Years ago, a good friend of mine who was a Stephen King fanatic urged me to read his novels. I chose Pet Sematary and found myself loving it. It was, for me, one of those “I can’t put it down” reads, which was my reaction the first time I read A Streetcar Named Desire. And then . . . came the letdown. The ending was trite, unbelievable, and greatly disappointing. I felt the same way about It, which admittedly I didn’t read but instead watched the TV mini-series starring Tim Curry and a bunch of television actors trying to pay it straight. Like my reading of Pet Sematary, I was enthralled until the very end, when the giant spider in the sewer made me much more angry than frightened. I’m not alone in my estimation of King’s lousy endings: one online commentator said, “this is the single biggest weakness in nearly all of King's books.” And so it is with The Drowsy Chaperone, which I recently saw for the first time at a local university. The musical rolled along and I was enjoying it, and then the ending—exemplifying all that is wrong with today’s theatre—kind of ruined it for me.
The Drowsy Chaperone is a take-off on musical comedies of the 1920s. It was originally produced on Broadway in 2006 (although it had been floating around in the late 1990s) and won five Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Original Score. On these two counts, I think the awards were well deserved. The story breezes along with a good share of wonderfully naïve and stereotypical characters, calling upon all the clichés of early musicals (film or theatre versions) including the lovestruck ingénues; the doddering and forgetful old woman; the uptight, overly formal butler; a couple of not-so-tough gangsters; and a braindead Latin lover. The songs are quite reminiscent of the art deco era, with fun tap-dance numbers, roller skating, and drippy ballads. Tying it all together is the narrator, a modern-day Broadway fan who comments on the action (the play is performed in his mind and is based on a fictitious 1928 musical), talks directly to the audience, and has the ability to start and stop the musical as he sees fit (when he plays the recording of the musical, the action continues). With the notable exception of the narrator—played by an actor who kept wildly shaking his hands as if he had invisible maracas—the cast had fun with the material and played it the way it should be played: as mindless camp.
And then came the ending.
I don’t know what it is with contemporary society that we can’t enjoy ourselves without having to pay for it in sadness. The narrator (known as “Man in Chair”) hints throughout the musical that he is a fairly pathetic homebody, but this doesn’t come to the forefront with any conviction until the very end, when he offers the following speech (this right after his building’s superintendent bursts in to fix the lights, interrupting the glorious finale):
Well that’s it: it’s ruined. One note away from the end of the show and the mood is broken. I should just start the record again from the beginning. No, I can’t do that, can I? Oh, it’s so frustrating. You have to understand, I love this show so much. And I’ve never even seen it. My mother gave me the record. This was just before my father left us. Oh, he didn’t leave because of the record, although I’m sure it didn’t help matters. Look I know it’s not a perfect show; the spit take scene is lame and the monkey motif is labored. But none of that matters. It does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world. And it gives you a little tune to carry with in your head, you know? A little something to help you escape from the dreary horrors of the real world. A little something for when you’re feeling blue. You know? [Emphasis added]
And with that little speech, I found my evening compromised. The audience gave a collective “awwww” when the narrator said these lines; I could only feel a bit let down. Here we go again! Life is a bitter, difficult, and apparently meaningless struggle, full of “dreary horrors” (“dreary,” yet!). Why, I wonder, do we need to feel anything for an obvious failure, the only major character not afforded an actual name? He’s divorced, hints that he’s now gay, was abandoned, and minds his time escaping dreary horrors. This is someone we should rely on and put our faith in? We all know that we best remember the first and last thing we read or see. As the final thought of an otherwise very enjoyable evening, the Man in Chair leaves us not with wisdom or solace, but despair. It’s as though we have some nerve feeling good about what we’re watching when he is so miserable. Sorry, I just don’t buy it.
I think this kind of thing is so overplayed in contemporary art (not sure I’d characterize The Drowsy Chaperone as “art,” but nevertheless). Somehow, we’ve all become Buddhists, where we embrace on a daily basis the suffering of life. But, having no religious underpinning anymore (at least not one that is shared as a culture), we have no path to solace and little hope of redemption. You’ll see this in almost every play or musical considered to be “deep.” With The Drowsy Chaperone, we have all the fun of yesteryear with all the melancholy of today. Yes, musicals are an escape, but there’s no reason to emphasize what we are escaping from. Besides, I would think that not everyone is fighting off dreary horrors all the time. Can’t we simply embrace escapism without having to define it? Can’t we simply have an enjoyable time in the theatre for enjoyment’s sake?
I guess not. I still heartily endorse seeing The Drowsy Chaperone and will continue to praise its music. But next time I attend a production of this show, I’m going to find a way to get that narrator offstage before his final speech and send him to the sewers to meet a giant spider who dresses like a clown.