Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 16, 2006
The only thing you really need to know about Broadway's newest musical, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, is that it's hugely entertaining. It's an hour and 45 minutes of pure, delicious escapism: sketches and songs that tickle the funnybone and delight the ear, built into a loose parody of show biz excess that somehow avoids irony even as it pays tribute to and/or gleefully satirizes half-a-century of pop culture's giddiest nonsense. It contains one bit that made me laugh longer and harder in the theatre than I have in about 20 years. And for its entire running time it transported me wholly to the silly world that its star and his collaborators have created for our enjoyment—no cares or worries from the outside world come close to invading this perfect little haven of fun and foolishness.
Alright, there's another thing I ought to tell you, and that is that if you're a Martin Short fan then I don't see how you'll be anything but elated by this show. Because on hand, in addition to Short's endearing self-as-big-star persona, are also: Irving Kohn (the ageless—nay, now actually dead—Catskill comic/composer extraordinaire), Jimmy Rodgers (the "albino Sammy Davis, Jr."), Jiminy Glick (interviewing a hapless celebrity pulled from the audience in his trademark abrasively clueless style; at the performance I attended the lucky[?] guest/victim was Tracey Ullman), and of course the incomparable Ed Grimley ("I must say"), glimpsed somewhat improbably in an excerpt from Short's concert at Carnegie Hall.
Yes, I know Martin Short never played Carnegie Hall. The conceit of Fame Becomes Me is that, since Short's career and especially his very stable home life don't contain much of the stuff of high drama, an invented version of the life is put forth instead, in what is very straightforwardly presented as a true autobiography of the star containing almost nothing but fabrications. So there are scenes depicting Short's abusive father, supposedly a star of Canadian movie musicals; Short's alleged auditions for the likes of Tommy Tune and Bob Fosse; Short's horrifying downward spiral, partying with Liza and Andy at Studio 54; and Short's embarrassing Oscar win, when he stumbled up the stairs in a drunken stupor, only to be rushed to the Betty Ford Clinic for rehab. Note: none of this happened in real life. All of it happens, hilariously, in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.
Oh, I've just now thought of a third, very important thing you need to know about this show. Though its focus and raison d'etre and effervescent center is, rightfully, Martin Short, its engine is the product of several inspired writers who collaborated with him on the show. Co-authors Daniel Goldfarb and Alan Zweibel (who gets the billing "additional material by" in the Playbill) and lyricist/director Scott Wittman and composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman have written a superbly smart and funny show around their star, and even when the characters (and even some of the jokes) are old and familiar, the context and setting here is always astonishingly refreshing. Shaiman and Wittman, in particular, are in rare form here, having built a score that contains some of the funniest and densest parodies of musical theatre iconography this side of Forbidden Broadway. There's a song, purportedly from one of Short's father's movies, in which a farmer's daughter who looks VERY MUCH like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz sings a wicked parody of "The Man Who Got Away"; and there's also, wouldn't you know it, a Wicked parody, in which a faux Glinda and a faux Elphaba bemoan Short's fate (he dies in Fame Becomes Me, but don't worry, he comes back to life). Shaiman and company put Short in Elaine Stritch's one-woman show in front of Bernadette Peters's Gypsy set, and, nodding to the actual Short career (which started in a Toronto production of Godspell), in a ridiculous tribal-love-rock musical about Christianity called "Step Brother de Jesus."
Taking a leaf out of Lisa Kron's book, Fame Becomes Me is a one-man show with other people in it. Shaiman plays piano and gamely takes part in some of the sketches, while four other hugely talented performers take even more active roles. They are: Brooks Ashmanskas, who reminds those of us who loved him in the How to Succeed revival how great a comic and dancer he is numerous times during the evening; Nicole Parker, who does a host of celebrity impersonations and offers a thrillingly breathless Sondheim-esque number called "Married to Marty" (a paean to a tune from Company); Capathia Jenkins, who arrives near the end of the show to save the day with a made-to-order rouser called "Stop the Show"; and, to my mind most invaluably, Mary Birdsong, who channels Judys young and old in that song I mentioned earlier, and goes on to deliver dead-on portraits of Jodie Foster (presenting the Oscar to Short in his Norman Maine moment) and Joan Rivers (desperately trying to carry the show after Short's unfortunate demise).
I must also mention the contributions of behind-the-scenes staff, including seamlessly fluid sets by Scott Pask, dazzlingly appropriate costumes by Jess Goldstein, and inordinately invaluable wigs by Charles LaPointe. At the baton is Charlie Alterman, who occasionally has to catch (or duck) things thrown at him from the stage. Orchestrations are by Larry Blank.
But mostly Martin Short's show is indebted, as he will be the first to tell you in his self-as-big-star persona, to Martin Short. Whether effortlessly performing a charming, catchy little tune (the finale, "Glass Half Full"), or channeling Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton more or less at the same time, or—in the number that made me laugh uncontrollably—mangling some choice Bob Fosse choreography, Short is a trouper, a joy, and an entertainer of the first order. I love that he seems to be having as much as fun as everyone else in the theatre at the center of his own big Broadway musical, and I love that he has so generously and wisely chosen to give his fans exactly what they want and expect in a show that costs a lot of money to see. May he make many new ones as a result. And may he get to bring this just-under two hours of unbridled delight to theatregoers for as long as he wants to.