‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ Transforms the Philip Chosky Theater into 1920s Musical Spectacle
This February, a man in a chair placed a needle on his favorite record of the hundreds that surrounded him — a musical comedy from the 1920s — and so began Carnegie Mellon’s rendition of The Drowsy Chaperone, a love letter to classic Broadway directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge.
The Drowsy Chaperone was written in the late 1990s — book by Bob Martin and Don McKeller, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison — and was originally only a forty-minute skit meant to honor Martin and his soon-to-be wife Janet van der Graaf. As the story developed, and Martin became a co-writer, the musical expanded into the award-winning show of today.
Billed as “a musical within a comedy,” The Drowsy Chaperone only really takes place in one location: the apartment of an eccentric, agoraphobic musical theater lover who leads the “audience” through listening to his favorite show, one he turns to time and time again to dispel his sadness.
The Drowsy Chaperone centers on the whirlwind marriage of Janet van der Graaf, a longtime Broadway starlet, to Robert Martin, a wealthy oil tycoon.
The man in the chair explains that the wedding will be the focus of the musical, and introduces a cast of clichéd Broadway characters that will attempt to stop the ceremony. One by one, the characters pass through the man’s apartment and onto the “stage:” two silly vaudeville stars, a hotheaded Broadway producer, and the drowsy chaperone herself.
Throughout the musical, the man in the chair steps in and out of the action, pausing the record intermittently to provide the audience with a commentary of jokes, as well as justifying some of the “cheesier” songs and set changes.
The man lets the audience in on his Broadway obsession as he spouts off obscure facts about the “real” actors who originated the roles in The Drowsy Chaperone’s Broadway premiere.
The man takes care to mention that one of his favorite characters in the musical is Janet, played by senior actor Kate Margalite. Janet, The Drowsy Chaperone’s leading lady, struggles through the musical to figure out if leaving her life of fame to be wed is really what she wants.
In order to immerse herself fully in character, Margalite watched films from the 1920s and 30s, taking note of “how they gestured, how they smiled, how every move they made was self-aware [of] being attractive to anyone who was watching.”
Before each performance, Margalite looked at photos of Marion Davies and Marilyn Miller for inspiration, modeling her portrayal of Janet after their “joy, elegance, glamor, [and] innocence.”
“Janet is definitely a challenging role, physically speaking,” Margalite said. “It’s extremely exciting, the pure pace of it all…One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is finding ease throughout the craziness.”
Margalite referenced a few of Janet’s big numbers, one of which includes two costume changes, cartwheels, and singing “crazy notes” atop moving set pieces. “This is her life,” Margalite added, “so I must also inhabit [her] sense of calm and routine.”
Working closely with director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge was an “invaluable experience,” said Margalite.
Dodge, a Tony Award-nominee, feels that it is her job, first and foremost, to interpret a musical. “I do tons of research,” she said, “discovering as much about the 1920s musical as I could take in.”
For Dodge, this included learning about period-specific architecture, vaudeville, and burlesque before setting out with designers to “create a theatrical world for the characters to truthfully inhabit.”
Beginning work on The Drowsy Chaperone at Carnegie Mellon, Dodge said that she “got the show staged quickly [to] really dig into the scene work and dances.” Discussing her experience creating this show with CMU as a whole, Dodge “[loved] having the support of the faculty for dramaturgy, acting, dialects, voice and speech, dance, [and] roller skating.”
“‘It takes a village’ certainly applies to making a show at a university,” Dodge said.
Gina Cercone, costume designer, was up for tackling the challenging “twists and turns” within The Drowsy Chaperone, including breakaway costumes to accommodate for rapid on-stage wardrobe changes.
Along with Jessica Cronin and Yujia Zhang — associate and assistant costume designers, respectively — Cercone viewed the world of The Drowsy Chaperone as one that is “filled with color [and] creativity.”
Initially drawn to the concept of something compressed exploding outwards, Cercone said that her designs were inspired by a huge range of 1920s culture: “from the greatness of the art nouveau, to the rectilinear nature of art deco [and] the huge “hand crafted” costumes of the follies…we see all shapes, sizes, and styles.”
As The Drowsy Chaperone continues on, the audience learns more and more about the man in the chair’s life outside of this musical, and why he might love it so much. Amidst quips about the musical, the man also clues the audience into his failed marriage and desires to stay sequestered in his apartment to avoid the “dreary horrors” of the outside world.
“The Drowsy Chaperone takes a stab at using comedy to highlight the shortcomings of out societal stereotyping,” Cercone said, adding that the musical “throws a punch” at all who are in reach.
For Dodge, coming up against these everyday horrors is “the best reason” she knows for a musical like The Drowsy Chaperone to be put on stage.
“The 1920s form of theatrical entertainment was born in response to World War I and the Great Depression to lift people’s spirits,” Dodge said. “The need to escape is timeless.”
Margalite echoed this sentiment: “In the political climate we find ourselves in today, [musical theater] is more important than ever. With the constant and shocking disappointments, sometimes we do need a reminder of the joy and beauty that life offers.”
As the musical comes to a close, the man in the chair says that The Drowsy Chaperone “does what a musical is supposed to do: it transports you to another world.” Carnegie Mellon’s rendition of the classic certainly provided audiences with a gloriously fun escape.
Written by Lauren D’Errico