"She got the part and I was really devastated," Andrea Martin said about losing out on a spot as one of Christ's perky followers in the 1972 Canadian company of Stephen Schwartz's first musical Godspell. The "she" was Gilda Radner, and Martin remembered being at an open call with the comedienne — both of them complete unknowns at the time. "Gilda Radner got up and sang ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' and the audience cheered," she remembered with a smile. Martin didn't fare as well. After being told she didn't make the cut she "walked to Dunkin' Donuts and bought 12 donuts and then just kinda binged on them."
She eventually got a second chance to wow the Godspell team and joined the now-legendary Toronto company that included Radner as well as other up-and-coming actors Eugene Levy, Martin Short and Victor Garber. The music director was a 23-year-old Paul Shaffer.
Following her Godspell experience, Martin and Stephen Schwartz did not professionally cross paths again for decades. Then, in a prophetic moment, Martin was asked to sing a song from another of Schwartz's famous musicals, Pippin, at a benefit honoring the songwriter. "I sang 'No Time at All,' and then I never thought about it again. Then I was asked to do Wicked [but] our schedules didn't work...And then this happened..."
"This" finds Martin delivering that same number onstage at the Music Box in a thrilling, now four-time Tony Award–winning revival of Pippin staged by Diane Paulus.
Martin plays Berthe, the titular character's grandmother, who doles out wisdom with a hint of sass to her wide-eyed grandson, the eponymous Pippin. When Berthe was initially offered to her, "I wasn't interested," she says. "I [told my agent] at first, 'Thank them but it's [not] something I'd do now — a woman in a wheelchair coming out with the grey hair — because that's how it was conceived. Sixty six in 1970 is a lot different than 66 is now...that's my age and I don't think of myself as that."
It was at The Second City in Toronto where Martin honed her comedic chops alongside John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, and the aforementioned Martin Short and Eugene Levy. She got noticed for her oddball characters like Edith Prickley and for memorable impersonations of Barbra Streisand and Mother Teresa. Her association with the troupe led to the sketch comedy TV show "SCTV." At the same time, she nurtured her stage acting by performing in shows like Private Lives and Candide at the Stratford Festival by day and taping "SCTV" by night. It is that same flexibility — both literal and figurative — that Martin displays as Berthe.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Martin's Berthe is very different than the quirky dowager Irene Ryan played in 1972 in Bob Fosse's original Pippin. Today's Berthe is very much a player in the acrobatic wonderworld Paulus has created with Gypsy Snider of the circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main. Once inside Pippin's big top, audiences are welcomed to a circus frenzy of knife throwers, silk swingers, tightrope walkers and fire jugglers. Other players in the Pippin extravaganza include Tony winner Patina Miller, Matthew James Thomas, and fellow Broadway veterans Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise. Martin has made a name for herself on Broadway as a first-rate comedienne with an uncanny ability to infuse shows with jolts of energy and laughs in a matter of minutes. For her Broadway debut in 1993's My Favorite Year, it was the number "Professional Showbizness Comedy," that helped earn her a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She has since gone on to be nominated four more times in the category, more than any other actress.
For Pippin, the show stopping moment is Martin's "No Time at All" — her only solo of the night — and it is often followed by the rare midshow standing ovation. She delivers half of it upside down from a trapeze. Critic David Rooney writing for the Hollywood Reporter labeled it "the most joyously exhilarating five minutes of stage time on Broadway right now." Tony voters agreed. Martin walked away with her second Tony at June's award ceremony.
"I really wanted this piece to be a traditional circus piece. I didn't want it to be contemporary with wires or with silks, I wanted you to look at it like I was an authentic circus performer from when I was younger, so that would have been 40, even 50 years ago. One day [Gypsy] came back and she said, 'I have an idea. I think you should be on a stationary trapeze and I want you to do it with a partner.'"
The rousing number also has her leading the audience in a sing-a-long that implores them that it's "time to start livin'/Time to take a little from this world we're given."
"It's kind of a perfect storm of a fabulous song, of the audiences wanting to be inspired and believe that they can live a long and healthy life and there is no reason why they can't," Martin explains. "I think it's so joyful, and I love doing it. I have two sons of my own, and talking to Pippin, I feel really deeply connected to him. I think there is just an underlying truth that people connect to. I honestly don't think that it's just about the physicality of the trapeze. I think, I hope, it's everything. "I knew that I wanted to reimagine [the part]. I wanted to experiment with the song in a way that is impactful for me at my age. I don't feel like my life is over and I feel everyday is a time to start living."