It was a sweltering, late-nineties summer in Toronto and the wedding of Second City alums Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff was fast approaching. Martin's theatre buddies were in charge of orchestrating a stag for the groom-to-be, but when Martin forbade the predictable program of strippers and five-card-stud, the gang had to get creative.
This wasn't your typical bachelor party.
The group-which included actor Don McKellar, songwriter Lisa Lambert and composer Greg Morrison-rented out the back room of a Queen Street bar, decked themselves out in gaudy 1920s garb and performed The Drowsy Chaperone, a comedic forty-minute send-up of classic American musical theatre. Centered around the nuptials of a Broadway starlet and a dashing dandy-one Janet Van De Graaff and one Robert Martin-the kitschy pastiche featured original show tunes and a heavy dose of inside jokes, rendering it an uproarious hit with the fiancés and their friends.
Eight years and numerous revisions later, The Drowsy Chaperone is proving itself the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. The musical is now playing nightly performances on Broadway, garnering rave reviews from esteemed theatre critics and winning prestigious awards left and right. Last Sunday, Martin, McKellar, Lambert and Morrison each left the legendary Tony Awards clutching a coveted statuette.
"This show expresses the voice of a group of writers and performers in Toronto and we want to share this award with them-not literally but figuratively," Martin quipped while accepting his prize.
But just how did The Drowsy Chaperonetraverse the lengthy distance from A to B, from hometown stag skit to Broadway smash hit?
"The Drowsy Chaperone is a show that really could have only gotten started at a Fringe Festival in Canada," remarks National Post theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck, who recently saw-and fell in love with-The Drowsy Chaperonein New York. "It's just a fun show-it's not about anything serious. Regional non-profit theatres wouldn't invest in it, and commercial producers wouldn't pick it up."
When The Drowsy Chaperone debuted at his bachelor party, Martin quickly recognized that the tongue-in-cheek parody was too clever and too crowd-pleasing to perish in the Rivoli's back room. A year later, after tweaking the script, cutting the self-indulgent wisecracks and upping the irony by adding Martin to the cast as an eccentric onstage narrator, the group mounted the "musical within a comedy" at the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival.
The set-up of Canadian Fringe Festivals allows artists to take risks. Because the shows performed have not been pre-selected by judges, acts succeed based solely on audience response and word-of-mouth buzz. Rather than expending their energy trying to convince theatre producers that their work deserves a run, performers are given the chance to create shows they feel passionate about and that they think audiences will enjoy.
It was this atmosphere of carefree experimentation that set The Drowsy Chaperone on the road to success. The musical's brief seven-performance run was enough to get Toronto audiences talking-the show sold more tickets than any in Toronto Fringe history, forcing eager theatergoers to line up for hours and surreptitiously snag seats from scalpers.
The Drowsy Chaperone's triumphant Fringe engagement convinced Martin and his company that it was a show worth holding on to and allowed the show to move up in the theatre game; the act caught the eye of prominent Canadian producers the Mirvishes, who poured cash into the production and mounted it at Toronto's mid-sized Theatre Passe Muraille before moving it to the larger Winter Garden Theatre. From there, American producers caught on and secured the show a run in Los Angeles. LA critics lauded the show, and soon The Drowsy Chaperone-still possessing the same cheeky spirit that had won over Toronto Fringe audiences, although equipped with a slew of new songs and featuring few of the original cast members-opened at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway.
It is now the third Canadian musical to make it to Broadway and already the longest running (both Rockabye Hamlet and Billy Bishop Goes to Warclosed in less than two weeks). The New York Times review called The Drowsy Chaperone "a helium paradise of pleasure," while John Lahr in the New Yorker dubbed it "the most original musical of the season." To date, the show has received five Tony Awards, seven Drama Desk Awards, and four Outer Critics Circle Awards.
Though this impressive trajectory is the quintessential story of Fringe success, The Drowsy Chaperone is certainly not the only show that has used the Toronto Fringe Festival as a launching pad to enter the often-impenetrable Canadian theatre scene. Boygroove, an energetic musical satirizing boy bands, is another amusing act that got its start at the Fringe. The show was created in Edmonton, and toured last summer's Fringe circuit before eventually being noticed by commercial producer Michael Rubinoff in Toronto.
"I love going to see shows at the Fringe," says Rubinoff. "It's hit and miss, but occasionally I see something like Boygrooveand get excited about it. And producers can give these shows what they really need-which is money."
Rubinoff saw potential in the sassy show. He optioned Boygroove, helped the company develop it and then mounted it for a smashing six-week run at Toronto's Diesel Theatre.
Now, Rubinoff hopes that Boygroove will attain the "astounding" success of The Drowsy Chaperone. Though he doesn't think Boygroove would appeal to Broadway audiences, Rubinoff is hoping to tour the show in the US and internationally, eventually securing it a spot at an off-Broadway theatre.
It is worth noting that Boygrooveand The Drowsy Chaperoneshare more than a few similarities. Both are whimsical parodies of American pop culture punctuated with catchy songs-while The Drowsy Chaperone gently pokes fun at the new trend of emotional pop-rock musicals by harkening back to the Jazz Age era of frivolous cabarets, Boygroove comically lampoons the craze of manufactured teen musical sensations. The two shows are the kind of well-meaning, dead-on satires that only Canadians are capable of producing.
"Inundated by US pop culture, Canada is in a much better position to objectively observe it and make light of it," remarks Rubinoff. "When you're immersed in something, it's harder to see that irony. But it's not our creation, so we're able to view it, take it, and make it something funny. The ironic thing is that Americans love it."
The Fringe provides the ideal location for such shows to get their start. Unlike Canada's established theatres, which contribute to the development of new plays by regularly producing serious, heavy-handed dramas about historical Canadian figures-the recent CanStage epic Homechild being merely one example-the Fringe fosters the creation of shows that are innovative, ironic and unabashedly fun. This, audiences repeatedly lay bare, is the theatre tradition that Canada should be encouraging, and theatergoers show their support by flocking to unusual Fringe shows while largely ignoring the big-budget period pieces.
"Fringe is a good place for new play development," says Nestruck. "It's really interesting that shows that have recently had a life outside of Canada started at the Fringe Festival and not from the play creation of established theatres-The Drowsy Chaperone, Job: The Hip Hop Musical, Da Kink in My Hair; they were all produced in the US. I think it says something about the play creation of theatres, that they're not in touch with what audiences want. The Fringe has more bad stuff than an established theatre but the audience decides what's good. And artists love the work they're doing-they really feel strongly about it, they're putting their own money into it. They're not trying to write a play that's going to get produced, a serious play with Canadian content."
This summer, as Fringe Festivals get underway across the country, it remains to be seen which shows will emerge as the adored favourites. It goes without saying, however, that every show will offer a unique-and uniquely Canadian-theatergoing experience that remains elusive in the world of commercial theatre. There will be hits and there will be misses, but, as Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals President Chuck McEwen notes, that's the appeal of the Fringe Festival: "The Fringe is a chance for artists and audiences to share the wonders of life. It's affordable, it's fun and you get to pick and choose what you like-there's always something."