Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stay Drowsy

If Anna Russell is best known for her hilarious (but surprisingly accurate) routine in which she analyzes the entirety of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in less than half an hour, then her second-best routine would have to be "How to Write your own Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta." She concocted this one at a time when practically every American city had some group along the spectrum between professional and amateur mounting a Savoyard production, making it, as she put it, "a pity that there weren't a few more." To deal with this lack of material, she tapped into the basic formula behind the best-known G&S creations, gave it a new setting ("the New York upper crust") and proceeded to make up a whole set of new songs to go with a new plot, singing all of them, regardless of voice range and including the obligatory madrigal ("You'll have to excuse me. My quartet singing is not what it used to be.") … all in less than fifteen minutes! As was the case with her Wagner analysis, this became a great hit for anyone who knew the material and a meaningless antic for anyone else.

These days it feels as if the Broadway musical extravaganzas in the years leading up to the Great Depression (and Hollywood's effort to keep carrying that torch after the Depression hit) have displaced Gilbert and Sullivan as a prime object of nostalgia. One would have thought that, once Mel Brooks broke the mold with Springtime for Hitler (in the original film version of The Producers), audiences would have become too rattled for such parodic humor; but this spirit keeps going with the robust energy of that well-known pink bunny. For those who prefer not to go over the top with Brooks, The Boy Friend remains an old reliable source for revival, although I have my own fond memories for a revival I saw of Dames at Sea during my time in the New York vicinity. Back in those days a director like Tommy Tune could take the ridiculous material of A Day in Hollywood; A Night in the Ukraine and turn it into a sublime escape from reality, exactly in the spirit of the source material being lampooned.

Nevertheless, as was the case with Russell's routines, these are products best appreciated by those with a sharp sense of the details of that source material. In other words these are entertainments about "the business" best appreciated by those closest to, if not in, "the business." As the background piece that Doug Sturdivant provided for Playbill on April 6, 2006 explains, The Drowsy Chaperone first emerged as such an entertainment:

The Drowsy Chaperone, which bows (or is it curtsies?) May 1 directly on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre, first saw the bleary light of day in the back room of a Toronto club called The Rivoli as the centerpiece entertainment of a bachelor party - a "stag," as Canadians call it.

Back then - "then" was August 9, 1998, for any showbiz buffs out there - it was a faux 40-minute musical created, just for the fun of it, for the happy couple: Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff. It was the work of several friends from the groom's side of the aisle. Among them, lyricist Lisa Lambert and book writer Don McKellar were buds since high school, and composer Greg Morrison came from a TV series Martin wrote called "Slings and Arrows."

That back-room party was probably a real hoot. If the production took more time than it took for Russell to do her number on Wagner, I suspect there were enough libations to make the duration more than endurable. This is the stuff of which did-you-hear-about stories are made; and, now that I have had a chance to see what emerged while it is on tour in San Francisco, I kind of wish that it had remained the subject of a you-had-to-be-there account.

The problem is that, when you take a mountain of details appreciated by a select few and try to make them palatable to the many who have to buy tickets to keep the production afloat, much (usually including the best bits) of the humor goes down the drain. The homage is still there, and there are still plenty of jokes that are good for a genuine belly laugh. However, the overall effect is leaden when it should be light; and any sense of love (even illusory) for the source material, without which the ridiculous cannot rise to the sublime, is depressingly absent.

To add insult to this injury, the original creators decided to frame their product in a run-down Manhattan apartment whose resident (the "Man in Chair") greets the audience with, "I hate theater." He then proceeds to play for the audience his treasured vinyl of the "original cast" (Did he really say "soundtrack" when I heard him last night?) recording of The Drowsy Chaperone, providing us with a running commentary (too much like Russell's "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts") as the performers come (almost literally) out of the woodwork and into his living room. Needless to say, this is no longer a 40-minute romp; and it has the chutzpah to keep us in our seats when the "original show" has its intermission. This is not to suggest that I spent much of my time in the Orpheum Theatre seeing if the light was good enough to check my watch (I knew the formula well enough to know what was going to unfold before the final curtain) but just to observe that the final product was so overloaded in the interest of audience appeal that it lacked any sense of what a Duck's Breath Mystery Theater routine used to call pace (as in, "We have got to get this production of Music Man to run less than nine hours!").

The Man in Chair is right, of course. When it comes to the current fare on Broadway (even without road productions), things are a far cry from what they used to be. Unfortunately, The Drowsy Chaperone plunks this poor grieving soul right in the middle of the very sort of stuff that now drives him to so much grief.

No comments: