Born in London but raised in Toronto, writer, actor and comedian Bob Martin is well known in Canada for his TV appearances in Puppets Who Kill, Made in Canada, Burnt Toast and Slings and Arrows, which he also created, produced and co-wrote, as well as renowned comedy troupe Second City. He led two national tours for Second City and was the company’s artistic director from 2003 to 2004.
Martin’s other North American credits include An Awkward Evening with Martin and Johnson, The Good Life, Alumni Café, Skippy’s Rangers, Old Wine, New Bottles; What Fresh Mel Is This?; Last Tango on Lombard and Tragically Hip on stage; and Childstar, Last Night, Torso and Clubland on screen.
Martin is now best known for his part in the five-time Tony Award-winning The Drowsy Chaperone, which has just received its West End premiere. The musical started life in 1998 when Martin’s friends created a spoof musical for his bachelor party in Toronto. The 30-minute piece revolved around the impending nuptials of a young couple, named after Martin and his now-wife Janet Van De Graaff. Inspired by the reaction at the bachelor party, Martin collaborated with his friends – Don McKellar (book with Martin), Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) – to expand The Drowsy Chaperone into a full-length show-within-a-show.
To chase his blues away, a modern-day musical theatre addict known simply as “Man in Chair” (a role created by Martin) drops the needle on his favourite LP, the 1928 musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone. From the crackle of his hi-fi, the musical bursts to life on stage, telling the tale of a Broadway starlet who wants to give up showbusiness to marry, her producer who sets out to sabotage the wedding, her chaperone, the debonair groom, the dizzy chorus girl, the Latin lover and a pair of gangsters disguised as pastry chefs.
Through numerous rewrites, The Drowsy Chaperone developed via the Fringe of Toronto festival and commercial runs in Toronto and Los Angeles before receiving its Broadway premiere in 2006 and its West End transfer this month. Its many accolades to date include Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Original Score. For his performance, Martin has been nominated for Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.
In London, the actor – who has made his Broadway and West End debuts playing Man in Chair - is joined in the cast by Elaine Paige, returning to the West End stage after a seven-year absence to play the title character, Summer Strallen (as Janet Van De Graaff), John Partridge (Bob Martin), Nickolas Grace, Anne Rogers and Joseph Alessi.
Date & place of birth
I was born in London on 8 December 1962. My family moved to Canada in 1966 when I was only four, and I grew up in Toronto, where I still live now.
Where are you staying while in London?
I’m staying just down the street from the Prime Minister, in Whitehall. It’s nice but very crowded! I’m used to crowded because I lived in New York for a couple of years.
What made you want to become an entertainer?
I started very young. I started taking classes when I was maybe 12 years old. I think it was because I was very shy and my mother was trying to take me out of my shell so she enrolled me in drama classes. It taught me a lot about comedy and improvisation, but at the same time I was writing fiction – short stories, scripts - even when I was a kid, so the two have always been in parallel.
What’s the essence of good comedy?
The essence of performing comedy for me is the moment after the line. It’s showing the character’s reaction to what he’s just said. That’s particularly true in this show because my character is very vulnerable on stage. It’s about empathy, it’s about the audience feeling what the character is experiencing, and also to some extent the actor then knowing what the audience is experiencing.
First big break
Oh, that’s hard to say. My whole career has been chipping away, taking small steps, building on every job. I remember what my first professional job was. And becoming a member of the Second City company in Canada was a big deal because it got rid of most of my performance anxiety - I had to go on stage with no script. That really helped me as a performer. But really it’s been little steps all the way along.
Career highlights to date
In terms of writing, I wrote a television series called Slings and Arrows, which was a fairly significant experience for me. That taught me so much about writing character and dialogue and working with other writers. That experience was really key. And of course, opening The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway. Joining that company and opening on Broadway was the thing that made the public aware of who I was in a way I’d never experienced before. Overnight I was redefined as a Broadway actor in the public eye. I’d never thought of myself that way. I’ve never done stand-up or anything like that, but I always thought of myself as a comedian or a comic actor. It took me maybe six months to really understand what being a Broadway actor meant, with the weird phone calls you start getting. It’s interesting as an artist how you’re defined by other people. Doing the Tony Awards broadcast was also big. I mean I don’t know how many people watched that - millions and millions. Gaining a much larger audience was what the Broadway experience was all about.
