'Pippin' Tony winner Andrea Martin talks trapeze, 'Greek Wedding'

Tony winner Andrea Martin, who plays Pippin's grandmother Tony winner Andrea Martin, who plays Pippin's grandmother Berthe in "Pippin." Photo Credit: Don Dixon

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When Andrea Martin accepted her Tony Award for "Pippin" earlier this month, she bounded to the stage with all the excitement of a kid who was just told she could go to the circus. An entirely appropriate response considering that, as Pippin's grandma, she performs her showstopping number "No Time at All" while hanging from a trapeze.

Though she's spent most of the past two decades working on the stage, Martin is still fondly remembered as part of the troupe of the 1970s sketch comedy series "Second City TV" and as Nia Vardalos' aunt with a passion for cooking lamb in the 2002 big-screen comedy "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Martin, 66, chatted with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo about "Pippin," her "SCTV" days and being called a "foxy granny."

 

Congratulations on your Tony win. Were you surprised?

There was some prediction that I might win, so it wasn't out of the blue. Having said that, when Terry Mann didn't win [for featured actor] and then lighting and costume didn't win, I turned to my son and said, "You know what, it's really OK whatever happens." The thing I was most nervous about was that I was not going to remember the people for whom I had enormous gratitude, and that's what you saw in my face.

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Was it your idea to have you perform on a trapeze in the show?

I knew that Diane's [director Diane Paulus'] concept was that everyone was a player in the circus. I'd never seen the show before, but I sensed that my character is singular in that you don't see her interact with the other characters. . . . I thought that the song could be a nostalgic piece, and at the same time it's inspiring, that she could look back on her own life to show her grandson time is wasting and then just kind of remember what life was like as a young circus performer. I wanted her act to be traditional, an act that you could have seen in a circus 40 years ago, not Cirque du Soleil.

 

Were you afraid when you were learning the trapeze?

I'm always frightened when we go up because I'm afraid of heights, which is ironic. I can't even put words to it because then it makes me more scared. I have to honestly surrender to the act of how the character Berthe fits into the show. I had to think so much about her loving being the young trapeze performer, and when she says, "Here's a secret I've never told, maybe you'll understand why I refuse to grow old, I want to stay young till I die," I have to really embrace those words and become that character, because if it's Andrea doing it, then I really am frightened.

The other thing with acrobatics is that the more confident you become, the more distracted you can become, and vice versa, when I'm really tired, it's hard to stay focused. There's no place for panic or distraction or second guessing when you're in that kind of world. And you have to be surrendered at the same time. It's actually a beautiful metaphor for life: Be completely focused and be surrendered at the same time. Be in the present and let go of the results.

 

One of the reviewers referred to you as "Pippin's foxy granny." How did that make you feel?

Listen, sure, thank you. I like to think there's more to that part than taking off my coat and looking fit. I think of this part as so much more, that what it's saying is that no matter what age you are, it's time to start living, but you don't need to be foxy to embrace that sentiment.

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You did so many great impersonations on "SCTV," from Margaret Hamilton to your character Lorna Minnelli. When did first realize you had a gift for impersonation?

You're very dear to say that. I never thought I had a gift for impersonation. These are the people who had gifts for impersonation -- everybody else but me. If you see me doing a good impersonation, it wasn't intuitive. I had to study, I had to really do a lot of homework before I could take those characters on, and then just naturally my comedic observation would blend with the homework I did.

 

Was your most famous character, Mrs. Edith Prickley, your own creation?

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When I was doing Second City in Toronto, we'd bring in clothes from home, and they would be backstage. And during the improv section of the show, there'd be suggestions from the audience. Catherine O'Hara had brought in her mom's 1950s leopard jacket and hat. It was on the coat rack. One of the suggestions that night was a parent-teacher conference. And it was supposed to be for delinquent kids. The parents were supposed to be more immature than the kids were.

So I came to the door [in the leopard outfit], and Catherine was the teacher, and she said, "You must be Mrs. Prickley?" And I said [doing her Edith Prickley voice], "That's right dear. Edith's the name, Sebastian's the game." I still have that jacket and hat. I use it in my one-woman show all the time.

 

I assume you don't wear it for fun?

I don't, but I have another leopard coat, a beautiful fake one, and I thought last night, it was so cold I'll put that on. Then, I thought, I can't go anywhere wearing leopard because it makes me feel like that character, so I took it off.

 

Everyone also remembers you in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Do you get Windex jokes?

No, but they do this joke all the time [does Greek voice]: "What do you mean you don't eat no meat? That's all right, I make lamb." Every night that I go out and do autographs, there are at least one or two people that will bring that up. I'm happy that I could make someone happy.

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