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Young Frankenstein

It's alive! Mel Brooks' wickedly funny twist on Mary Shelley's classic story.

Andrea Martin

Comedically speaking, there's nothing Andrea Martin can't do. Her priceless characterizations on six seasons of the classic sketch comedy series SCTV included a range of brassy and mousy dames, notably TV station manager Edith Prickley, Lorna Minnelli and Perini Scleroso. It would have been easy, after SCTV, for this hugely talented star to carve a niche as a comic character actress on TV and stay there. Luckily for theater fans, Martin wanted more—and she's spent that last 15 years since winning a Tony for her Broadway debut performance in My Favorite Year mixing it up in classic musicals on Broadway Candide, Oklahoma! Fiddler on the Roof and juicy dramatic roles out of town The Matchmaker, The Rose Tattoo. Now, as Frau Blucher—neigh after you say it!—in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, she's delighting audiences in a role that's a perfect fit for her musical comedy expertise. In conversation, the soft-spoken Martin is thoughtful and articulate, yet modest about her achievements.

How does it feel to steal the show every night in Young Frankenstein?
Oh, I certainly don't feel that! I really don't. I wish I did. It's an ensemble piece. But I'm having a ball.

You've been in several big shows in big Broadway theaters, but this one must feel gigantic.
It doesn't feel that big, strangely enough. The Gershwin felt much, much bigger to me than this theater. Whoa! That was huge. The Oklahoma! set was beautifully minimalistic, so I felt I had to fill the stage. These [Young Frankenstein] sets are like our own world, and we feel very supported in them. After all, the show takes place in a castle, and castles are big. It feels like the right proportion.

What's fun for you about playing Frau Blucher?
There's a clichéd, stereotypical housekeeper in all the horror films, so I kind of grouped them all together and put my comic spin on it. What's fun is the familiarity the audiences have with that kind of character combined with my specific take on it.

You never felt were walking a tightrope in playing a role so well known from the movie?
I never, ever felt that. I'm not a very good mimic—contrary to all the years I spent on SCTV. I'm not very good at looking at something and then copying it. Yes, I know that the movie existed, but for me, it was less about specific characters in Young Frankenstein and more about the generic characters in horror films that I was drawing from. It didn't feel like an albatross around my neck at all.

Were you surprised that the reviews were not totally glowing?
You know, I honestly don't read anything. I won't even read anything 12 years from now. I made the mistake of doing that one time in my life and after 12 years I was depressed, so [reading reviews] just doesn't work for me. If they're good, they're not good enough and if they're bad, they're devastating. Look, the audiences love it. We're talking about a very small group of [critics] compared to the thousands who come every night.

What was Mel Brooks like in the rehearsal process? Was it easy to have him around?
It was very easy for me because we come from the same world. He's used to sitting around with a group of writers collaborating, throwing out 10 jokes and keeping one, and not personalizing it if a joke doesn't work. I'm used to that from SCTV, so our backgrounds were very similar. He obviously has had much more experience than I have as a writer and director and producer, but our way of improvising is very similar. It was a familiar and fun atmosphere for me, and to be able to work with Mel Brooks is, for a comedic actress, a dream come true.

Could [director] Susan Stroman say no to him?
They have a beautiful relationship that's quite discreet. Maybe in meetings away from us she might have put her foot down, but I never, ever saw any verbal wars between them. They've worked together for a very long time and I think they have a shorthand in talking with one another.

How does a show like this compare with a classic like Oklahoma! or Fiddler on the Roof? Is one easier than the other?
I find comedy much, much harder to do. Oklahoma! was very satisfying because it wasn't built around laughs. When you do sketch comedy or a Mel Brooks play, the laughs are built in—a line is written so you get a laugh. In Oklahoma! it was less about that and more about delving into the history of the characters and the relationships and telling the story. I didn't leave at night thinking, "Oh god, how am I going to get that laugh back?" This show is kind of like a science experiment every night for me. It's like, "Okay, well that didn't work. Am I asking for the laugh? Am I waiting for it? Is my body different? Is the timing different?" Both bring their challenges.

