Since The Drowsy Chaperone first took him down to the United States and won him a Tony Award, Bob Martin has been highly in demand in the musical-theatre industry as what’s referred to as a “book writer” - a.k.a. scripting the parts that go between the songs.
The Prom, which the Canadian comedian wrote with Chad Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar, was his third show to make it to Broadway. The 2018 musical tells the story of a group of self-involved theatre types who try to boost their profiles by becoming activists - and head to Indiana to help a teen whose high school cancelled prom when she wanted to bring a same-sex date.
It now opens in its first and second Canadian productions this week: Dry Cold Productions is mounting The Prom at Manitoba Theatre for Young People in Winnipeg from May 16 to 21, while Ontario’s Drayton Entertainment is running it for a longer spell at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse from May 17 to June 11.
With The Prom also on the schedule for Theatre Under the Stars in Vancouver from July 6 to Aug. 25, it seemed like a good time to check back in Martin - who’s also revered in the theatre world as co-creator of the classic Stratford-inspired TV series Slings and Arrows. I reached him by e-mail.
It’s still pretty wild to me that The Prom opened on Broadway in 2018 - and just two years later Ryan Murphy had made a movie of it starring the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman (and James Corden). What was that experience like for you - especially after a decade-plus of development hell for The Drowsy Chaperone movie?
I think we may have set a record for fastest film adaptation of a Broadway musical. We’re very grateful to Ryan - a guy who has Meryl and Nicole on speed dial - for stepping in and making The Prom available to anyone in the world with a screen. He said he wanted some kid in Russia to be able to see it and feel represented. At one point it was the most popular movie on Russian Netflix, so he pulled it off.
Were there pros and cons of The Prom going to Netflix so quickly in terms of the on-stage life of the show? I wondered if it had an effect on the tour - or, conversely if maybe helped lead to the spate of new productions we’re seeing up here in Canada right now.
It’s hard to say. I would imagine it had a positive effect in terms of brand awareness. The stage show is actually quite different from the film in terms of tone. The stage show is much more of an overt satire. The film is much sweeter, and targeted at a younger audience. All I know is they’re doing it in high schools here in the States and that kind of blows my mind. That’s what we wanted all along.
Two of your three Broadway shows have had show-within-show elements - and now you’re working on the Broadway-aimed musical adaptation of the cult TV show Smash. Are you not tired of writing about show business yet?
Not yet! I find the creative process endlessly fascinating. And I love that mixture of enormous ego and incredible insecurity that is so common among actors. Plus, it’s a bit of a “write what you know” situation.
I’m not tired of you writing about show business - and, speaking of TV shows about theatre, of course, it’s the 20th anniversary of Slings and Arrows this year. The latest testament to how devoted its fanbase is the recently launched Outrageous Fortune: A (Kind of Official) Slings & Arrows podcast. Anything new you can tell me about the planned prequel - or other possible new content in that universe?
Mark, Susan and I have been working of a “kind of” prequel for years, really a fictionalized account of the origin of the Stratford Festival. We like it - time will tell if anyone else does! What I really want to do is put Slings on stage, but that is very complicated.
Lastly, do you have anything in the works on this side of the border coming up?
I have been working on a theatre project with a Canadian producer, but it is the very early stages of development. Anyone who is interested in my work - and I have no idea who that might be, but thank you - the shows to look out for are BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical [opening in Chicago in the fall], Smash [co-produced by Steven Spielberg and aiming for Broadway’s 2024-2025 season], Millions [an in-development adaption of the 2004 film of that name] and The Princess Bride [in development]. Only one of those involves a show-within-a-show. Well, two, to be honest.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What else is on stage this week in Canada.
- Boom X, one of multitalented Rick Miller’s multimedia shows about generations, is on the main stage at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto until May 28. This is the one in which Miller chronicles his own Generation X’s coming-of-age; The Globe and Mail reviewed in its debut at Theatre Calgary back in 2019.
- In the second smaller theatre at Crow’s HQ, The Chinese Lady - American playwright Lloyd Suh’s two-hander about an actual Chinese girl named Afong Moy who was brought to the United States and put on display in the 19th century - closes on May 21.
Director Marjorie Chan’s production starring Rosie Simon is at its best in a creepy and compelling scene that features the excellent John Ng as president Andrew Jackson - one that shows how exoticization and hatred are two sides of the same coin.
- Little Red Warrior and His Lawyer, Kevin Loring’s irreverent land-claism comedy, is on stage at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from May 18 to 27. The Globe and Mail reviewed it in its Vancouver premiere last year. (Loring’s recently had his contract as artistic director of the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre renewed for four more years.)
- Alberta’s got a pair of musicals on stage right now of note.
Prison Dancer, inspired by the viral video of incarcerated people in a Philippines prison dancing to Thriller, is on at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre until May 28 in a production directed by Nina Lee Aquino (that will go to the NAC next season)
Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre’s breakthrough hit musical, is celebrating its 15-year anniversary with a run at down in Calgary at Vertigo Theatre until June 4.