NEW YORK – Andrea Martin has never shied away from difficult work.
In a stage and screen career that dates to 1970, the Portland native has kept herself busy, winning both Tony and Emmy awards for her work on Broadway and in Hollywood, most recently this past June when she picked up her second career Tony for her work in the hit musical “Pippin.”
She has taken a one-woman show across North America, impersonated Barbra Streisand, starred in the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” done voice work on “The Simpsons” and portrayed Ishka on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
But in her 40-plus years in show business, Martin had never sung upside down or worked the trapeze until she teamed up with director Diane Paulus for the revival of “Pippin.” The show, which Paulus has reimagined with a circus theme, is a major Broadway hit.
The coming-of-age musical about a boy who would be king combines song and dance with a high-wire circus act, and the 66-year-old Martin has placed herself in the middle of the most exciting action.
The adventurous actress, singer and comedian plays Pippin’s loving grandmother, Berthe. The 1965 Deering High School graduate garners the biggest ovation every night at Broadway’s Music Box theater for her one song, the uplifting audience sing-along “No Time at All.”
She also draws the most gasps.
As she launches into her song, she sheds her matronly robe to reveal a sexy, skintight leotard, then hoists herself onto the trapeze and sings much of the song from high above the stage. At one point, the professional acrobat who accompanies her, the very buff 25-year-old Yannick Thomas, turns her head over heels and holds her by her ankles before passing her down to the safety of actors on stage.
There are no wires, no safety nets, no harnesses.
She sings right through the sequence, never missing a beat. The audience goes nuts. It’s such a special moment, the show’s producers don’t want to ruin the surprise by releasing photos or videos of her performance.
“I’m really not nervous. I don’t think about it. I think about being a character,” she said during an interview at the Times Square restaurant Sardi’s, where caricatures of the world’s best-known stars adorn the walls.
In a sign of her illustrious career, Martin is about to get her own caricature at Sardi’s. It’s Broadway’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The illustration is finished; Sardi’s is just waiting for the right time to ceremoniously place it on the wall.
“I’m not sure where it’s going to go,” Martin said, glancing at the wall above her table. “But I’m sure it’s going to be nice.”
DESTINED TO BE AN ACTRESS
For as long as she can remember, Martin has wanted to act. Born in Portland, she took acting and dancing classes there, got involved with the Children’s Theatre of Maine, and took roles at regional theaters across southern Maine as soon as she was good enough to land them.
Martin credits her upbringing in Maine with sparking her desire to act. She took advantage of the opportunities in Portland and elsewhere. She said she didn’t have to dream of being an actress, because she knew that was what she was going to do.
She didn’t know how, where or when. She knew only that she would.
“I never had goals of coming to Broadway, because I didn’t really know what it was,” she said. “But I did know I wanted to act, for sure. I just didn’t know what that meant. I knew in the moment I was going to play the fairy godmother, and then I was going to play Nancy Twinkle. But I didn’t know what it meant in terms of a career. I didn’t know how it could parlay into a career.”
Martin left Maine when she enrolled at Emerson College in Boston. After Emerson, she moved to New York and began her career with the touring company of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Soon after, she moved to Toronto. She played Robin in a Canadian production of “Godspell” with Gilda Radner and Martin Short in 1972, and shortly after joined the legendary sketch comedy TV show “SCTV.”
She’s been working steadily ever since — in theater, on television and on film.
Her father was John Martin, of Maine restaurant fame. She came from a tight-knit Armenian family, and still vacations with her brother Peter, sister Marcia and their spouses.
Almost every summer, the family books a week or two somewhere in Maine to keep the family bonds strong. Last year, it was Acadia National Park. The year before, they vacationed on Peaks Island.
Martin returns to Portland as often as she can, and professes a love for the city that is genuine and deep. She knows the city’s best restaurants, and stays in touch with the community through friends and family.
“I have exquisite memories of growing up in Maine,” she said. “You can’t take that away from me.”
