HONOUR ROLL Arts & Entertainment

BROADWAY BOB AND CO.

Bob Martin and his Drowsy Chaperone lead a cast of Canadians on an all-out invasion of New York’s theatre world.

JOHN INTINI July 1 2006
HONOUR ROLL Arts & Entertainment

BROADWAY BOB AND CO.

Bob Martin and his Drowsy Chaperone lead a cast of Canadians on an all-out invasion of New York’s theatre world.

JOHN INTINI July 1 2006

BROADWAY BOB AND CO.

HONOUR ROLL Arts & Entertainment

Bob Martin and his Drowsy Chaperone lead a cast of Canadians on an all-out invasion of New York’s theatre world.

JOHN INTINI

For Bob Martin, the toughest thing about performing The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway this spring was mastering the curtain call. “I have always been very casual about my bow—I have a comic performer’s loose-bodied, looselimbed bow,” says the Toronto-born actor. “But you can’t do that down here. There is a definite Broadway bow. I had to learn to stride forward to the lip of the stage, throw my arms in the air and take a big glorious bow. It was the most uncomfortable thing and something that I worked on all through previews so I’d be ready for opening night.”

The Second City alum has proven more than ready for his close-up. As Man in Chair, the show’s star, he helped Drowsy earn 13 Tony nominations (including two for himself: best lead actor in a musical and best book of a musical). And he’s at the centre of the recent Canadian invasion of the New York City theatre scene. Many of the Broadway blockbusters this season have included a Canadian in a critical role. Jersey Boys, which captured the Tony for Best Musical, is directed by the legendary Toronto-bred auteur, Des McAnuff, and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, who was raised in Toronto. Edmonton’s Aszure Barton shaped the movements of the much-buzzed-about Threepenny Opera. And 20-year-old Alison Pill from Toronto earned a best actress Tony nomination for playing a would-be revolutionary in The Lieutenant oflnishmore.

Pill only took on the role in April just a

week before the dark comedy made the big move to the Broadway stage. She spent that time in near-total silence. “We scream for the entire show and my voice just disappeared during that last week off-Broadway—I was terrified,” says Pill, who with the help of herbal tea and lozenges found her voice just in time for the opening at Lyceum Theatre. “Now, I go through about two boxes of Throat Coat—which is a really good herbal tea—every week. And in my dressing room I have a vocal steamer—a device with a mask that you put on and inhale steam to moisten your throat. I look like a big nerd but, hey, it works.”

A seasoned film and TV actor, Pill didn’t fall in love with the stage until she moved from Toronto to New York City’s East Village two years ago. “I never did any theatre in Canada,” says Pill, who now splits her time

between screen and stage projects. “But I’ve discovered that there is so much you can only do on stage that you can’t in film—there’s something so of the moment about it. I’ve been saying the same words for a few weeks, but it’s constantly changing.”

Pill, who was shocked by the Tony nomination and describes the night of the awards as “New York glamorous,” admits to missing a good portion of the show. “They got my category out of the way near the beginning and since I’d never been to Radio City Musical Hall I wandered around a bit,” she says.

“They have these amazing art deco bathrooms with long rows of velvet-covered chairs and mirrors.”

‘I FEEL LIKE AN AMERICAN ACTOI

Of course, everything is more grand on Broadway—including the pain inflicted by a harsh review. “It’s like the Olympics of theatre,” says Trujillo, a veteran dancer who made his Broadway debut as a choreographer with Jersey Boys. “The critics are tougher and the audiences are more sophisticated.” This fall, Trujillo and McAnuff (who many expect to be named this week as an artistic director for Stratford’s 2007 season) plan to create some more Broadway magic together when they mount Wiz—promising a “whole new take” on the Wizard ofOz.

Meanwhile, Barton, who formally trained at Canada’s National Ballet, is another Canadian choreographer putting her own unique mark on the Big Apple. She was hand-picked to be an artistin-residence at the prestigious Baryshnikov Arts Center, which opened last November, and is currently touring with a dance group that is performing two of her pieces. (She will also perform a duet this summer with Mikhail Baryshnikov.) This follows her strong Broadway debut with The Threepenny Opera, starring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper. “It was so appetizing for me because it has so many different levels,” says Barton, 30. “It’s dark, sexual, real and emotional—it just has a lot of depth. I want people to have an experience when they come to the theatre-and not just be entertained.”

For that, many will check out some huge

Canadian-born Hollywood talent gracing a couple of small off-Broadway haunts this summer. Toronto-born Eric McCormack is playing it straight in Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) after wrapping up Will & Grace. And Ottawa-born Sandra Oh is lending some sizable star power to the cast of Diana Son’s Satellites, while Grefs Anatomy is on hiatus.

Of course, Drowsy’s hilarious romp through a lost 1920s musical—described by one notoriously tough Broadway critic as “the most original musical of the season”-is still one of the hottest tickets in town. That’s a long way from its very humble beginnings—a sketch first performed by friends at a pre-wedding bash for Martin and Janet Van De Graaff (whose names are still used for the two main characters) before making a fuller debut at Toronto’s Fringe Festival in 1999. “The budget at the Fringe was $200,” says Martin. “The Broadway budget is almost $10 million.”

While Martin may enjoy a more comfortable armchair in New York, his costume has changed very little-Man in Chair wears

a wool shirt, a wool vest and an oversized wool cardigan. “All of the costumes in the show are amazing and cost thousands of dollars, and then there’s mine, which is essentially from Goodwill,” says Martin. “I even wear my own shoes—a pair of Merrells I wore in rehearsal one day and realized were just so accurate to the character.”

Martin should know.

He’s been playing the show’s geeky narrator since he wrote the book the musical is based on with Canadian director Don McKellar (the close

friends shared the Tony for best book—one of five that Drowsy won last month). “This has been the most demanding form,” says Martin, “mainly because I’ve had to sing and dance on Broadway—luckily I only have one song and usually hit most of my notes.” Martin is the only performing member

from the original Fringe Festival show (Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison—major players in that first incarnation—did, however, win a Tony for best original score). “It was only logical that I still be doing this seeing as I wrote the part for myself,” says Martin. “Since it’s a big musical now, everyone at home understands. I just hope people looking at it from the outside don’t think of me as this ambitious guy who took a wedding gift and said this is going to take me to Broadway. Obviously, I had no idea this would happen.”

Now that he’s arrived, Martin admits to being surprised by how accepting the New York theatre community has been. “I expected Broadway to be competitive, with the jealousies you would find in any kind of business involving ambition and a small number of jobs,” says Martin, who is currently renting an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “I certainly haven’t had a sense of anyone wondering what all of us Canadians are doing here. In fact, I feel like an American actor— I just happen to come from the funny state.” Before the curtain went up on opening night—and with his 78-year-old mother Pamela in the audience, on her first-ever trip to New York—Martin remembers escaping to his backstage dressing room. Hoping a little fan mail would ease his pre-show jitters, he grabbed the card on top of the pile. Turns out, it was a handwritten note from the Prime Minister. “Stephen Harper wrote that I was truly a Canadian success story and told me to break a leg,” laughs Martin. “Let me just say it didn’t exactly calm my nerves—I was like, oh, okay, this is a big deal.” And certainly worthy of a big Broadway bow. M