One afternoon earlier this week Mary Martin sat at the beachfront home of her son, Larry Hagman, cuddling and cooing--and yes, even doing a little Peter Pan crowing--for her first great-grandchild, 6-month-old Mary Noel Hagman.
It was a brief moment of calm and joy for the 72-year-old star who in recent weeks has been swept up--and often bogged down--in the turmoil of opening a new play, “Legends,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre.
This is Martin’s first stage appearance in almost a decade, a rare non-musical role at that, and to date, the preparations have been peppered with problems.
“At this period of my life, it’s the toughest thing I’ve tackled,” she said candidly. “The last thing I did on stage was ‘Do You Turn Somersaults?’ with Sir Anthony Quayle (it had a limited run in the East in 1977).
“Since then, I haven’t appeared in anything regularly except the television show (PBS’ “Over Easy”), where I didn’t have to know any lines. It was all ad-lib. So, here I am again, on stage after all those years.”
In “Legends,” Martin is starring with an old and dear friend, Carol Channing. But in this new James Kirkwood comedy, they’re anything but friends. They’re cast as one-time screen idols--bitter, catty enemies, who are given the chance at a comeback if they can bury the hatchet and work together in a new play.
Though there are a couple of other characters, most of the dialogue bounces back and forth between Martin and Channing, and there has been considerable re-writing, changing and rehearsing since the show premiered in Dallas earlier this month.
The rewriting, changing and rehearsing have continued since “Legends” arrived here for previews a week ago, heading toward an official opening Sunday. In all, it’s been an experience that Martin sums up by saying: “I’m what you might call ‘mixturo in my heado’ ”
She admits, frankly, that learning lines after being away from the stage for an extended period has been taxing, not to mention keeping up with the new lines, the cuts and the changes.
“It’s been difficult to get back in the harness,” she said. “You know, if you don’t play tennis for a long time, you don’t keep your tennis arm. And if you don’t do anything, your brain goes.
“When I think back, I’ve always known every single word of the script before we even started rehearsals for a musical. And I knew every song.
“Also, there’s a certain rhythm in musicals. There isn’t that much dialogue. You go from rhythm in a song to rhythm in dialogue. So this is a whole new thing for me to take on--and at a very late age,” she added with a big laugh.
Actually, Martin turned down “Legends” four times before agreeing to appear in it. The reason: The script was liberally laced with four-letter words, and she didn’t want to say them.
It was Hagman (whom she often referred to as “my baby boy”) who convinced her to take it on, telling her that if she didn’t, he would option the play for himself.
Eventually, the problem with the salty words was solved by taking some of them out, and giving the rest to Channing’s character. (Kirkwood, in a separate interview, said he didn’t mind making that switch. “We’ve kept Mary’s character pristine,” he said.)
About the same time, Martin had seen Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison on stage in “Aren’t We All?” and she reasoned that “if Claudette could do it, I could go back to work too.”
The mention of Colbert got Martin reminiscing about her own days in Hollywood in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. She recalled knocking on studio doors, screen-testing everywhere, but being told “your nose is too big . . . your cheeks too thin.”
It was not until she had sung “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” on Broadway that Hollywood “discovered” her. Then, the same studios that wouldn’t let her in suddenly wanted her, and she came back to star with Allan Jones in “The Great Victor Herbert” (1939).
Still, she said, the studios didn’t know what to do with her. “They had me looking like Jean Arthur one day, then Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Jean Parker.”
She remembered attending a dinner party one night at Mary and Jack Benny’s and sitting next to Colbert’s husband. “We talked throughout the evening, and after dinner, he said, ‘Well, Claudette, I have to leave now.’
“I told him I wasn’t Claudette, I was Mary Martin, and he said, ‘Well, you look like Claudette,’ and I said that was because they made me look like her.”
Martin eventually fled Hollywood with her husband, Richard Halliday, heading for New York to establish her own identity, which she did, indelibly, in “One Touch of Venus,” “South Pacific,” “Peter Pan,” “The Sound of Music” and “I Do, I Do.” It was a string of hits that earned her the title “First Lady of the Musical Stage,” indeed a legend in her own time.
“A legend?” she repeated. “Well, I guess I am by this time. I’m no kid. I’ve been lucky to have done some fabulous shows.”
Throughout that musical career, however, she lived a severe, structured life: “Just the theater, bed; theater, bed; theater, bed. Stay in bed till 5 p.m., then do the show. It was like being in a box. I sometimes felt like a greyhound. They’d let me out for the race and that was all.
“This show, ‘Legends,’ is almost the same thing because the pressure is on. When you come off stage at the end of the second act, you feel like you’ve been in a race between the two characters.
“But the audiences have been good here, and that helps. There’s been a great deal of laughter.”
The pressure was on in Dallas, too, as busloads of her Texas friends came to see the girl from Weatherford who became a theater legend. What they saw early on was a “Legends” in the rough, where prompters could sometimes be heard feeding lines, where the characterizations were still in their infancy.
Martin shudders a bit at the memory. “It was so confusing. We weren’t ready for anybody to see it. . . . It was murder, absolute murder.”
After about the third day, Hagman told her, “Stop worrying. You’re going to be all right. It will come through.” And gradually “Legends” has come together.
Oddly, what makes her the most nervous is knowing when a VIP is in the audience.
Once, in “South Pacific,” someone told her Margot Fonteyn was there . . . “and that night, I was doing my waltz clog on the rowboat (in “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy”) and I fell off it. Just slipped right off! I’d never done that before, never done it since. It’s just that you want to be so right for your peers.”
If she wasn’t in “Legends,” what would she be doing?
“Probably more benefits,” she replied. “When you have an unscheduled life, everybody wants you for this tribute or that honor. Well, that can be tiring, so I thought, ‘I’m going to go play a bit . . . I haven’t played yet.’ I went to Italy and London and Hong Kong and all those places. It was fun, but also pretty tiring.
“So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should get back to my scheduled life and see what happens.’ ”
What happened was “Legends” and the succeeding turmoil. Now, however, with Sunday’s opening in sight, Martin believes the show is about set, which should mean her life, and the show, should settle down.
“I’d love ‘Legends’ to be successful because everybody involved has been terrific . . . the producers, the writer, the director (Clifford Williams), the other cast members (Annie-Joe, Gary Beach, Eric Riley). I don’t know what the critics will say, but I think the audience will enjoy seeing two dames they’ve seen in other roles throwing barbs at each other.
“But who knows about anything? Life is a gamble every day. I found that out when I was hit 2 1/2 minutes after I got into a taxicab (a 1983 accident in San Francisco that seriously injured Martin, claimed the life of a longtime associate, and also seriously injured her good friend, Janet Gaynor).
“But it hasn’t broken my spirit. Show business teaches you more about that than anything. You have to have a strong desire and sense of what you want to do, and if it goes wrong, you have to get over it . . . pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.”
And that’s what this real-life legend and this on-stage “Legends” are all about.