MORE THAN A SHOWSTOPPER
As successful as she has been in the past, Martin’s role in “Pippin” may provide her career-defining moment.
The New York Daily News wrote, “In a perfect theatrical storm of actress, song and staging, Martin turns (composer Stephen) Schwartz’s gently insistent and joyful song ‘No Time at All’ into more than a showstopper. It’s a season-topper.” Bloomberg News called her song the high point of the show, and said she proved herself “as limber and adept as her very young male partner.”
Her brother, Peter Martin, who lives in Winslow, came from Maine to see “Pippin” in June. In Maine, Peter Martin is known as an influential lobbyist, a key player in the Oxford Casino deal. But in the pecking order of life, he is Andrea Martin’s younger brother.
He couldn’t believe what he saw from his big sister in “Pippin.”
“My jaw dropped when I saw Andrea’s performance,” he said. “I knew bits and pieces of what she was going to do. But she was cautious about talking about it. She didn’t want people to have over-expectations about that role.
“I’ll admit, I was a little concerned about her safety. I thought it was extremely physical what she was doing, with no formal training. I was very impressed. I was on the edge of my seat as she was doing the performance.”
He let out a happy exhale when the song came to an end.
The actress smiled at the story.
The move from sitting on the trapeze bar to being suspended by her ankles while singing is difficult, she admitted.
“And a couple of times I have panicked,” she said. “But Yannick is always there. I have never fallen. We trust each other. He is so lovely. He says, ‘I feel now we are a team. I used to feel your nervousness, and now I know you are trusting me.’ “
In June, Martin’s work in “Pippin” won her a second Tony Award, for best featured actress in a musical. She won her first in 1992 for “My Favorite Year.”
“Pippin” is selling out every night, and Martin couldn’t be happier. “I’m loving every minute of it,” she said. “I’m having the time of my life.”
Which makes it all the more surprising that she seems to be leaning toward leaving the musical.
Her contract is up at the end of September, and Martin is obliged to let producers know her plans by the end of August.
She insists she has not made up her mind. But in an hour-long conversation, she said it has been her history to leave a show on top. Including the time she spent workshopping, rehearsing and opening “Pippin” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., last winter, she will have played the role for about a year.
That’s long enough, she said.
“The longest I have ever stayed in a show is nine months,” she said. “I like to be continually good, and I think after a while, audiences change. They give you different reactions. I don’t want this to end where I am bored walking through it, or being angry because the audience isn’t robust.
“I want to end on a good note. At my age, I want to experience more. I don’t need to stay in a show a long time. There are other people who like the security of it. They really love it. They can stay in a show for two years, three years. It’s just never been my thing.
“I really like doing it, being really good in it for a short period of time and then moving on to something else.”
NEXT STOP MAY BE LOS ANGELES
In Martin’s case, moving on likely means going to Los Angeles. She lives in New York and has a home in Toronto. Her two sons live in L.A., and she has asked her agent to find work for her on the West Coast.
If the right job comes her way, she’s likely gone. That means Mainers who want to see Martin in “Pippin” should act quickly. And they also should note that she is on vacation Aug. 18-24. “So tell them not to come down then,” she said with a wink.
The Tony may help her land her next gig. It certainly has brought attention. She was delighted to receive her award from another Mainer, 27-year-old actress Anna Kendrick. As they walked off stage together, Martin whispered to Kendrick, “We went to the same high school!”
Mostly, the Tony brings recognition for a job well done.
“The Tony itself didn’t give me a sense of satisfaction. Doing this role nightly gives me a sense of satisfaction,” she said. “I come out after the show and women will stop me and say, ‘You’ve motivated me’ or ‘You’re inspiring.’ That I can touch people, and that people are moved by it, is what means more to me.
“But, of course, the Tony is icing on the cake, and it’s delicious to have a Tony Award and have my peers really be respectful of my work. It’s beautiful to have, and I’m proud of it. But really, the satisfaction comes from the people I work with and doing the show nightly.”
