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The Martin chronicles

Theater | THEATER

It's the role of a lifetime. Martin Short's lifetime. Or at least a musical based on some lifetime. No True Confessions here -- he's flat-out taking liberties, and he's taking them to Broadway.

April 30, 2006|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

New York — LIKE an impish personification of the vintage Carly Simon ballad, Martin Short really, really doesn't have time for the pain.

But a deadline is looming, the lights of Broadway are beckoning, and he's gotta find some pain somewhere.

It's a search that has brought the actor-comedian to his knees in a Manhattan building in mid-April, withering in the lap of a consoling woman. "They don't like me!" he laments, referring to an audience that isn't there. "This is the new Broadway! At these prices, they want me to show my personal pain! But my truth is boring. My truth sucks."

Short, however, is not finding any sympathy from his designated comforter, actress Mary Birdsong. Or from the dozen others gathered in the room, who respond with admiring giggles.

They are his creative conspirators, helping him realize his Broadway-bound project, "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me," an original musical that brings Short's often offbeat comic stylings into a twisted take on the trend of soul-baring, one-person shows.

The musical opens May 9 at San Francisco's Curran Theatre, then stops in Toronto and Chicago before bowing on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Aug. 10.

The Canadian-born veteran of film and television is no stranger to the stage. Short won a best actor Tony in 1999 for his turn in the revival of the Cy Coleman-Neil Simon musical "Little Me." This time, he's returning to the Great White Way armed with not only additional theatrical mileage (he appeared in stage versions of "The Goodbye Girl" and "The Producers") but with major-league backing: Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, professionally reuniting for the first time since creating the smash stage version of "Hairspray."

Now that Short has decided he's ready to put his life story under the klieg lights, he has a slight problem: There's no scandal. No angst. No calamity followed by a shining, flying leap from the abyss. In fact, he's been happily married for almost 30 years. He has three untroubled children. He's rich.

But the show must go on. And because Short doesn't want to come up short, he arrives at the perfect solution -- he'll just make up stuff.

With its tuneful renditions of addictions, divorces, rehab, nervous breakdowns and professional catastrophes, the show could be subtitled "The "E! Not Very True Hollywood Story," complete with hoofers. The musical gives a wink at and an affectionately pointed nudge in the ribs of the genre of confessional solo shows like "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty" and Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays." Oh, and \o7this \f7"one-man show" has a cast of supporting performers, playing several characters who help Short bring his faux life to life.

"This show is a result of all the 'Access Hollywood' and all these things that just get in deep into the lives of people," says Short, relaxing with a club sandwich during a brief rehearsal break. "Isn't it enough to be a clown? How much personal information do we \o7really\f7 need to know? Can't the entertainment be enough?"

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Funny business

JUST a few weeks before the San Francisco opening, Short, who resides in Los Angeles, and company are hunkered down in an old rehearsal hall, meticulously attending to lines and dance steps. Like a thinner version of Laker Coach Phil Jackson managing the game from the sidelines, director Wittman, who co-wrote the lyrics with composer Shaiman, stalks the performers around the room, standing almost on top of them, adjusting moves, manipulating expressions, perpetually in retreat-and-approach mode.

Despite this attention to detail, the atmosphere is decidedly loose. In this room, Short is called "Marty" -- never Martin, and the familiarity is infectious. Joking around with his costars, he kids that actress Nicole Parker stuck her tongue down his throat during a brief kissing scene. The next minute, he launches into impromptu song. Later, he plops his arm affectionately around the accompanists. When Broadway vet Gary Beach ("The Producers") and environmentalist Laurie David, wife of "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Larry David, drop in for a visit, his face lights up.

Still, there's work to be done. Several new songs and elaborate production numbers need to be finessed. And there's no final script yet. Co-bookwriter Daniel Goldfarb flips through more than two dozen pages that have just been written the day before.

The stocky Shaiman, who has worked on more than 50 films and boasts in his stage biography that he has lost each of the five times he's been nominated for an Oscar, pauses to ponder the increasing pressure of putting together a show with a tight deadline and high scrutiny of its A-list pedigree.

"As a large Jew," he says with a deadpan grin, "those pressures will just have to get into line behind everything else."

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Behind the masks -- almost

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