It was Andrea Martin's friend, Hairspray Tony winner Scott Wittman, who serves as the creative consultant for the theatre-district nightspot 54 Below, who asked whether the Tony-winning actress would like to appear at Manhattan's newest cabaret.
"I said, 'Why the hell not? Before I die, I want to do cabaret! It's on my bucket list!'" Martin told me by phone from Toronto last week.
Although she has played small theatres, the artist, one of, if not the, greatest comedic actresses of her generation joked, "I don't think I've ever played any place with a two-drink minimum!"
"I love [being able to see the audience]," Martin explained. "In fact, in big theatres, I like to see the faces. I always bring the house [lights] up. And, I particularly like this because anything goes. I don't know what's going to happen. Of course, I've got some material rehearsed, but I'm looking forward to connecting to the audience, and I just think of it as a big party, really."
A Tony winner for her hilarious performance in My Favorite Year, Martin will play 54 Below June 20-23, where she will be accompanied by musician-actor-Playbill.com columnist Seth Rudetsky. About putting together her one-woman shows, Martin said with a laugh, "I work with as many people as I possibly can that I don't have to pay… but I will give them credit! Peter Flynn has been instrumental in helping me. He's not with this cabaret venue, but he's certainly been instrumental in helping me in the last couple of years when I've been doing a show with Seth. I've been [doing] a little tour, and he helped me put that together. That was two years ago, so I love him for that. And, Seth, of course… Can you beat Seth Rudetsky? The King of Broadway. Of course you know at Playbill! So, he's my musical director, and we certainly collaborate, and if a joke doesn't work in the middle of the show, he'll throw one out, and we'll try that. Very loose. Very fun.
"Well, it just doesn't get better," Martin continued. "[Seth] has an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway and songs, and so if I want to try something new, we'll try it. He's so relaxed on stage and has just a crazy attitude of 'We're just there to have fun. Just interact with the audience.' For him, it's like one big conversation, really, with an audience. So I love that. He's a great person to have with me on stage."
"She has always been one of my comedy idols since I first saw her on 'SCTV,'" Rudetsky e-mailed me last week. "I cannot believe I get to work with her. Even though every show begins with her wondering if the audience will laugh. She literally walks out of her dressing room at 'places' saying, 'Dead man walking!' The audience always l-o-v-e-s the show. Hilarious!"
Martin said she met Rudetsky during her first Broadway outing, the aforementioned Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical My Favorite Year. "He was the second pianist—the substitute pianist. I paid no attention to him then," Martin joked. "And then we met when I did my one-woman show—my first one at the Public Theater. He was my musical director there. He came in, and he auditioned. I auditioned a couple of pianists, and he—honest to God, Andrew—knew every line I'd ever done in 'SCTV.' Characters I couldn't even remember. He had me at, 'I love you.'"
When asked how much singing people can expect at 54 Below, the comedic actress answered, "Well, I haven't measured the ratio, but think of it as a little variety show, but I'm the only guest. And, if I could find a chimp in a tutu, I'd put him in it! It's a little bit of stand-up, a little bit of sketch, a little bit of singing, there's some video, there's interactive stuff with the audience. Really, I'm single-handedly bringing back the variety show."
Martin, whose numerous screen credits include the 1993 TV version of "Gypsy" as well as the megahit film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," said that she's "never done stand-up. It's a whole different animal. But when you're doing this kind of a thing—when you're in really close proximity to an audience—I want to engage with them, so I don't know if you call that stand-up, but there'll certainly be lines that might not be rehearsed and might not be in a paragraph. They might be one-liners." Although the upcoming engagement marks her own cabaret debut, Martin's career was influenced by attending nightclub performances of another Broadway favorite, two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera. "The reason why I was motivated to get into show business was because of Chita Rivera," Martin said. "My parents have a condominium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When I was 11—that's when we first started going—she would appear at the nightclub at the El San Juan with male dancers, and I just was hooked. I loved how she engaged with the audience. No fourth wall, really. I just loved that it was a form for personality, and I loved that she felt so loose to be able to break into a dance with two male dancers—which I don't have because I can't afford it. Now Chita and I are the same age, and I'm finally doing a cabaret show! But I've seen many cabaret shows over the years, yes. I love watching them, actually. I just saw Linda Lavin's in New York."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
And, her comedic influences? "Well, you're not going to know this group, but The Nairobi Trio," Martin said. "They were three people dressed as monkeys on the 'Ernie Kovacs Show,' and they were so silly. I don't know if they were my comedic influences, but they certainly tickled my funny bone because of the silliness of it. I remember watching Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett and variety shows, in particular. There's nothing that makes me laugh more than the Marquis Chimps on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' All those chimps dressed in ballet outfits on bicycles—I wish they'd bring that back. And, who can turn their nose up at a spinning plate? And then there was Topo Gigio, the little mouse—'Hello, Eddie!' You're not going to know any of this, but these are my influences!"
One of the greatest laughs this writer ever enjoyed at the theatre was watching Martin's double take as she slid down a chair in My Favorite Year. "I remember that take," she said, "and I remember because I'd never done a Broadway show before that. Those characters came right out of 'Your Show of Shows' and Sid Caesar. And, of course, I'd seen Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar when I was growing up, and I kind of remembered the vaudevillian aspect of it, but I don't think I'd ever done physical comedy like that or double-takes on stage before because I don't think there was a call for it. When I was playing Liat in South Pacific at Kennebunkport Playhouse, they didn't ask me to do a double-take!"
Looking back on all her Broadway outings, Martin said, "My Favorite Year is always going to have a place in my heart because that was the first Broadway show I ever did. But I loved every one of them, honestly, Andrew, I did—for so many different reasons. I mean, to be able to sing to Leonard Bernstein's music in Candide and work with the great Hal Prince; and then do the iconic role of Frau Blucher and work with Mel Brooks [on Young Frankenstein]; and be able to bring to life Golde, which was a non-comedic role, [in Fiddler on the Roof]; and Oklahoma!, oh my God—to work with Trevor Nunn and Patrick Wilson and Susan Stroman. Honestly, every show that I've done, I've wanted to do, and I have great memories from each one of them for different reasons. I really do."
|Photo by Paul Kolnik|
Martin also admitted that she was "slightly intimidated working with Mel Brooks…at first. And then, after we'd been running for a while, he just became a great pal. I had a great respect for him, but he also is so loose and encourages improvisation and loves comedy, so it was a great platform for us to collaborate."
Future projects include a web series, a result of performing on Playbill's first Broadway on the High Seas cruise. "The webseries is called 'Andrea Martin Abroad,' and it's on the Travel Channel up here in Canada. And, we're just figuring out where it's going to be in the States. It might be on Seth's new television network on the web called Seth TV, so look for it there! I'm actually writing a new song for the cabaret show about traveling—a little parody song about what a bad traveler I am. Although I'd like to think of myself as a great adventurer, when push comes to shove, I'd rather be home watching 'Tots & Tiaras.'" (Click here to read about Playbill's star-studded Broadway on the High Seas 2 Cruise, which sets sail in December. ) And, would Martin like to return to Broadway? "I'd love to come back to Broadway, for sure! But now I'm Off-Broadway. Is Studio 54 Off-Broadway?" When told the nightclub is actually below Broadway, Martin joked, "Fabulous! Well, I'm going to creep back. First I'm going to be in the basement, and then hopefully I'll be on the first floor."
54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street. Tickets and information are available at 54Below.com.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.