Sleeper Hit Man

Photo: Philip Toldedano

Bob Martin’s show, The Drowsy Chaperone, has thirteen Tony nominations, including Best Musical, Best Lead Actor in a Musical (him), and Best Book (half-him; he co-wrote it). But what he’s really looking forward to at the Tonys is the swag. “Apparently, there’s this great gift bag,” he says. “Last year, Sutton [Foster, star of The Drowsy Chaperone] got a cell phone. A good one! I’m just hoping … I have so many cell phones, Janet [Martin’s wife] would kill me if I bought another one. But if I’m actually given one … ” He laughs. Martin is a gadget freak. As a treat for himself to celebrate the show’s success, he bought a Nokia Internet Tablet. To help pass the time in his New York apartment during the weeks of previews, he bought an Xbox—though not the coveted Xbox 360, which was sold out everywhere. “I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t get anywhere near it.”

Attention, Microsoft: Please have an Xbox 360 sent to the dressing room of Mr. Bob Martin, care of the Marquis Theatre, Broadway, New York. In fact, send three.

Because Bob Martin, at age 43, is a Broadway star. He doesn’t quite seem to know this yet. For confirmation, though, just go to The Drowsy Chaperone and watch as the audience is sucked in by his fussy, endearing, possibly agoraphobic character, Man in Chair. It happens right from his first line of dialogue—“I hate theater,” delivered in pitch darkness, and one of the great musical-theater opening lines of all time. It continues as he serves as our gleeful tour guide through a lost twenties musical (the titular Chaperone) that’s happening entirely in his head (and onstage). And it’s confirmed when, at the end, after the cast has reeled out, Martin takes his solo bow, rousing the last few stragglers in the audience to their feet.

His history, and that of The Drowsy Chaperone, is already solidifying into myth. The show started in Toronto as a set of songs called The Wedding Gift, presented to Martin, a performer and writer in the local comedy scene, at a celebration in advance of his marriage. (To this day, the show’s romantic leads are named Robert Martin and Janet Van De Graaff.) The friends then mounted a Fringe Festival show, which transferred to a larger house. Some American producers saw it, imported it to Broadway, and voilà: Thirteen Tony nominations later, the show-within-a-show now has another layer of meta-backstory, one that’s even more improbable than anything happening onstage.

So now what? Well, there’s the star thing. Martin gets complimented by the waitress in the middle of our conversation. (“I loved your show,” she says. “Now I’m so embarrassed.” He smiles politely. He is polite.) He now spends less time playing Xbox and more time doing interviews and answering questions like “Who are you?” and “Where did you come from?” and “Are you really, actually this nice?” He also bought some new duds. “I was living out of one suitcase for the longest time, and nervous about buying new clothes,” he says of the first weeks of New York previews. “I didn’t want to jinx anything.”

Of course, any decent Broadway producer can see how this story must end. Yes, Jersey Boys might snag Best Musical; with a Frankie Valli story line, it’s a better touring bet, which will sway the Tony voters, or so the thinking goes. But come on! The Drowsy Chaperone, storming the podium! A Tony sweep! Roll credits! And new cell phones for everyone!

I ask him if he worries how he and his collaborators will follow up such an improbable success. “We’re never going to. I know that,” he says. There may be other musicals, but his own future likely lies in writing for TV: The Canadian comedy he co-created, Slings & Arrows, runs here on the Sundance Channel and has been getting lots of positive notices. This, then, is probably his last, best chance to act like a total diva, and he’s not doing a very good job. I ask him when he gets to drop the nice-guy act and officially become an egomaniac. “Thursday,” he says. “I’ve penciled it in.”

Sleeper Hit Man