By Kristi Casey Sanders
The Drowsy Chaperone won more Tony Awards than any other musical of the 2006 season, including Best Book (Bob Martin and Don McKellar), Original Score (Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison), Costume Design (Gregg Barnes) and Scenic Design (David Gallo). But very few people realize the most celebrated musical of 2006 began as a bachelor party skit.
“All of us … who were with the show from its creation, we were all friends from way back,” says Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Lisa Lambert. “Some of us were in high school together: Bob Martin and Don McKellar and I. In 1998, Bob was getting married and I was his best man, so I felt responsible for putting together his bachelor party. And, I thought it would be fun if we could present this little piece that we’d been kicking around for a while.”
Growing up, the friends had bonded over Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire movies. “There was a whole gang of us who did a series of pastiche shows with strange narrative devices,” Lambert remembers. Occasionally, the comedians would bounce around ideas for a silly 1920s-type musical. “We had the title, The Drowsy Chaperone , and we had some song titles.”
Lambert hooked up with Martin’s friend Greg Morrison, the musical director at Toronto’s Second City, and began putting words and music to titles such as “Accident Waiting to Happen,” which came from a sketch show Lambert had done with Martin, Jonathan Crowley and Paul O’Sullivan years before. Because their friends were getting married, they set the musical at a wedding. “Which is kind of where all the 1920s musicals are set,” Lambert explains. “And we named the lead characters after the bride and groom. The thought was, ‘Let’s please our friends by actually finishing this thing’ … and we had a good time.”
They had such a good time they applied for a performance berth at the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival. “We got in … and we decided to make it more than a pastiche, so we added the Man in Chair character [played by newlywed Bob Martin],” Lambert says. The play now had a narrative device, a lonely man who compulsively listens to the 1920s musical in order to feel better about his life. It was the sleeper hit of the festival, and was seen by the Mirvish Company, a Broadway touring show presenter.
What followed, Lambert says, was surreal. “Every time we did the show, we thought it was the final time we’d do it, but [the show] would keep jumping to the next level. It took us completely by surprise.” The Mirvish Company put the show in its regular season at the Winter Garden Theatre, where it had a successful commercial run. Then, it made its U.S. debut at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, ultimately transferring to Broadway.
Along the way, the show changed a lot. “In Toronto, it was a bit more of a comedy; the people in the cast were comedians,” Lambert says. She originally played the Chaperone, McKellar played Adolpho (a character written around a comic bit he liked to do), and Martin played the Man in Chair. “When Casey Nicholaw, who choreographed and directed the Broadway version, came on board, he worked a lot with us on the script, and did a lot to enhance the music, and redid the casting for more musical theater people, because we had to,” Lambert says. “When it came to the States, we had to go with the triple threats.”
Of the show’s early cast, only Bob Martin appeared on Broadway. And, only two of the bachelor party’s songs made the final cut: “Accident Waiting to Happen” and “I Am Adolpho.”
The show’s not the only thing that’s changed. Prior to winning the Tony Award for best music and lyrics, Lambert wrote singing telegrams. “I wrote about 15,000,” she says. “There was one I had to do for this woman who was quitting her job and wanted to send a telegram to her boss. I had to write this telegram about how he played mind games and … how she hated him to the tune of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'”
The Drowsy Chaperone plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre Jan. 22-27.