A Dizzy Design Is The Spark That Stes Off The Laughs In Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me
Fame Becomes Me packs a whole lot of Martin Short into a rapid-fire 95 minutes of musical comedy revue. There's Martin Short, the grounded, good-natured Canadian comic, who is awed to be entertaining audiences from the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (whose unromantic name, changed from the Royale last year, gives rise to jokes). Then there is the alternate Martin Short, a notorious, egomaniacal bad boy, the terror of Studio 54, whom the real Short invents when he fears his own happily-married-with-three-children autobiography lacks the spice of life for our tabloid-tormented times. From here, all the other Shorts come tumbling out, notably his popular SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and Comedy Central characters, including tubby celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick, who interrogates a surprise guest during the course of each show. And that's not to mention Short's crack team of “Comedy All-Stars,” five in all, a roster that incorporates the show's piano-playing composer, Marc Shaiman, whose backside-baring appearance in a hospital gown during one sketch is surely a first for the Tony-, Grammy-, and Emmy-winning tunesmith.
With 23 musical numbers, and what appear to be twice as many costume and scenery changes and abundant lighting and audio cues, the skit-filled Fame Becomes Me is fleshed out by its “Design All-Stars.” These are a pair of Tony winners, scenic designer Scott Pask (The Pillowman) and Jess Goldstein (The Rivals), who, before the laurels, were student and teacher, respectively, at the Yale School of Drama; lighting designer Chris Lee, in his first big Broadway show (he knows something of the naked truth, having illuminated the Broadway Bares AIDS charity events for years); and sound designer Peter Hylenski, who most recently worked with Pask on another splashy musical comedy, The Wedding Singer. Wig designer Charles LaPointe, makeup designer Angelina Avallone, and prosthetics designer Kevin Haney also deserve mention for their quick-change artistry. All have to keep on their toes, as the show, directed and co-conceived by its co-lyricist, Scott Wittman, evolved constantly from workshops nearly two years ago to prior engagements in San Francisco, Toronto, and Chicago, before its August opening on Broadway. “Our arrival in New York was the first time we did the same show twice,” says Lee.
Much of the team was assembled during the workshops, when one embryonic concept was to have the show take place in a facsimile of Short's Los Angeles living room, from which he puts on skits for friends and family during the Christmas holidays. “The show was presented to a select audience to gauge its reaction,” Hylenski recalls. “There were significant changes to the show script-wise, which, of course, led to changes for us. I'd say we probably have as many cues that were removed from the show as are currently in. But a comedy show like this breaks all the straightforward rules.”
“I watched the workshops through fits of hysteria, just laughing,” says Pask. “It was great fun. I knew we needed something flexible to accommodate new material that would come in, so I developed this idea of a little toy theatre and these handmade drops that come in for a cartoon-like quality, like something from the 50s.” The drop designs, for numbers that encompass a nursery, a hospital, and Times Square among other locations, were “sketched on quiet weekends” and painted by Scenic Art Studios; scenery and scenic effects were built and electrified by PRG Scenic Technologies, Showman Fabricators, and Cigar Box Studios, with show control via PRG's Stage Command Systems. “The ‘box’ that the show takes place in, which transforms into these dimensional portals, is its own pristine world, a la Louis Vuitton — it's colored by this exaggerated logo, a coat of arms that we use as the Short family crest. Scott wanted the box to look very elegant and be in a very light color, so that it would take light and change with the scale and tone of each new number.”
Pask worked in tandem with his former instructor, who “shares the same sense of humor,” on some of the numbers, which contain numerous impersonations and a grab-bag of references to shows past and present, right down to a replication of Ken Billington's Chicago lighting for a Bob Fosse sketch. “The free-rolling bassinets in the ‘Babies’ number [an homage to the ‘Triplets’ showstopper from the 1953 musical classic The Band Wagon] are props that Jess' bonnet-and-pajama-top costumes basically pop up out from.” The key to working on the show, Goldstein says, was not getting too attached to concepts that were destined to die in infancy. “You had to separate what was essential to what was a passing fancy for a week or two. It changed a lot — no one was afraid to make big changes, which is quite a bit different from productions where everyone is reluctant to do so — and finally lost the intermission when we got to New York. Much of what I had to do came from the actors as the show took shape; when Mary Birdsong said, ‘I can do Jodie Foster,’ suddenly we'd need a costume for Jodie Foster. The costumes grew through the performers and the music.”
There are about 70 costumes in all, ranging from off-the-rack wear to a talking fence costume for a Wizard of Oz parody, to elaborate angel wings when the show gravitates to the hereafter. The star, who the designer describes as “so trusting and fun to work with,” brought some of his own clothes from the attic. “Marty had an Ed Grimley shirt that we had to duplicate, then redo, for rigging, and we did new padding for Jiminy, but those characters are sacred,” Goldstein says, adding that Glick got a surprising makeover. “Jiminy's face is actually a prosthetic head, with holes for Marty's eyes and mouth, and a new wig added on top. We go through one per week. I never thought Marty would want to deal with wearing a whole head, and the mask had a hard time adhering to his face during the early August heatwave, but it works pretty well.”