You indicated in a video interview that you've deliberately not been doing a lot of comedy, and it made me wonder why you would turn away from something you're a master at.
Well, thank you for that. You know, I guess I just had more fish to fry. That's why I did my one-woman show [Nude, Nude, Totally Nude in 1996]. I wanted to prove to myself that I was enough, standing out there by myself without a group of people, without a lot of costumes and props. If you talk to Marty Short or Eugene Levy, they'd say they have no desire to do Long Day's Journey Into Night. They love what they're doing and they want to be a master at it. But I wanted to do The Rose Tattoo; I wanted to do The Matchmaker. I want to do Shakespeare. And I knew that if continued on the comedy path I was on, I would never be given the opportunity. I had to stop doing what people were familiar with and try to pave another arena. This was my personal quest. No one would do it for me.

You mentioned Long Day's Journey. Would you want to play Mary Tyrone?
I don't think I'd be right for that, but I loved doing Tennessee Williams, and I'd love to do Noel Coward—something with a comedic flair but maybe not as presentational. I'd love do an Arthur Miller piece. I'd love to do Plaza Suite. There are plays out there that have comedy to them but they're not necessarily as broad as this.

A lot of mainstream comedic writers seem to have moved to television rather than the theater. Paul Rudnick and Charles Busch are two exceptions.
I'd have to think about that, because I know that there are contemporary plays out there. But I agree with you, there are beautiful one-hour pieces [on TV]. I love Brothers & Sisters. I think Sally Field is using all of her gifts as a comedic and dramatic actress. She's getting to do it all. Calista Flockhart also. That's a good example of a dramedy, I guess they call them.

Is there anything left for you to learn about comedy?
[Long pause.] Yeah. I don't quite know how to do the same thing every night and get the same laughs. When I played Sybil in Private Lives with Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford, I would look at them from the wings and see them get exactly the same laughs every night. And when I worked with Nathan Lane in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, I saw that mastery also. He's a really close friend of mine; I saw The Producers seven times, and his performance, from an audience point of view, never wavered. The technique he used kept him buoyant and consistent and elicited the same response every time. I would love to have that mastery, and I don't think I have it. There's something to learn all the time. I look at Catherine O'Hara in those beautiful Chris Guest movies and I just think what a master she is. And Eugene Levy, the subtlety with which they do that comedy and the trust they have in their own ability. I would have loved to work with Gwen Verdon or Dorothy Loudon. There are certainly masters out there that I could learn from.

Is it fair to say that in the past few years you haven't pursued commercial film roles, the kinds of things that keep actors famous, in order to concentrate on theater?
I don't think that it was ever a consideration for me—trying to be famous. That was never a goal of mine. Never! Not in my life did I ever think, "Hmm, what job can make me famous?" No. That's a daaangerous place to go [laughs]. If a great part had come along in a movie, I'm sure I would have done it. And when great parts have come along, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I love doing them. I've learned that [film success is] about timing, and it's about luck. I've concentrated on theater because that's where the work has been. If someone asked me to do great part on Showtime or HBO, I'd love to do it.

There's a fascinating website devoted to the all-star production of Godspell you were part of in Toronto in 1972. What are your memories of that?
I only have wonderful memories of it. It makes my heart soar. Look at all those people: Paul Shaffer and Victor Garber, who is one of my dearest friends. Marty [Short], of course, and Dave Thomas and Eugene [Levy], and Gilda [Radner], who is not with us. Those are all still my good friends. That's pretty miraculous, isn't it, that we started out together and we're all very close? That doesn't happen very often. I was a young girl starting out, with not any particular talent except an enormous amount of energy and personality, and I've been able to have a career. I don't know how the hell I did it! I don't think I'd get a job if I had to compete with the talent these kids have to have today. It's like a skater: I knew how to skate backward and forward in the 1970s, and now they do triple salchows or whatever they're called.

The website includes an anecdote from Paul Shaffer, who claims that you were walking down the street one day with the guys and pulled your top up and said, "You've all seen these, right?" True story?
It was the 70s, so I'm sure I did it [laughs]. I'm not going to say I didn't. But I have no memory of that. The beauty of getting older is that, one, I don't have any memory of anything, and two, I don't give a shit anymore what people think of me.

