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From stag to stage

The unlikely journey of Canada's most successful theatrical export to Broadway

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/1/2010 (3947 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.



Usually what happens at a guy's stag party stays at the stag party.

Most bridegrooms prefer it that way, but not Toronto actor/writer Bob Martin, who for over a decade has been blabbing about what went on at his last celebration of singlehood 11 years ago.

It's an unbelievable story, downright mythic in Canadian theatre history.

Martin was about to marry comedian Janet Van De Graff in July 1998 when their Toronto theatre friends, including "best man" and lyricist Lisa Lambert, filmmaker Don McKellar and musician Greg Morrison, booked a Queen Street club and invited the public to what was advertised as "Come to Bob and Jane's Stag Party." The one-of-kind wedding gift from their cash-strapped pals was a 30-minute faux 1920s musical called The Drowsy Chaperone.

Thus began a fairy-tale journey from a humble stag yuk to Toronto Fringe Festival hit to Tony Award-winning Broadway triumph. This unlikeliest of stage successes makes its long-awaited debut at the Manitoba Theatre Centre tonight.

"The one thing it has proven is that it is worth dreaming, because it is possible for the most absurd thing to actually happen," the 46-year-old, British-born Martin says over the telephone from Toronto. "The Drowsy Chaperone is the most absurd thing to happen in my life."

No kidding. Usually bachelor-party hijinks don't morph into the longest running made-in-Canada production in Broadway history or score 13 Tony Award nominations.

Back then, Martin was a well-known sketch comedian, formerly of the live comedy troupe Second City, and television writer for Cancon cult favourites like Twitch City, Made in Canada and the beloved Slings and Arrows, a behind-the-scenes comedy about a fictional Shakespearean troupe.

Martin and McKellar immediately fleshed out a one-hour-long Chaperone -- the first of 120 versions of this unabashed love letter to musical theatre -- and decided the Toronto Fringe Festival was where to try it out.

Martin's name and his wife's were in the show as the romantic leads -- and soon so was Martin himself, in the added role of a nerdy fan of old musicals who listens to an LP of a lost stage frolic called The Drowsy Chaperone, which then comes to life in his shabby apartment.

With a bare-bones budget of about $200 plus the fringe entrance fee, The Drowsy Chaperone became the top-selling Toronto fringe production ever. Uber-producer David Mirvish noticed, picked it up and nurtured it into bigger and bigger venues until it landed on the New York stage as a souped-up, $10-million spectacle with Martin as the only original left in the cast.

"It was luck that Drowsy landed at just the right time," says Martin, who starred in 800 performances in Toronto, New York and London. "At the time, the musical was being deconstructed. People were reacting against self-important shows (of Andrew Lloyd Webber) and the Disney machine."

New Yorkers championed the underdog show, a little Cinderella story with an awkward name, no stars and no chance. But word of mouth drove ticket sales through the roof and producers, who included the actress Blythe Danner, recouped their investment in only 30 weeks.

The Drowsy Chaperone hardly opened before it was feted as Canada's most successful export to Broadway by surpassing the 12 performances of Billy Bishop Goes to War in 1980. On Canada Day the American cast showed up in T-shirts emblazoned with the Canadian flag and all sang the national anthem on stage.

"I never felt more Canadian doing this show on Broadway," says Martin, who has never performed onstage in Winnipeg and is not part of the MTC cast.

Best of all, the show is the gift that keeps on giving. About 20-25 friends still share in the considerable royalties.

"So many are actors who appreciate an unexpected cheque now and then," he says. "Every time the cheques arrive we all remember how it all started."

Martin has lately been busy talking about a movie version and developing his new stage projects: a musical called Elf based on the 2003 Will Ferrell movie and Minsky's, which remembers the famed burlesque theatre run by the Minsky brothers.

"If I'm lucky I'll have two shows on Broadway next fall," he says, like some stranger to good fortune. "OK, OK, I've had a certain amount of luck. My friends will not allow me to complain."



Getting Drowsy

1998 -- Toronto theatre stalwarts Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison create a wacky musical spoof at a stag party for buddy Bob Martin, who was about to marry Janet Van De Graff.

 1999 -- An hour-long version scores a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Impresario David Mirvish picks it up for a record-breaking run at Theatre Passe Muraille.

 2001 -- Mirvish moves it into Toronto's 1,000-seat Winter Garden Theatre.

 2005 -- A successful try-out in Los Angeles convinces producers to head for Broadway.

 2006 -- Opens on Broadway May 1 and quickly becomes the toast of the town.

 2007 -- Wins two Tony Awards for score and book, and four Drama Desk Awards, including one for outstanding musical. Opens in London's West End but shuts down after only three months. Closes on Broadway Dec. 30 after 674 performances.

 2008 -- Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre debuts first production that does not involve original creative team.

 2010 -- Opens Jan. 18 in Australia starring Geoffrey Rush.



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