Currently, he is adding a third memorable portrait to that gallery, playing Major Bouvier, the imperious, disapproving father of Christine Ebersole's frivolous, but strong-willed "Big Edie" Beale. He created the role Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and continued with the show once it moved to Broadway last October, getting a new song along the way. Playbill.com talked to McMartin about the hills and valleys of his nearly five-decade career, and his current professional peak in particular.
Playbill.com: You're of a generation that actually experienced the Kennedys in the White House. Going into this show, did you have a formed impression of Jackie's grandfather Major Bouvier, the character you play in Grey Gardens?
John McMartin: Not really. I remember the so-called scandal with the Beales in the Hamptons, but I didn't think much of it at the moment. What got me, when they presented me with the situation of possibly doing the show, was the documentary "Grey Gardens," which I found fascinating.
Playbill.com: Had you not seen it prior to then?
JM: No. I'm not a part of the documentary, my character, but it was fascinating to me. Then [composer] Scott Frankel came over and played some of the stuff that I would do. And then we went down to Florida to this wonderful White Oaks plantation [part of the Sundance Institute] to do a workshop. Grand place to work. Then when I saw Christine [Ebersole] — it seemed like she was channeling this person — and Mary Louise [Wilson]. It was an incredible experience. I thought, "I want to stay with this."
Playbill.com: Did you go and read some biographies of Jack Bouvier?
JM: As much as you could. There were stacks of stuff down there. There's not much on him. First of all, he's French, and I happen to be Irish. [Laughs.] Then I put that out of my mind and played the character on the paper.
Playbill.com: He was apparently a bit of a scoundrel.
JM: Apparently. I think he was more of a martinet, trying to hold that family together. Playbill.com: You were given a different song in between the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. Off-Broadway, you sang "Being Bouvier," on Broadway "Marry Well."
JM: They changed it from when we did it at Playwrights Horizons. He had a more jovial time with his younger grandchildren there.
Playbill.com: Do you prefer the new song?
JM: I prefer it because it gives him more color as a character. The other song is more of a military thing.
Playbill.com: Your stage career is verging on five decades. What do you think of that?
JM: I don't know. I suddenly feel very old. [Laughs.] I've been very, very lucky. I've worked with great people.
Playbill.com: I'm guessing that the show people always ask about is the original Follies, in which you were one of the leads.
JM: Yes. They do. The people come out when you're autographing things and they have something from Follies. It's a kind of a landmark for Hal [Prince] and Steve [Sondheim].
Playbill.com: I remember recently when costume designer Florence Klotz died, there were many articles about how rich the design was. Did it seem opulent even back then?
JM: Yes. When we did it, even when we sold out, it lost money. Huge production values. All those costumes were incredible; they were beaded and sequined. I wore a purple tuxedo all the way through. It was very easy on me. In the fantasy sequence I wore a white tuxedo. That was when people talked about my character going up [on his lines]. I remember telling Hal in Boston, "Hal, people think I'm really up." He said "I know." In fact, one of the critics said, "John McMartin looked like he hadn't learned his lines." I was getting killed.
Playbill.com: I don't mean this in a negative way, but, going over your credits, it struck me that you have been in quite a few Broadway shows that lasted less than 10 performances.
JM: Yes. Where do you find this information? Of course now, with the internet, we're all killed. Back in those days, with [producer T. Edward Hambleton and The New Phoenix Repertory Company], they used to say one year that I was in so many different Broadway shows, I was still on my same box of Kleenex. The first Broadway show I did ran about a week. Then I went into about four—Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Turkeys! You don't hear that word anymore, but that's what they were. But it was a great experience, because you got to do something, at least. I did three shows with Bob Fosse. We were in two bombs in a row. Then we were in Detroit with a show called Pleasures and Palaces and we were closing and were across the street having a drink, crying in our beer. He said, "I'm going to do another show. I wonder if you're interested." I said, "I've been in two shows with you and they were bombs. I was afraid I was giving you bad luck." He said, "I was afraid to ask you, because I thought maybe you thought I was doing that to you." Then I went into Sweet Charity with him — that was the show.