HAIL TO THE QUEENS: Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, The Drowsy Chaperone, [title of show]

Just think: only six years ago, when Survivor premiered, reality TV was a novelty. Now it’s a prime-time genre that practically crowds out sitcoms and cop shows. Something similar has happened in theater, where musicals about musicals (most recent example: Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre) have taken over the field. What’s fascinating about the latest batch is that they all bring blinking into the spotlight a figure who usually thrives in the dark, posting anonymous theater gossip on Datalounge.com: the obsessive, opinionated musical theater queen (MTQ). 

Martin Short may not be technically gay – spilling the (mostly fabricated) story of his life in Fame Becomes Me, he never shuts up about his wife Nancy – but many of the characters he made famous on SCTV and Saturday Night Live were pretty damn queeny, and they all show up on Broadway. Jiminy Glick, his rotund purveyor of fatuous/insulting celebrity interviews, pulls people out of the audience and submits them to questions like “Where were you when the Queen had Diana killed?” The show is basically a glorified TV-special driven by day-old one-liners and been-there impersonations (Liza, Hepburn, Joan Rivers, etc.). But what boosts Short’s MTQ-rating is his collaboration with Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, the composers of Hairspray. Wittman’s direction and the duo’s songs whiz Short and his Comedy All-Stars through a battery of hip Broadway parodies, including Hair, Wicked, Elaine Stritch, and Tommy Tune (played by the hilarious Brooks Ashmanskas on stilts). The climactic number advises that if you want to have a hit, “Let a Big Black Lady Stop the Show,” which Capathia Jenkins proceeds to do, while pointing out that the show-stoppers tend to be written by “gay white Jews,” as Shaiman beams and waves from the piano.

Such postmodern hi-jinks also flourish in two other current shows-about- shows. In The Drowsy Chaperone (at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway), a character the program calls Man in Chair (that’s MTQ to you) cheers himself up by putting on the original cast album of a 1928 musical and giving us a running commentary as the show comes to life in his living room. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison’s score is a clever pastiche of period clichés, and Don McKellar’s story about a leading lady (the fabulous Sutton Foster) leaving the theater to get married is purposely less interesting than Man in Chair’s backchat about characters such as Trix (“an aviatrix – today we’d call her a lesbian”) and Latin lover Aldopho played by an alcoholic actor later found dead in his mansion chewed on by his poodles. Weirdly, the show was originally written as a wedding present for Bob Martin, the actor who plays Man in Chair to MTQ-perfection. 

The authors Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell are also onstage for [title of show] (at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre through October 1), in which they play themselves racing to write a new musical in three weeks to get into a musical theater festival. If The Drowsy Chaperone mixes “The Daily Show with No, No, Nanette” (as its out gay director Casey Nickolaw says), [title of show] is A Chorus Line meets Seinfeld, focusing on quirky, mundane, local details of musical theater life in New York. Bowen and Bell portray two very different kinds of MTQs – Jeff is cool and exacting, a Wonder Woman freak with a Chelsea-boy body, whereas Hunter is a pudgy, red-haired sexpot. The ultimate philosophy of the show gets stated in the finale (not by a big black lady) as “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing.” 

When A Chorus Line opened 30 years ago, it was an anomaly – a show about performers auditioning for a show not unlike the show you’re watching. Now that every other musical that comes down the pike – from The Producers to Spamalot – comments on or cannibalizes other musicals, will the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line (opening October 5) seem old-hat or fashionably in-synch?

The Advocate, October 10, 2006