How 'Drowsy Chaperone' went from a Toronto stag party to a Broadway Hit

Alexander Stevens

Every musical tries to make a point, perhaps teach us something about family, friends or the pursuit of happiness. But every now and then, a musical comes along in which the creation of the show itself becomes part of the message.

Take “The Drowsy Chaperone.” It essentially began as a wedding gift, a token of affection and good will. It was the toast of the wedding party, and — after the stops and starts that are typical of any musical lurching its way to the stage — it became the toast of Broadway. “The Drowsy Chaperone” snagged more Tony Awards than any other musical in 2006 while competing against heavyweights like “Jersey Boys,” “The Wedding Singer” and “The Color Purple.” And now the first national tour stops at the Opera House in Boston, April 22 to May 4.

The message is pretty simple: Follow your heart and the possibilities are limitless.

“You can’t take a cynical approach and try to figure out what other people would like to see,” says Lisa Lambert, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for “Chaperone.” “Do what you love and you’ll find other people who feel the same way. It’s contagious.”

For “Chaperone,” that began with a shared love of musicals, or more accurately, a comic fascination with the people who are addicted to them.

“We’re not so much winking at and making fun of the musical genre, we’re winking at and making fun of the obsessive fan that listens to the same musical scores over and over again,” says Lambert.

That was the seed of “Chaperone.” And although the show has changed a lot since 1998, the heart of it remains in the same place — much closer to the funny bone than the brain.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” tells the story of a man who loves to listen again and again to his LP of the 1929 musical comedy, “The Drowsy Chaperone” (no, there never was a 1929 musical called “The Drowsy Chaperone”). He not only plays it repeatedly, he also complains about it repeatedly.

Lambert understands the addiction.

“[Writer] Don [McKellar], Bob [Martin, the groom] and I went to high school together,” says Lambert. “Instead of doing our homework, we’d watch Marx Bothers and Fred Astaire movies together. Especially the early stuff.”

The friends stuck together after graduation, and became part of a small but lively Toronto comedy scene. Rejuvenated by the success of the wedding performance, they dove back into “Drowsy Chaperone.”

In 1999, the show landed in the Toronto Fringe Festival, in an expanded version that included new songs and more characters.

The show languished until it got picked up in 2004 by the National Alliance of Musical Theatres.

“Things started to happen really fast at that point,” remembers Lambert.

No kidding. Less than two years later, she was living the surreal dream of watching “The Drowsy Chaperone” open on Broadway.

“I was already in a state of I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening,” she says.

And that was before the Tony Awards.

Next thing she knew, she was brushing elbows with Broadway royalty.

“I was on the red carpet with Liza Minnelli,” she remembers. “Someone said, ‘Liza, do you know Lisa?’ And Liza shrieked, ‘Yes!’ And I was thinking, ‘Liza, you don’t know who I am’.”

Lambert is in New York trying to figure out her next step. The success of “Chaperone” has brought her a much-needed infusion of cash, but it hasn’t made her rich. She expects that she and Morrison will soon be getting to work on their next project.

But, in the meantime, she loves New York.

“Since the show is a love letter to Broadway, the community has been so supportive,” she says. “All I knew about Broadway was ‘All About Eve.’ I figured it was all about back-stabbing. But it’s not that way at all. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone helps everyone. It’s an incredibly supportive group of people.”

And as she waits for the next project to take shape, she’s taking full advantage of being in the city.

“I’m seeing every show in New York,” she says, perhaps sounding a little like the lead guy in her own show. “It’s addictive. If I miss one, I get really upset.”

“The Drowsy Chaperone”

April 22- May 4

The Opera House, Boston

Tickets: $30-$91

Call: 617-931-2787