's prenuptial party. The show, whose central musical-within-a-musical plot concerned a glamorous showgirl's decision to leave the footlights behind forever and marry the man she loves despite the vengeful misgivings of her cigar-chomping impresario, then went to the Toronto Fringe Festival. In preparation for the transfer, Martin joined the writing team and created the role of Man in Chair — a closeted Broadway obsessive who copes with his anxieties by listening to old LPs of his favorite musicals, in this case a fictitious "classic" from the 1920s, "Gable and Stein's The Drowsy Chaperone" — which the Man proudly owns in "a two-record set, remastered from the original recording made in 1928." The show played a series of increasingly large Canadian theaters before whetting the appetites of New York producers. Following a trial run in L.A. in 2005, The Drowsy Chaperone hit Broadway in May 2006, where it ran for a respectable 700 performances.
It's easy to understand why this breezy theatrical jaunt back in time has so entranced North American audiences. The show instantly sucks us in. Jonathan Crombie's lovable Man in Chair — a winning metatheatrical invention without whose presence the play would amount to little more than competent pastiche — gets us on his side from the start. It doesn't matter that the character looks as though he was dressed by his mother in a gruel-colored knee-length cardigan, plaid button-down shirt, formless pants, and threadbare slippers, or that he drones on endlessly about musical theater and can't resist imparting telling details about his family life. From his opening confession of "I hate theater" to his ongoing enthusiastic commentary on the musical-within-a-musical's plot and cast, the Man is easy to indulge.
You'd think the splashy, brightly lit production numbers and far-fetched plot machinations would eclipse Man in Chair's small life and sad apartment. But our hearts belong firmly to the framing device. The narrator's interjections are not only amusing, but they also imbue the saccharine inner plot with a much-needed dose of salt, as his succinct summary of the musical's storyline suggests: "Well, there you have it. All the guests have arrived. We have a bride who's giving up the stage for love, her debonair bridegroom, a harried producer, jovial gangsters posing as pastry chefs, a flaky chorine, a Latin lothario, and an aviatrix — what we now call a lesbian. And, of course, my favorite character, the Drowsy Chaperone. What more do you need for an evening's entertainment?"
The Man is, to a degree, correct: There's plenty about the story of showgirl Janet marrying her dashing beau Robert to keep audiences pacified. Of the musical's 11 production numbers — all faithful parodies of the kinds of song and dance routines that delighted theatergoers 80 years ago — three in particular stand out. "Cold Feets," a perky tap-dancing duet between the bridegroom and his best man, cheekily morphs into a trio when the pit orchestra saxophone joins in the fun with a copycat musical motif. "Show Off," the most visually and musically captivating number, is a flamboyant confection in which Janet (a feisty Andrea Chamberlain) sings about wanting to get out of the limelight while doing everything in her power to steal it, from wearing a succession of showstopping costumes to turning cartwheels. Meanwhile, in the goofy, Noel Coward–esque "Accident Waiting to Happen," Mark Ledbetter's chirpy Robert expertly navigates David Gallo's booby-trapped ornamental garden set while blindfolded and on roller skates. The remainder of "Gable and Stein's" chef d'oeuvre skips on in a similarly merry way, dishing out nostalgia and irreverence for some clichéd idea of the 1920s musical in equal amounts without stretching Broadway theatergoers' middle-of-the-road tastes and intelligence too far.
Ironically, some of the best musicals of the era The Drowsy Chaperone so blithely sends up via its tongue-in-cheek metatheatrical frame (a pretty tired device at this point in a market saturated by 42nd Street, A Chorus Line, and Broadway's currently trendy metafest, the self-consciously titled [title of show]) didn't stuff audiences with dessert. They served them main courses, too. Musical comedies by the likes of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers matched Ziegfeldian glamour and glitz with penetrating social commentary. Far from mere froth, many Jazz Age musicals dealt with such issues as race (Show Boat), women's lib (No, No, Nanette), and homosexuality (Lady Be Good).
Sheer escapism might at some level appeal to audiences in this country's present economic and social climate (which is scarily starting to resemble the late 1920s in some ways). But if people living during the Depression era solicited more from their musicals than Man in Chair's simple desire for "a story, and a few good songs that will take me away," then there's no reason we shouldn't do the same.