I saw the Drowsy Chaperone last night, and it was fabulous. Now, when I was young, I loved the big Broadway hit musicals – I had a scrapbook of all of the different ads that would come out in the Toronto Star for the Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. I eagerly awaited every new Andrew Lloyd Webber production. But things went sour sometime around Sunset Boulevard. Mom and I went to see it, and it was just dull. The next night, we saw a production of Aristophanes’ Clouds in a simple black box theatre for a fraction of the price, and laughed until we cried.
My estrangement with the big musical was deepened by the advent of the Disney Musical and, despite the fact that Mamma Mia was hilarious (hee hee, flipper dance = genius), the “take a bunch of songs from a famous band and make a musical out of it” musical. I am under no delusions that musical theatre was ever made for purely artistic reasons, but I do feel like there’s been a certain increase in the crassness of the commercialization of musicals in recent history: the model is to take something that already exists (music, movie, toy), get Oprah to endorse it, charge $100/ticket, and call it theatre. I even saw a poster for a Legally Blonde musical last time I was in NYC, for goodness sake! (And, yes, I know I am a snob . . . an unfortunate fact that led to me being denied the joys of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until 12 years after it debuted . . . but that’s another story.)
I’d like a bit of pure intentions with my glitz . . . which brings me back to the Drowsy Chaperone. I was excited about seeing it, because of the story of the show’s background: it started as a skit, was expanded to a fringe show, and kept on growing until it made its way to Broadway, and 5 Tony nominations. In other words, its buzz wasn’t artificially created by some kind of entertainment juggernaut – it earned it.
It is not a particularly deep play. It’s a spoof of 1920s musicals, narrated by “the Man in the Chair,” a character who comments on the history of the actors that are supposed to be playing each role, and the various contrived twists and turns of the plots. But, it skewers the genre perfectly, while being full of the entertaining song-and-dance numbers that make it so great. And, through the Man in the Chair, there’s even a theme about our attachment to theatre, and our wish to escape through entertainment.
We don’t need media personalities telling us what to watch on the stage – that’s what we have TV for. Please, if you want to watch Legally Blonde, spend $5 to rent the movie. If you want to go see a musical, go to see something that was designed first and foremost to entertain you, rather than to make money for its producers.