She almost didn’t accept the role.
When she first learned that Paulus was curious about casting her in “Pippin,” Martin wasn’t interested. She knew the part, and had sung “No Time at All” at a benefit honoring Schwartz. But she knew the role as a silver-haired grandmother who makes her entrance in a wheelchair. That’s how Berthe was played when the show opened in 1972.
Martin wanted no part of that. Through her agent, she told Paulus no thanks — unless the director was willing to give Martin the leeway to reinterpret the role to fit the circus-act theme.
Paulus said yes.
“What Andrea does on the trapeze is remarkable, but what makes it so meaningful is that it comes from her passion for the character, and for the story she wants to tell as Berthe,” Paulus said in an email. “Andrea’s commitment to the story of ‘Pippin’ and the meaning of Berthe’s message in the context of our production are what have made her performance so breathtaking and memorable.”
Martin insists she wasn’t being pushy about her insistence. She just had a clear idea of how she wanted to play the role, which was as a robust older woman with secrets to share with her grandson. In the song, she sings, “I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young ’til I die.”
She lives with that attitude in her off-stage life, and wanted to make that point not only to her grandson on stage, but to the audience.
“Now, I’ve known the fears of 66 years,” goes the song. “I’ve had troubles and tears by the score. But the only thing I’d trade them for is 67 more.”
It was she who told Paulus she wanted to take to the high-wire.
“I said, ‘If I sign on, I really want to do acrobatics. I’ve loved the circus all my life, and that’s one of the reasons that I want to do it. If your concept is that everyone in the show is a player in the circus, then that’s what I think Berthe should be also.”‘
She trained with a cirque troupe, strengthened her core muscles and upper body, and did all the work necessary to do a traditional trapeze act. Most important, over time she learned to became fearless.
“I said, ‘As long as it looks authentic, as long as it looks like I could do it so people who see it could believe I was an acrobat, then I will learn it.’ “
It’s been among the hardest roles she has ever done, and also one of the most rewarding.
Paulus, who also won a Tony for her direction, calls Martin’s performance the epitome of the show. The musical is about living life fully, taking risks and not being afraid of failure. That’s Martin, Paulus said.
“Andrea Martin does not live on the sidelines,” she said. “She jumps in, takes the dive, and lives fully.”
CHALLENGE AND FUN OF THEATER
Theater is Martin’s first love, and where she returns to most frequently.
She loves the ritual of theater. She loves the schedule. She appreciates the discipline required to do it well.
Mostly, she appreciates the opportunity to seize the moment each night and grow into a role. Movies are a one-shot deal. Television allows some dexterity, especially a continuing series.
But theater is fresh every night.
“Theater is hard work,” she said. “I’ll tell you what’s hard about it — keeping yourself healthy. This isn’t a demanding vocal role, but I’ve been in shows where I had to sing much more than this. You are constantly worried about losing your voice, so you have to have great physical stamina to do it, and you have to have some skill.
“People feel they can just come step right in. Movie stars or television stars want to feel the cache of doing a theater piece, so they call their agents and say, ‘Get me lined up in a play.’ And Broadway, which wants to sell tickets, is happy to put a movie star on stage. But oftentimes, they’ve had no experience and it’s a whole different skill set, having to project to the last row of the audience. And by project, I don’t mean volume. I mean reaching them.
“That’s the big difference between film and theater,” she said. “With film, you have to do very little. It’s all in your eyes. The camera picks up everything you are thinking. In the theater, your whole body has to reach the last row.”
That is certainly true of her role in “Pippin.” There is no going through the motions when she’s up on the trapeze, suspended by the ankles, reaching the audience at the very back of the balcony and imploring them to join her on the chorus.
It’s pure entertainment, at its very best — fun, exciting, risky and rewarding.
She works hard at it every night.
When she is in New York, Martin lives at 106th and Broadway, and rides her bicycle 60 blocks to and from the theater most nights.
There is no need for a limo for this girl from Portland.
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: