The cast of the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festivalproduction of The Drowsy Chaperone
The cast of the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival
production of The Drowsy Chaperone
Another musical had opened out-of-town to rave reviews, which meant that Roy Miller, the associate producer at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, had to decide whether or not to make the trip to Toronto to see it. "You know how it is when you read great reviews," says Miller, his voice droning with boredom. "You say, 'Yeah, sure,' because you've been disappointed far too many times before."

This time, the show in question had the funky title of The Drowsy Chaperone. The year was 1999, and musical comedy hadn't yet made its Broadway comeback. So what was a guy to think of a show that branded itself as "a sophisticated musical" -- except that the "ph" had been replaced by "tw" to morph the word into "sotwistcated." We weren't dealing with Les Miz or Phantom here, and Miller wasn't too interested in schlepping to see this show at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Who were book writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar? Composer Greg Morrison? Hey, we've all heard of Liza of Lambeth -- but who was lyricist Lisa Lambert?

The show moved to a small "Off-Broadway" theater before Toronto theatrical mogul David Mirvish picked it up in 2001. He brought it to his Winter Garden, a fascinating space above a legit theater that's has artificial flora and fauna flowing from the ceiling. "Mirvish's office faxed Paper Mill some reviews," says Miller. "And though we're always getting these things, I did think that it might be something for Paper Mill." Some time later, Miller's old pal Paul Mack gave him a call. They'd met in 1978, when they were auditioning for the upcoming Broadway musical They're Playing Our Song.

The two lead characters in that show would each have a trio of alter egos, and Miller and Mack were still in the running for the three men when director Robert Moore narrowed the list to five. "Paul and I were the ones who weren't cast," relates Miller, "which they told us in front of the guys who were cast, right there on the stage of the Imperial Theatre. Our consolation prize was that they let us see the show -- so we could see what we didn't get." But they did land the roles when the show went on the road, and they got along well. After the tour ended, Miller and Mack kept running into each other. One day, Miller came home to his New York digs and there was Mack moving into an apartment on the same floor. Years later, after Miller moved to L.A. with his girlfriend so that they both could pursue acting jobs, he ran into Mack at a supermarket there and found that they were neighbors once again.

Time went on. Miller went into theater management and landed the Paper Mill post. One day in 1999, out of the blue, he got a call from Mack: His old pal was interested in producing commercially, now that he'd had some success as a fundraiser in Toronto. Would Miller teach him everything he knew? While Miller was certainly interested in helping, he first asked Mack to save him a trip to Canada by dropping in on The Drowsy Chaperone. Mack said that he would do so. Soon afterwards, he called Miller and in a low, serious voice said, "Roy, you'd better get up here."

"So I went," Miller tells me. "When I got to my seat for the matinee, I was almost saying, 'Okay, go ahead: Make me laugh. I dare you.' But then the show started and I fell on the floor laughing." What he saw when the curtain went up was a character simply known as The Man in the Chair, preparing to go on the air with a radio show devoted to Broadway musicals. (Doncha love it already?) He has been thinking about Ronny Howard this morning, and thus was motivated to play the soundtrack to The Music Man. That has started him thinking about musicals before the rock revolution. "Ah," he says, "if only I could hear a score by someone like Rodgers and Hammerstein -- or Gable and Stein!"

The audience knows the first set of collaborators, of course, but who are the second set? Only the authors of that titanic '20s hit, The Drowsy Chaperone. Luckily, there was a bootleg made of the whole show, and The Man in the Chair plays it for us -- as the stage comes alive with it. The plot has a diva ready to give up her lucrative musical comedy career in favor of a marriage, which makes her producer quite worried. For one thing, there are some gangster financiers who want to see their investment protected. So the producer hires Adolpho, a Latin lover, to break up the marriage. Add to this some bridesmaids and a maid-of-honor who turns out to be a rather drowsy chaperone. "But that's not the main event," Miller insists. "The real star of the show is The Man in the Chair. He talks about the actors playing the roles and their real lives. His comments are hardly the type you'd find in a '20s musical -- they're rather like a Broadway Babylon -- and he delivers them with what I'll call sinister enthusiasm. You don't have to know anything about musicals to like this show; you just need to know something about people."

Roy Miller
Roy Miller
Mack asked Miller if he wanted to co-produce the show with him, but Miller told him that he was, after all, representing the Paper Mill Playhouse. Miller went back and told Angelo Del Rossi, then the theater's executive producer, that this was definitely a property he should see. So Del Rossi went to Toronto and saw a performance with one of Paper Mill's Follies stars, Kaye Ballard, on her off-night from The Full Monty downstairs. "They both adored it," Miller reports. Nevertheless, when Miller told Del Rossi that he and Mack were interested in producing the show commercially, the boss gave his employee the green light.

"What's fascinating to me," says Miller, "is that Don McKellar, Greg Morrison and Lisa Lambert started out writing a skit for a bachelor-slash-stag party for Bob Martin, who liked it and suggested that they expand it into a full-length show. Martin wound up playing The Man in the Chair. Now the industry will have the chance to see if it shares Miller and Mack's enthusiasm. On October 3 and 4, at the new Dodgers Stages, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre will offer excerpts from eight musicals -- 45 minutes' worth from each. The Drowsy Chaperone is one of them, and look at the cast that Miller and Mack have assembled: Lea DeLaria, Georgia Engel, Christine Ebersole, Richard Kind, Danny Burstein, and Christopher Sieber, not to mention Beth Beyer, Robert DuSold, Paul Kandel, Reno Roop and Bob Martin -- the co-author and The Man in the Chair. (For more information on this 16th annual NAMT Festival of New Musicals, click here).

Concludes Miller: "I've noticed that, in the subsequent years of the Toronto Fringe Festival, journalists keep saying, 'What will be The Drowsy Chaperone this year?' I'm hoping that the show will get booked into a new venue or two."

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]