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Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me

TV, film, and theater star Martin Short brings an old-style musical revue to Broadway. logo
Nicole Parker, Martin Short, and Mary Birdsong
in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me
(© Paul Kolnik)
Some say that the once popular television variety hour format has morphed into programs like American Idol, where viewers' hunger for songs and big yuks -- e.g., Simon Cowell subduing Paula Abdul -- is satisfied. This may be so, but an example of the original genre is now also available on Broadway in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, which contains about the same entertainment quotient as a so-so edition of the gone-but-not-forgotten Carol Burnett Show. All of the familiar ingredients are included: send-ups of TV programs, movies, and Broadway musicals; the second-banana contingent; the guest star who breaks up while trading lines with the headliner; a plethora of splashy sets, costumes, and exaggerated wigs.

There's another name for this kind of offering, one that only reckless Great White Way habitués will be heard to utter nowadays: "Revue." Yup, that's what the beloved comic Short has concocted with co-book writer Daniel Goldfarb, composer-lyricist-accompanist Marc Shaiman, director-lyricist Scott Wittman, additional material supplier (whatever that suggests) Alan Zweibel, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli.

It's unquestionably a revue that the creators are attempting to pass off as Short's send-up of one-person shows in which the celebrated soloist gleefully waxes autobiographical. Well, Short's schmoozers may be able to fool some of the people some of the time with the "comedy musical" tag, but they won't fool mavens who still remember a time when revues were revered. They're the ones who'll know that the song "Babies," which is just this side of puerile, is a contemporary rewrite of "Triplets" from The Band Wagon. Moreover, movie fans will recognize a Bob Fosse takeoff -- in which dancers try to emulate him while he's having a heart attack -- as having been borrowed from a venerable Leon Errol routine.

The mention of Fosse's angular terping style being satirized brings up a problem that frequently afflicts Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. Because this is a fictionalized version of the star's making-it-in-showbiz story, the backward glance entails spoofing some severely dated targets: Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz; '60s musicals like Hair and Godspell; Tommy Tune, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in their halcyon Cleopatra days; etc. In other words, this 90-minute piece covers ground that the above-mentioned Burnett trod at least 30 years ago. (For that matter, so did Short's establishing television series, SCTV.)

As Short's "life story" continues -- "Hate me for what I am" is his humorous wish -- the writers refer to the song "Getting Married Today" from Stephen Sondheim's Company and to Elaine Stritch's white-blouse-black tights-one stool reminiscence. But how many patrons to whom Short wants to appeal will recognize these allusions? They'll probably get something from "Stop the Show," in which 11 o'clock numbers featuring plump African-American women are jibed. It's one of the funnier ditties on offer, and it strongly suggests that Hairspray scorers Shaiman (who's at the on-stage piano) and Wittman had the most influential say as to what Short's outing would consist of. Interestingly, "Stop the Show" is positioned in the same place where "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," which kids Broadway's Jewish influences, is slotted in Spamalot.

But what about Short? Heavily lacquered when appearing as himself, this AA battery of a guy (has anyone ever noticed his resemblance to Marty Feldman?) is constantly on the go. By virtue of his persistence, he's intermittently effective. But even when cavorting like a house afire in front of Scott Pask's ever-shifting scenery, clad in Jess Goldstein's non-stop wardrobe, he can't slap tired material into vibrant life. He does bring the irresistible Ed Grimley back, but only for a minute or two. At a recent press performance, his best moments were when he did himself up in Jiminy Glick drag -- without quite completing the make-over -- and mock-interviewed guest Nathan Lane, who just happened to be in the audience. (A few years back The Play What I Wrote incorporated a similar conceit.) Always lightning-quick with an ad-lib, Lane slipped in several choice zingers, but Short outdid him.

Nevertheless, the star's greatest contribution here may be as a gracious presenter of talented colleagues; he not only shares the spotlight with others but sometimes turns it over to them completely. Capathia Jenkins, though she has little else to do, is handed the show-stopping "Stop the Show." In Brooks Ashmanskas, Short has found his own Harvey Korman. Ashmanskas has adorned many tuners reliably but without garnering much notice; here, he sings, tap-dances, plays piano, and mimics Bob Fosse with such aplomb that he all but steals the show. Mary Birdsong (who sings like a Garland bird in the Oz segment) and Nicole Parker fill the many women's roles. But as for Short, Fame doesn't fully become him.

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