Favourite musical writers
Noel Coward is somebody who I have a great respect for as an actor, playwright, director, Renaissance man. His lyric writing is also so fabulous, so witty. Similarly, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. The Gershwins I listen to more than anyone else, just when I’m relaxing. Beyond theatre, I have really eclectic tastes when it comes to music. On my iPod – actually I have many iPods, it’s terrible really – I have a lot of gypsy guitar player Django Reinhardt, Bach, the Dave Matthews Band, music of the Seventies, Bob Dylan and jazz.
The Drowsy Chaperone is the most successful Canadian musical in Broadway history. Why do you think Canada hasn’t produced more musical hits?
Actually, I think Drowsy is the most successful Canadian musical ever … anywhere. It’s just difficult with musicals because, in North America, Broadway is the place where musicals are created. When you think of musical theatre, that’s really an American art form, and Broadway’s the place to be. And when you go to New York, there are a million fabulous people there who work in the musical theatre business, and they’re all the best so it’s extremely difficult for an outsider to crack that. The infrastructure for creating Broadway-style musicals barely exists in Canada - the budgets are much, much lower so you don’t have the production values that you do in New York, and there just aren’t as many venues. We were lucky with Drowsy because we were coming into New York with an original product at a time when everybody else was doing adaptations from films and things like that. People tell me that the success of Drowsy has inspired other people in Canada and that’s great to hear.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
It was a musical in development in New York called In the Heights. It was Off-Broadway – I think it’s going to Broadway now - and it’s about the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. It was just fantastic, the guy who created it (Lin-Manuel Miranda) was lyricist, composer and lead actor, and he was amazing. There were sort of hip-hop rhythms and all that stuff that usually doesn’t work on a Broadway stage, but he made it work. I’m hoping to catch some shows while I’m here. I’d like to see The Lord of the Rings because of the Canadian roots and just to see what they’ve done with it - it’s an incredibly difficult show.
If you could swap places with someone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
This is going to sound incredibly nerdy, but it would probably be Steve Jobs. He’s filthy rich for one thing and he’s an innovator. I love Apple products, I love the way they’re designed. I would love to be an insider in that organisation for one day.
Favourite holiday destinations
I have a serious problem with taking vacations. I hate going to beaches and things like that. I feel guilty and antsy, I have to work. I haven’t had a vacation in … I can’t remember the last time! Actually, my wife forced me to take a vacation just before we went to Broadway. We went to Quebec City and stayed in the ice hotel.
Right now I’m using the web to visit my local papers, like TheGlobeAndMail.com, the national newspaper of Canada. Oh, and I just joined Facebook, which I did reluctantly. I’m so isolated here in London so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s really sort of goofy, but I did end up talking to people I haven’t talked to in a long time.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I can’t remember who told it to me, but it would be just to find your voice as an artist. It’s about what you bring to the table personally. Don’t try and imitate someone, don’t try and be the next Brad Pitt.
Your friends originally created The Drowsy Chaperone as a spoof for your bachelor party. Did you know that they were doing it?
I knew they were doing something, but I didn’t know what it was. Literally, Janet and I found out because there was an ad in the paper about a week before inviting the public to come to Bob and Janet’s stag party at a club in downtown Toronto where you could see the premiere of the new musical The Drowsy Chaperone, that’s what it said in the ad.
What was your reaction?
It was great! There were members of the general public who didn’t know who we were, but our group were all performers in the community so everyone knew someone. The first half of the evening was a kind of a roast where people got up and said things about us, and the second half was The Drowsy Chaperone. It was about 30 or 40 minutes long and it was fully costumed, which is a really remarkable thing. The costumes were incredible. And it was full of songs. The story was basically the same story; a guy getting married into showbusiness. We were blown away. It was extremely touching. I remember when everybody was done with the performance, they were all just staring at us, waiting for us to say something. We got up and went on stage and I was a bit teary. We talked about it afterwards and said “we have to do something with this, there’s so much good stuff here”. Over the years, it’s been rewritten dramatically, but there are still two musical numbers that were in that original – “Accident Waiting to Happen” and “Adolpho”. Everything else basically has been changed; there was no Man in Chair to start with.
So how did Man in Chair come into it?