To keep the show at full gallop, Short wears several layers of costuming at a time. “They're just stacked up on him,” Goldstein says. “He has seconds, barely, to change from one thing to the next. On TV, he can just be Velcroed into things, but here, so as not to give things away, we have to use zippers and hide a lot of it.”
“One of the biggest issues we had to overcome was keeping a mic on these performers as they ran around, changed wigs and costumes, and sweated buckets,” says Hylenski. “It takes two incredible people backstage maintaining the microphones, like a crew on a Formula 1 car. As soon as a character runs offstage, they attack them with towels and canned air to dry the mic elements and reposition them.”
The sound effects were constructed along with the show. “Each day, I would build new effects and cut others based on script revisions,” Hylenski says. “I carry a small [Digidesign] ProTools LE MBox rig with me, and my personal sound effects library. As an idea strikes the director, he can just ask for a cue, and I throw the headphones on and go to work. Within a few minutes, he can hear a rough version, and we finesse it with the action onstage. The sounds for the show are really quite varied, like voice recordings for mock award show announcers. The creative part was taking each of the effects in the show and giving them their own personality through the layering of sounds and reverb.”
The designer had to reconfigure the audio system for each stop on the mini-tour, noting that Toronto's Canon Theatre was twice the size of the Jacobs. “As for the reinforcement, the most significant difference between a comedy like this and a traditional musical is the audience response,” Hylenski says. “Even in Marty's monologues, the level of the show needs to be loud enough that you don't miss a line, what with the audience laughter surrounding you. At the same time, we tried to maintain some semblance of intimacy.” PRG-supplied equipment includes a combination of Sennheiser SK-50 and SK-5012 transmitters with EM3532 receivers. The elements used on the radios were DPA 4061 and Sennheiser MKE-Platinum. For loudspeakers, the band system was based on Meyer MSL-2s with Martin WS-2A dual 15" subwoofers fed into a Cadac J-Type mixing console. The vocal system was built from d&b Q10s, while fills and delays are d&b E-3s with some Meyer UPJs. Systems processing is handled by Lake Mesa and Contour units, with d&b D12 and Camco Vortex 6 for amplification; a redundant set of LCS LX-300 frames for sound effect playback and routing via Wildtracks; and outboard processing that includes reverb by TC Electronic and gates and compressors by Drawmer and Universal Audio. system processing handled by Lake Mesa and Contour units; d&b D12 and Camco Vortex 6 amplification; a redundant set of LCS LX-300 frames providing sound effect playback and routing via Wildtracks; and outboard processing that includes reverb by TC Electronic and gates and compressors by Drawmer and Universal Audio.
Most of the sound effects, says Hylenski, are about “emphasizing the almost comic strip nature of the show, its stylized version of reality.” The same holds true for the lighting, achieved with a versatile Vari-Lite rig and programmed by Rich Tyndall on a Virtuoso console, also supplied by PRG. “The lighting had to go from super-saturated color in one look to a tight focus on the monogrammed curtain in the next, then explode open to catch all the performers who had just entered the space. It had to be fun and bouncy,” says Pask of his collaborative work with Lee.
“It's a followspot-heavy show, which allows for a lot of freedom. We kept the lighting very flexible on the road to fit in changes, like if a refrain moved to a different place in a song,” Lee says. “By New York, Rich and I knew the show very well and could add more specific cueing. I've worked with Vari-Lite for years, and their lighting — including VL2500 spots and washes, and VL3000s — saved us a lot of money. As soon as I know a show is going to be changing a lot, I think in terms of moving lights. The initial expense is a shock, but then you realize how much time you're going to save.”
Lee spent the time filling Pask's portal design with light. “The set was already built by the time I got onto the project, and of course, there was no room for lights, but Scott was great about fitting them in,” the designer says of the show, whose look he describes as a stage version of a TV variety program like Sonny and Cher. “When Marty's alone on stage, you don't want it to feel like this vast, solemn, black void of stage, so the right choice is to take the space down. But you have to pull it down without making it seem like you're not treating the set, then be able to blow it up quickly for a big, broad number. On a white set, full saturated color is almost your darkness, so we used as much color as possible. And given the whiteness — actually, an off-blue that appears as white — I got a lot of my color from the costumes, like a turquoise that matches Marty's shirt in one number, which surprised Jess when he saw it.” Dry ice and atmospheric haze are also employed to add to the show's many moods, like its heaven-set sketch…and, of course, there was the all-important “butt light” for Shaiman's big moment.
“They're just great folks to work with,” says Lee, whose next big-scale revue is a “straight Broadway Bares, Peep Show, destined for the refurbished Aladdin Casino & Resort in January 2008. “And Marty has such unbelievable energy. We'd be dead-tired after a week of tech, and he'd be bouncing around the stage.”
Robert Cashill blogs about entertainment at Between Productions (www.robertcashill.blogspot.com).