Story Through Song: The Collaborative Art of Musical Theater – Sonoma Sun


Posted on July 15, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun

People suddenly start singing and dancing. Why are they doing this?

By Kira Catanzaro

Musical theater combines several complex art forms to develop and enhance the drama of often simple stories. Words, action, music, song, dance, lighting, costumes and sets convey the messages of a story to reach an audience in the most powerful way possible. It takes many collaborating artists to create a successful musical theater experience.

Yet not everyone understands or appreciates musical theater as a form of storytelling. If you’re one of those people, Sonoma Arts Live’s production of The sleepy chaperone is the perfect musical for you. It is a parody of American musicals of the 1920s and 1930s, elucidated with love and humor by Man in a Chair.

The narrator opens the show with empathy for the audience, sharing his prayer before the curtain: “Oh my God, please make it a good show and keep it short!” Then he brings the magic of musical theater to life for audiences by playing his beloved recording of a fictional Jazz Age production titled The sleepy chaperone.

Throughout the performance, he comments on musical theater conventions, characters, actors, music, and other elements. Sometimes he inserts himself into the action, invisible to the players. How is it possible ?

When a storyteller creates a world, the audience agrees to accept the given premises. “A duck walks into a bar and says to the bartender…” In this example, the storyteller has created a world in which the ducks are talking and sipping martinis and the receivers of the story tune into the reality of that world because it’s fun and there’s the promise of an entertaining punchline.

Spectators do the same. They know they are watching a fake reality on stage but agree to pretend they don’t know, to be transported to this alternate reality. This agreement is a way for the public to actively contribute to a theatrical production. Voluntary suspension of disbelief is an essential element.

A common complaint about the form is that it is unrealistic when people start singing and dancing. Why are they doing this?

Music and dance enrich the story told in the script or “book”.

When the words of a story’s script are not enough to express how a character feels, music is a powerful help in expressing their emotions. The song lyrics begin as an extension of the dialogue and use the characters’ speech patterns to continue telling the story. When feelings are too great to be expressed or contained through song, the energy and story are communicated physically, through dance or dance in combination with song.

These songs have specific functions. Opening numbers help establish the mood, setting, and themes of a musical. These are often explanatory scenes told with a large ensemble. A song can pick up as a story develops or a character changes. “I am” songs express what a character is feeling at a given moment. In The king and me, Anna sings “I Whistle a Happy Tune” when she lands on foreign soil and is afraid of what awaits her in her new life. “I Want” songs express a character’s hopes and dreams. Eliza Dolittle sings “All I Want Is A Room Somewhere Away From The Cold Night Air” in At my beautiful lady “Wouldn’t that be in love.” The characters express their thoughts to the audience with interior monologue songs like “Adelaide’s Lament” by guys and dolls. There are also comedy numbers, conflicts, narrations, summaries and climactic songs.

The sleepy chaperonethe season finale of Sonoma Arts Live, has a solid cast of favorite actors, including Tim Setzer as Man in Chair, Kim Williams as Mrs. Tottendale, Sean O’Brien as Underling and Dani Beem in the lead role. Michael Ross is directing this production with musical director Sherrill Peterson. It is co-produced by Annie Bauer and performed with special permission from Musical Theater International.

The sleepy chaperone premiered in Toronto in 1998 and opened on Broadway in 2006. It won five Tony AwardSeven Theater Office Awardand was notnominated for several Broadway and west end theater prize. The book was written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar with music and lyrics written by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

The sleepy chaperoneJuly 15-31 on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Find tickets, information and safety information: or call 707-484-4874.

Photos from the Sonoma Arts Live production of The Drowsy Chaperone by Eric Chazankin.


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