SAN FRANCISCO — Warts-and-all memoirs and celebrity autobiographical solo performances may be popular these days, but comic actor Martin Short and his creative team are taking a slyly satirical approach to the genre. Not only is “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me” fictional (because, as Short declares in the show, he has “a perfect life!”), but it’s an ensemble piece.
Call it a mock autobiographical ensemble musical. The show officially opened its San Francisco tryout engagement May 9 and begins previews July 22 at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theater for an Aug. 10 opening. It traces Short’s angst-ridden pseudo-life (and high-profile death), while slipping in wacky showbiz parodies along the way.
Tony Award winner Short conceived the tuner with “Hairspray” creators Marc Shaiman (composer, onstage pianist-actor, co-lyricist) and Scott Wittman (director/co-lyricist); book is by Short and Daniel Goldfarb.
Short’s good-humored and sometimes wicked wit anchors the show — that, plus his improv skills and the generosity with which he shares the stage with Shaiman and thesps Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Nicole Parker and Capathia Jenkins.
Short’s so disingenuous that at times auds may forget it’s only make-believe. The dysfunctional Canadian family; an embarrassing early career audition for an imperious Tommy Tune; the disabling cocaine addiction; playing Jesus’ stepbrother in a “Godspell”-like musical: It’s all just this side of absurd.
“Was I in a show like that? Yes,” says Short. “Did I have an eccentric family? Was my father Irish? Yes. Was he a movie star? No. I wasn’t a baby singing about big titties, either (Short and cast appear in giant high chairs and frilly bonnets, warbling merrily about their lust for giant breasts). I think we’re saying, you can take any liberties you want. It’s about creating fodder for entertainment.”
Short, 56, comes from the schools of Second City and “Saturday Night Live,” which explains the show’s structure as an ensemble piece with built-in improv. “I’m not a standup comedian,” he says. “What’s fun for me is to be onstage with someone who’ll give me a run for my money.”
His co-actors display their considerable singing and comic chops in a variety of roles — everything from celebrity impersonations to faux audience members to Short’s fictional family. And at each perf, someone is plucked from the audience for an onstage interview with Short’s fat and fatuous TV-host character, Jiminy Glick. Headlines of the day are likely to weasel their way into the night’s dialogue, too.
Despite the many theater-industry insider jokes — drastically reduced in number, though, after an early New York workshop — preview auds have been enthusiastic, says Scott Zeiger of Becker Zeiger Entertainment, one of the producers.
Zeiger says San Francisco and subsequent pre-Broadway stop Toronto (Short’s hometown) were chosen for the trial runs because — among other reasons — “Fame,” “crazy and funky and cool as it is,” is also sophisticated and needs theater-savvy audiences.
In San Fran, previews played to 75% capacity in Carole Shorenstein Hays’ 1,667-seat Curran Theater. Many attendees were subscribers to Shorenstein Hays Nederlander’s Best of Broadway season and therefore not necessarily Short fans. Of the Broadway-centric material, Zeiger notes, “We send up (shows like) ‘American Idol,’ ‘Wicked,’ all in the context of the story we’re telling. So if you don’t particularly get the nuances or the jokes, you can still follow the story and appreciate the humor.”
The show requires only minor tweaking now before its New York opening — a few line changes, a few new lyrics and melodies here and there, says Short.
Adds Zeiger, the biggest challenge in the initial advertising is conveying to the general public that this is not a one-man show, nor is it exactly “SNL”-type sketch comedy. Both he and Short compare it, stylistically, to the old “Carol Burnett Show.” The advance ads are designed to elicit yuks: ironic headlines (“If you liked ‘Othello,’ you’ll love Martin Short”); “sing-alongs with Marty” on interactive Web sites, blogs.
“We’ve provided almost loose outlines of script and information, and we get Marty in the studio and let him riff,” says Zeiger. “We’re educating people that it stars Martin Short and ‘a bunch of other people.’ But there’s still that solitary image of Marty in the ads. And that’s part of the show — it sends up his fame.”