The 2006 Broadway Sound Master Classes kicked off on Friday evening, May 19, at a performance of the hit Broadway musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. When this show was in preproduction for its California debut -- it premiered in 2005 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles where it garnered eight nominations for the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards-- LD Ken Billington told me to keep an eye on this one, it was a dark horse. His prediction was on the money as this send-up of 1920's musicals is the talk of Broadway, where it opened at the Marquis Theatre on May 1, 2006. It is leading the pack with 13 Tony nominations, 14 Drama Desk nominations, and was named best musical by the New York Drama Critics' Circle on May 11.
What makes it such a successful show? Well for one thing, it's funny. Very clever, and cleverly designed. (And did I mention, short? Just 110 minutes, no interval). The action takes place in a rather dowdy New York apartment; home to a quirky man who seems to live on his own, and loves musicals. When he is feeling a bit blue, he puts on the record (yes a 33 LP vinyl oldie, and there is a lot of funny business about cleaning the record and the housekeeper putting the wrong LD in the sleeve) from a 1920's musical, The Dr0wsy Chaperone. Played by Bob Martin, who also wrote the book, this "man in the chair," brings the entire musical to life in his mind and his apartment. Scene after scene unfolds, with the entire cast flooding on to the stage through the upstage center refrigerator, and a murphy bed set into the wall on stage left opening and reopening, redressed for each scene, from the plain apartment bedding to glamorous beds (one has a golden peacock headboard) that evoke a series of hotel rooms. The story is a simplistic tale of a beautiful follies star ready to give up her career to marry a millionaire she met on a cruise, while her producer is begging her to change her mind, and her chaperone (drowsy from too much drink, in spote of Prohibition) is looking for love of her own and finds it in the arms of Adolfo, a Latin lover buffoon. The wedding is on again, off again, but finally takes place, along with three other nuptual unions, aboard a plane bound for Rio (don't ask!)
David Gallo clearly had fun with the design, creating sets within sets, as this "musical in a comedy" unfolds. Ditto for Gregg Barnes, whose costumes range from the cardigan sweater and sneakers on the man in the chair, to glamorous Hollywood-style gowns, funny frocks, top hats and tails, hilarious pastry chef outfits, and stylized red Chinese costumes for a number that turns out to be from another musical. LD's Billington and Brian Monahan get a late start as the musical starts in the dark (both the stage and audience) for a monologue about theatre, and the stage later plunges into the dark when the electricity in the apartment goes off, and the final moment of the musical is put on hold. In between there is glam 1920's musical lighting , with its fair share of twinkle lights and moon-lit skies.
Of course the BSMC group (85 people including primarily attendees with a few speakers and corporate sponsors) was there to hear the sound design by Acme Sound Partners: Tom Clark, Mark Menard and Nevin Steinberg. Steinberg was on hand after the show, to talk about the sound rig from the show, along with the BSMC creative consultant and faculty chair, Abe Jacob who talked about the Marquis Theater, the last new theatre (not a renovation) to be built on Broadway, back in the 1980s. Steinberg explained the Acme Sound philosophy of using a rig with a wide variety of different loudspeakers and microphones. and attendees were able to take a look at both the layout of the orchestra pit and the sound console at the back of the house (in this case, the main console is a Cadac J-type). The conversation about the sound design and the gear used for the show continued the next day at the BSMC, with both Steinberg and Clark addressing the sold-out crowd at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. While The Drowsy Chaperone is not one of the most complicated musicals in terms of sound, it seems to be the perfect example for the BSMC: the sound design should be applauded for its clarity throughout, and there is enough going on to make for interesting discussion in terms of equipment choices, playback, analog vs digital consoles, mic placement, etc.
Underneath the goofy humor in The Drowsy Chaperone there is an underlying motif about lonliness, social behavior, and racial and sexual sterotypes: where else but a 1920's musical could you get away today with a line like "What is it about Asians that fascinates Casucasians?" Not to mention taking a few jabs at contemporary theatre. That said, the audience laps up every minute of The Drowsy Chaperone and it was nice to kick off the BSMC with such a fun show.---EL Gréaux