By Harry Haun
14 Sep 1998
|Photo by Photo by Martha Swope|
The most successful interpreter of the world's most successful playwright is a mighty mite of a man with a big talent named Martin Short, and, on Sept. 30, he starts previewing at the Roundabout in his third Neil Simon role in a row in New York.
Little Me is the opus in question, but Short is not that little. No, the title character is one Belle Poitrine, a blowzy been-around-the- block-more-than-a-few-times star who takes quill in hand and dashes off the escapades that have brought her to this ego-bloated pedestal in the business. Previously, this character was played by two actresses -- as aging authoress and as energetic ingenue who sprints through her past -- but this time out both roles will be done by Faith Prince, who falls somewhere in between those two perimeters. And Short, in short, will essentially play for whom the Belles tell -- the men in her life (four husbands and three lovers).
Simon's 1962 musical book comes from a 1958 best seller that spoofed the celebrity tell-alls that were then then starting to glut the market -- Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis [who, of course, was the original author of Auntie Mame] -- and, although that's a sprawling field of fun right there, Simon saw fit to overhaul it, inventively reinventing it as a vehicle for Sid Caesar, for whom he wrote many a skit on TV's "Your Show of Shows." Its current resurrection, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, could be called "Your Short of Shorts." It's that good a fit.
The show's Short subjects start with Noble Eggleston, a well-to-do teen-ager who falls for Belle back home in Venezuela, Ill., but tells her he can never marry her till she attains wealth and social position, so off she goes on her Life's Journey to acquire these, encountering a colorful assortment of Shorts along the way. Simon is still tinkering with his 36-year-old hit, tailoring roles to Short's specifications from Caesar's originals (Val Du Val, a monumentally untalented French entertainer; Mr. Pinchley, a decrepit skinflint; Cherney Rozenzweig, a wealthy prince; Fred Poitrine, a myopic beau; Otto Schnitzler, a terribly Teutonic film director).
And has Short already found his favorite character among this manic menagerie? He ponders the question a moment and confesses he hasn't -- "but I'd never tell that anyway. I think it's up to you to tell me what's your favorite rather than for me to proclaim a favorite."
As if these aren't enough plates to keep twirling in the air, Short must also contend with the tunes of Cy Coleman and the late Carolyn Leigh (something he can handle better than the musically untrained Caesar). "The thing was, Sid was not a singer singer, so they didn't write big songs for him, but it's a great score," he says. "[Pardon me, Miss/But I've never been kissed/By a/ Real Live Girl" is as great as it gets for him, but "Be a Performer!" and "On the Other Side of the Tracks" are also winning, and the show-stopping "I've Got Your Number" goes to another actor with the gymnastic dancing skills for which Rob Marshall is famous.
Marshall, who's making his Broadway double-threat debut as Little Me's director and choreographer (he shares a co-directing credit with Sam Mendes for Cabaret), wore both hats for two weeks last year when Short had his last brush with New York audiences (and Simon) -- the Burt Bacharach-Hal David Promises, Promises, which was revived for five glorious sold-out Encores! performances at City Center. It was greeted with such enthusiasm from critics and crowds alike that there was talk of moving the whole shebang into an extended Broadway run (a la Chicago). Producers were throwing money at that notion, but ultimately "scheduling conflicts" wound up scuttling the project.
But that tantalizing sampling of Promises, Promises seconded a motion already made in 1993 with The Goodbye Girl, the stage-musical remake of Simon's 1977 film. In his Tony-nominated Broadway bow, Short brought a kinetic kind of comedy to a role that had been played straighter by an Oscar-winning Richard Dreyfuss; continuing that sort of attack, he worked his same transforming wonders on C.C. Baxter (Oscar-nominated Jack Lemmon in The Apartment; Tony-winning Jerry Orbach in Promises, Promises) and won again, big time.
Somehow, Short's loose, live-wire work opened both relatively straight roles up to new possibilities of fun. "Neil writes those kinds of roles very well, and I enjoy the tone of those characters." He also enjoys the fact that their realities allow him to break into outlandish little riffs when the spirit moves him. Little Me will be more of an all-out comedic assault, unfettered by such earthbound considerations -- a chance at rendering unto us what had been Caesar's.
To warm up for this assignment, Short spent most of last month in a Wonderland outside London, filming Alice in Wonderland for a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV presentation. He could have played the whole populace, but he held himself to The Mad Hatter and let other worthies like Paul Scofield, Maggie Smith, Eric Idle and Ben Kingsley get in their licks as well.
Prior to that, he wrapped a feature called Mumford. "Loren Dean is the title character, a therapist in a fictitious town in the Northwest, and I play an aggressive, obnoxious lawyer. It's a Lawrence Kasden movie, and Larry makes movies about people intermingling within a space. He refers to it as a comedy, but it's a very earth-toned, real comedy as opposed to a slapstick affair. There is no moment of apparent comedy. It's life, and life can be hysterical."
Short counts it his constitutional right as a Canadian to have an eclectic career. "Canadians are like the British in that they lead different kinds of American careers than most American actors do," he says. "We tend to bop between the mediums more. For me, it's the most entertaining way to do a career -- to be onstage one year, then be in a television special or a series the next year, then do a couple of movies. There have been times I've had to relinquish higher-paying jobs to do theatre, but money would never be the decision maker for me -- not when I have a great opportunity, and it seems apparent the timing is right, to do a play."
A more valid consideration is the personal demands that generally accompany a long run. "I'm always divided on this," he admits. "My wife and I live in Los Angeles, and we have three kids in school there. The year I did The Goodbye Girl, they all moved to New York. Now they're a little bit older, a little bit tougher -- one's starting high school -- and we can't do that. There's a precariousness built into extended runs because of this. If I lived in New York, then you'd never get me offstage. I'd be somewhere. That's really the thing I enjoy doing the most."
And he has been doing it longer than you think, having rolled out of Godspell as one of the New Canadian Faces of 1972 along with Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin ("my sister-in-law" -- she was once married to his wife's brother), Eugene Levy, et al. The Jesus of that production who left to do the movie version and was replaced by Don Scardino was Victor Garber, who shared the Caesar load with James Coco in the 1982 revival of Little Me. Small world, isn't it?
"When I was doing The Goodbye Girl, people were always coming up to me, saying, 'Gee, we're surprised at you. We didn't think you did this.' And, yet, all my Canadian friends had known me doing was doing theatre. This is all I did in Toronto from 1972 to 1979. Ultimately, my favorite form of entertainment is the stage, and I always thought, 'Gee, I'm in the wrong era to be in New York,' because in the '70s [and early '80s] they didn't seem to have any personality-driven shows. They had, instead, Cats and A Chorus Line, all of these very specific kinds of shows."
It's amusing to imagine Rum Tum Tugger suddenly Short-circuiting into a fur-flying frenzy -- the only way that he could attack that part would be over-the-top -- but, he says, "that's something you'll never see." Fortunately for him and us -- even with Cats still purring profitably at the Winter Garden -- Martin Short's day on Broadway has finally come.