"You're very bossy tonight, Tovah," Tony winner Andrea Martin scolds four-time nominee and host Tovah Feldshuh. Martin is tucked into the stage-left corner of NYU's vast Skirball Center where she is one of three celebrity judges of the Seventh Annual Broadway Beauty Pageant crowning this year's "Mr. Broadway" from a batch of very talented supporting members of hit shows currently on the boards.
In addition to being bossy, Feldshuh is also raunchy, filling some of the evening's ample vamp time with a joke so filthy only its set-up – "A blind guy walks into Don't Tell Mama" – can be repeated here. But it is Martin, who repeats that set-up whenever she can get her hands on the mic, who milks the gag for all it’s worth. And while nobody’s calling Mr. Broadway a Tony bellwether, Martin and her fellow judges – Billy Porter from “Kinky Boots” and Michael Urie from “Ugly Betty” – are all hot off wins from another theater award show the previous night.
Martin, up for the featured actress Tony Award for her turn as the exiled mother of the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, stops the musical “Pippin” each night with her aerial act. But she also steers this evening in a more literary direction. “I couldn’t help but notice,” she grills Matthew Goodrich from “The Nance,” “your bio says you are the avid reader of the first fifty pages of many books.” Martin cocks a brow and asks if he’s finished any good books lately.
“My favorite book is William Goldman’s The Season,” Goodrich replies. “It’s all about Broadway.” Goodrich just collapsed in a tangle of cowboy boots and inside-out Levis during a country-tinged striptease before reciting a monologue from William Inge’s Bus Stop. He has nothing left to lose. “I also recently finished Lew Stadlin’s memoir, Acting Foolish,” Goodrich continues. “He’s in The Nance with me and gave it to everyone as an opening night gift.”
“Ahhhhh,” Martin sighs into the mic, pleased with his answer. After the show, Martin explains she also played opposite Stadlin as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s precursor to the hit musical titled “The Matchmaker.” When asked for favorite reading titles of her own, she glazes over for comic effect, but it comes as no surprise that the woman who’s played everything from Sesame Street’s word fairy Wanda Falbo to the voice of Beverly Clearly superstar Ellen Tebbits would dip back into that market for her favorite: Little Women.
Was there a part for her in the Broadway musical version that closed after only 137 performances? With a little gender-bending, Martin says she could play the German professor who falls for Jo and even sings a gender apropos version of her Frau Blucher solo "He Vas My Boyfriend” from the Broadway musical of “Young Frankenstein.” “Stranger things have happened,” Martin laughs. “I mean, people are falling over balconies and out windows!”
She is, of course, referring to an unfortunate theater patron who tumbled from French doors and landed on the marquee at “The Nance” during the previous day’s matinee, but it’s also been a season marred by another patron vomiting over the mezzanine balcony into prime orchestra seating during the Tony-nominated play “Grace.” Still another, this one a writer for The National Review, recently hurled someone’s cellphone across the theater when she wouldn’t stop texting during the award-wining “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.”
But if audiences are off the rails this season, perhaps theater is as well, at least where literary adaptation is concerned. Have we mentioned that “Natasha et al” is an almost-three-hour, vodka-fueled rock opera of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Or that “Matilda,” first introduced in the 1988 children’s book by Roald Dahl, snagged thirteen Tony nominations including best musical after it was brought across the pond by the Royal Shakespeare Company?
Or that Tom Hanks’ Broadway debut as Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News journo Mike McAlary nabbed him a best actor nod in the play “Lucky Guy” marking the final work of the late Nora Ephron? Or that Ephron is joined by fellow novelist Colm Tóibín in the best play category with his own adaptation of his short novel The Testament of Mary, posting closing notices the same week it nabbed three nominations? Or that playwrights even took the stage this season when Tony-winning “August: Osage County” author Tracey Letts turned in a bourbon-soaked George in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and wound up with a best actor nom for his troubles?
“I’m in a play about a book,” Michael Urie, who’s been waiting patiently, offers of his one-man show “Buyer & Cellar,” which sprung from the mind of “Twilight of the Golds” scribe Jonathan Tolins after spending too much time with Barbra Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book My Passion for Design. “But that’s off-Broadway,” Martin interrupts, rehashing her familiar pageant refrain about the offs and the off-nots until she is reminded of receiving the same award in the same category for her one-woman show quite near where Urie renders his underground mall employee beneath Streisand’s Malibu complex nightly. “And that was over fifteen years ago,” “Kinky Boots” best actor nominee Billy Porter cracks of Martin’s off-Broadway moment. “All right, all right fellas,” Martin relents. “We’re all winners here.”