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Spoof it or spiff it up?

Reviving the vintage musical -- laudable songs, embarrassing plot -- is perilous. A melange called 'The Drowsy Chaperone' goes its own way.

November 06, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

THE groom requested no strippers. So Bob Martin's friends prepared a different kind of entertainment for his pre-wedding party.

They wrote and performed a brief pastiche of frothy 1920s musicals. Martin's name and his fiancee's were appropriated as those of would-be newlyweds in the script.

After the only performance of this spoof -- which its creators called "The Drowsy Chaperone" -- in a Toronto restaurant in 1998, veteran Second City performer and director Martin took the stage and told his friends, in the manner of a director who has just seen a difficult rehearsal, "Well, I have some notes."

Everyone laughed. But hundreds of notes, several million dollars and seven years later, a full-evening version of "The Drowsy Chaperone" is about to open at the Ahmanson Theatre. And Martin is not only its co-author but plays Man in Chair, a present-day aficionado of antique musicals. As this faux revival unfolds, he offers, yes, notes from a 2005 perch.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
"Crazy for You" -- In a Nov. 6 Sunday Calendar story about "The Drowsy Chaperone," the adaptation of the musical "Crazy for You" was credited to Jerry Ludwig. The adapter was Ken Ludwig.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 29, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
"Crazy for You" -- In a Nov. 6 story about the musical "The Drowsy Chaperone," the adaptation of the musical "Crazy For You" was credited to Jerry Ludwig. The adapter was Ken Ludwig.

Man in Chair's comments express enthusiasm for the genre and a bygone era, but he isn't blind to the passage of time. He wryly comments on the absurdities of the show's story, urges his audience to ignore some of the lyrics and relates the unhappy fates of the "original's" once-vibrant actors. It remains to be seen whether "The Drowsy Chaperone," which had a successful run in Toronto in 2001, will find favor with L.A. theatergoers. If revivals of actual vintage shows in recent years are any indication, it may face rough going. Such productions are often met with praise for their scores yet only polite nods, if not outright disdain, for their books. This has been especially true of shows written before 1943, when "Oklahoma!" made a strong integration of story and song fashionable.

Pre-"Oklahoma!" musicals are rarely revived without some attempt to adapt them to modern sensibilities -- even in brief, noncommercial runs. Except for "Show Boat" and "Anything Goes," they're almost never revived commercially.

Jack Viertel speaks from two positions of authority about old-fashioned musicals. He produces short runs of them in semi-staged formats as artistic director of the New York series Encores! And as creative director of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of Broadway's leading producers and landlords, the former critic looks for musicals with commercial potential. Seldom do the two roles merge. In 11 years, only two Encores! productions have moved to full stagings on Broadway, and both were revivals of post-"Oklahoma" musicals.

"Shows on Broadway are supposed to find a million people" if they're going to recoup their costs, Viertel says. If audiences want to see stories about youthful romance or any "problems that aren't momentous in a historic sense, they probably would rather see something about themselves than about their grandparents." He cites "Avenue Q," with its lighthearted story about contemporary young people, as "a modern equivalent of one of those '20s shows."

Beyond their box-office limitations, '20s and '30s musicals are difficult to revive, Viertel says. "They were much more haphazard in construction" than later musicals. "When people try to fix them, they rarely make them better."

The early '70s saw successful commercial revivals of "Irene" from 1919 and "No, No, Nanette" from 1925. And Ethan Mordden, the author of several books about Broadway musicals, says "some of the '20s shows are more integrated than you might think. A curio from that period might succeed simply because it's so unlike what we get that it might seem innovative."

But Viertel doubts that even "No, No, Nanette" could be commercially successful again. "What was quaint in the '70s would be ancient in the 2000s. 'No, No, Nanette' would be as remote as the Civil War."

Inflammatory material

PROBABLY the biggest no-no about many of these early musicals is their use of racist, sexist or other politically incorrect material.

The original "Babes in Arms" (1937) included the number "All Dark People Are Light on Their Feet." Shortly before he died in 1979, composer Richard Rodgers consulted on a revival of "Babes in Arms" by the Connecticut company that is now called Goodspeed Musicals, which specializes in old shows. Michael Price, who has run Goodspeed since 1968, says Rodgers told him in no uncertain terms that "Dark People" had to be cut. In another show, Price says, one of the jokes was a pun on the word "knickers" -- which by itself would need to be defined for a modern audience -- and another word that refers offensively to African Americans. "We don't want to change the tenor of the piece, but a lot of the jokes have to come out" when such shows are revived, Price says.

Beyond such inflammatory references, the shows need revision or trimming for more mundane reasons. Viertel rattles off several titles of shows "in which someone gets hit over the head with a bottle" and is somehow transformed -- a comedy convention "that seemed to have life back then, but I don't think it does now."

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