Have you kept in touch with Stephen Schwartz? You must have turned down the part of Madame Morrible in Wicked 100 times.
When they were putting [Wicked] together, I did speak with them, yes, but for a few reasons, it didn't come to fruition. I did a benefit in L.A. with all of Stephen Schwartz's music and that was lovely. I sang "No Time at All" from Pippin.

Would you agree that SCTV was better than early Saturday Night Live?
I've heard people say that, but honestly, without being a cop-out, I don't think it's for me to make that judgment. I found early Saturday Night Live breathtaking, with Gilda and Bill Murray and Jane Curtin. We were doing a whole different thing. We didn't have a live audience; we worked seven days a week and did film parodies, so it was really different. I thought we were both doing great work.

You are so diplomatic!
It's the truth. I'd tell you if I thought differently.

Who was the funniest person in the cast of SCTV other than you?
Jeepers! That's an unfair question, and I'm not going to answer it [laughs]. How's that for being diplomatic? I can tell you the person I worked with the most, and that's Catherine O'Hara, but if you look at everybody's career, you can say that everybody was pretty damn funny. They've all done really well.

Was anybody in the cast dating, as a lot of the early SNL folks apparently did?
Let me think about that. I was dating the brother of Marty [Short's] wife [Nancy Dolman], and I married him. I met him through Godspell. Everybody else was married. That's the one thing about SCTV—sadly, there's no dish. We were isolated in Edmonton, far away from the media, and it was just about turning out material. We weren't competitive. That's what kept us sane, I think that's why we're all friends today.

People must think you're Canadian. [Martin was born and raised in Maine and attended Emerson College in Boston.]
They do think I'm a Canadian. I was married to a Canadian, and my kids are dual citizens. I love Canada. I had a house there for many, many years. I just got off the phone with my sister, who's there, and one of my sons is up there. My other son got his master's degree from the University of Toronto. I worked half the year in Canada two years ago, so I'm very connected; I consider it my second home.

What are your kids up to now?
My younger son is in Toronto. He majored in philosophy at Kenyon and is working in the restaurant business. My older boy went to Vassar and is working in finance in L.A. They're both doing just great.

You're settled in New York now, right? What is your life like?
Yes, I sold my house in L.A. My life right now is about not doing much during the day so I can keep my energy up for doing the show. I see friends, and I'm involved with charities. I'm Armenian, and I do a lot of work with the Children of Armenia Fund and with New York Cares. One of the best things about doing a Broadway show and having some success is that people want you to do charitable work. That balances my life.

You had a big birthday last January [Martin turned 60]. Was it traumatic?
It would have been traumatic if I'd been conscious, but I tried not to think about it all day [laughs]. At the last possible moment, I called six friends and said, "You wanna have dinner?" So that's how I celebrated it.

How do you stay in such good shape?
I work out, but so much of it is your genes, My mom was very youthful, god bless her, until she died at age 69, of cancer. Only nine years older than I am; it's shattering when I think about that. She had the energy of a 25-year-old and died much too young. It's my Armenian genes, and I think a lot of it is my attitude. I ride my bike everywhere in New York, to work and back—every place.

Do you have a favorite stage role?
Well, I loved playing Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! for a variety of reasons. It was the first time I had been in a show that wasn't strictly comedic. That was very satisfying, and I loved the part. She was so grounded; in some ways I thought she was the heartbeat of the show even through she was certainly a secondary character. Being around all the young people in the cast was very gratifying. I loved their energy and, in turn, could give them my maternal experience. I made a lot of friends in that company and they're still my friends today. I loved playing Serafina Delle Rose in The Rose Tattoo at the Huntington [Theater in Boston]. And I love this part! It's so much fun and so challenging to go out there and try to hit my mark and make sure it gets laughs and is full. It's very challenging to do this.

The Young Frankenstein cast is filled with Tony-winning stars. Is everyone getting along?
Yes, we are. I'm sorry I'm not better with dish, but I have to say that everybody gets along. Have you ever talked to anybody who said, "We don't get along"?

Not on the record!
[Laughs.] Well, on and off the record, everybody gets along. Maybe it's because everyone in this company is quite successful. Maybe the reason they're all successful is that they're all good people.

See Andrea Martin in Young Frankenstein at the Hilton Theatre.

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