We had talked for years about presenting a fictional musical from another era, but we didn’t want to just do a parody, we wanted some way to comment on the material from a modern perspective. We brainstormed different ways to do that, whether in the form of an ironic lecture or a radio host. We were thinking for a while, and then we sort of stumbled on it all at the same time. It was a character we were all familiar with, that sort of musical theatre aficionado, who knows everything, who bores people with the details of obscure musicals, and who is a little bit sexually ambiguous, a little bit pretentious. We recognised that character instantly. As soon as Greg (Morrison) said it, I burst into the character and we were doing it. I like musicals myself, but it’s not me at all.
The role of Man in Chair has become closely associated with you, now that you’ve originated it in Canada, on Broadway & here…
Yes, I didn’t expect that at all. The producer who saw it in Canada and brought it to New York put it in the contract that I had to do it in New York, which was really unusual. I was like, “you really wanna do that?” because that forces the director (Casey Nicholaw) to work with me, but it all worked out fine in the end. It was an odd thing for me to deal with, but it was my only way of getting into Broadway without auditioning, and so it just happened. People think I’m the character. After the show, they tell me “it’s so brave of you to tell your story”, and I have to say “I’m happily married, this is just a character that we’ve created”! But I can understand why people could be confused about it.
How do you feel watching other people succeed you as Man in Chair?
Actually, in the nine years of development of the show, I’ve only seen the show once, ever. I swung out once in New York to see my understudy and he did a great job. Every other performance I’ve been on stage. My successors and I do discuss Man in Chair in detail. The trick to performing the part is keeping up the pace, especially in the first third of the show, to keep the enthusiasm up. And it’s about sharing something you love with a group of people, warts and all. That’s the thing to keep in mind: connecting with the audience.
Have you noticed any audience differences between New York & London?
I loved Broadway audiences because they are such passionate and well-informed theatregoers and they’re from every walk of life. I was told before I came here that British audiences are much more subdued - you won’t hear them, they don’t laugh a lot – and in fact they’ve been incredibly vocal, more so than New York audiences. I think it’s because of the panto tradition that you guys are familiar with and that you recognise some of those elements in the show.
How much have you changed the show for the UK?
Maybe ten to 15 percent, as we do with every production. We try to make some kind of link to the theatre that we’re performing in. And so it happens, lucky coincidence, that the only complete recordings of musicals were actually made in Europe at that time, not in North America, so it made the logic of our little annotation at the beginning easy.
You’ve had an incredible journey with The Drowsy Chaperone. What have the high points been for you?
We learn stuff every step of the way, but if I have to think of the high points, definitely the Fringe of Toronto festival and the first preview at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, because we had drastically rewritten the show and we didn’t know how people were going to react. It was a fabulous first preview, and we ended up doing very well in LA, because everything we were experimenting with worked. It was such a solid building block to go to Broadway with. And then Broadway! If I had to choose one performance that stood out on Broadway, it was my very last. It was so emotional because I didn’t want to leave the cast. And now, here I am, coming back to my hometown…
Where does your journey with the show go from here?
The North American tour starts in September with Toronto. That’ll be pretty exciting too because I’ll be performing the show for the people who know me in Canada. And then I’m taking a break from it and working the next project - another original musical - with this same team. We’ll revisit Drowsy in the new year and see what’s going on in the various cities it’s in, what needs to be done and whether I should return to Broadway or come here again. It would be nice to come back here actually because my wife wasn’t able to come for the opening.
And now that you’re an established ‘Broadway actor’, do you see yourself acting in other shows that you haven’t created?
Well, the thing I have wanted to do my whole life is perform my own material on stage, so that will always be my first priority; if I’m able to do my own material, that’s what I’ll do. But there are so many writers I love. I would love to do a David Mamet play, but I wouldn’t be the type of actor who’d probably be considered for his material. Elaine May wrote a couple of shows a few years ago, and I would love to have been in one of those, so if she starts writing again..! She’s another big influence on me – Mike Nichols and May. Mel Brooks, if he does anything new, I’d love to be in his stuff. There are so many people that I love. But my priority is to do my own work.
- Bob Martin was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Drowsy Chaperone opened on 5 June 2007 (previews from 14 May) at the West End’s Novello Theatre, where it’s currently booking to February 2008.