Comedians may be known for their frenetic personalities, but as Andrea Martin descends the Santa Monica hotel staircase, she slowly takes in the foggy ocean view through a wall of glass. “Mmm, just beautiful, right?” she says, settling into a plush chair before popping back up to take a different seat. “This one has a better view. Gorgeous.”
That presence of mind — “living in the moment,” Martin says — is her modus operandi these days. At 67, having clocked nearly 40 years of performing onstage as well as on the big and small screens, the Second City and “SCTV” alum has brought that joie de vivre to her Tony-winning role of Berthe in the national tour of “Pippin,” opening Wednesday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. It’s also the spirit driving her new memoir, a collection of humorous essays that careen from Martin’s Armenian American roots growing up in Portland, Maine, to her early improv years at Second City in her adopted home of Toronto, to her raising of two sons, to love affairs of long ago.
“I’m having a good time, just appreciative of all the opportunities I’ve had. It’s like in the song,” she says of her solo in “Pippin”: “Just because you’re in another chapter of your life, doesn’t mean it’s time to stop living.”
“Pippin,” about a young prince searching for his place in the world, won five Tonys after premiering on Broadway in 1972. The revival is a vastly re-imagined version directed by Diane Paulus and set in a circus, with a book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Matthew James Thomas, who starred as Pippin in the revival’s debut, returns to the role for the L.A. stint.
The production blends aerial acrobatics, contortionists and other circus stunts with classic, Fosse-style “hat-and-cane” choreography by Chet Walker. It premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., before opening on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre in spring 2013. It won four Tonys, including revival of a musical. Martin’s Tony was her second, after a win for 1992’s “My Favorite Year.”
Martin plays Pippin’s wizened grandmother and performs a certain “circus skill,” as she puts it — not your stereotypical silver-haired grandma. The 1972 incarnation of Berthe was played by Irene Ryan, best known to many as cranky Granny on the 1960s TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Martin, who has played older characters in her career — think Aunt Voula in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — appreciated Ryan’s portrayal but had no desire to follow in her footsteps. Martin snuffed out early conversations about the role with her agent.
“Even though I played character parts my whole life, and even though I’m at a certain age, I really wasn’t ready to play an old woman in a wheelchair making an entrance,” Martin says. “My memory of it didn’t intrigue me. But then I found out Diane Paulus was re-imagining it for the circus.”
Martin has always been intrigued by the circus, she says. She loves Federico Fellini’s 1954 film, “La Strada,” as well as the 1932 Tod Browning movie “Freaks.”
“It’s black and white, really nitty gritty, the dirty part of the circus,” she says.
Martin had lengthy conversations with Paulus about reworking the role of Berthe.
“What’s so special about Andrea is the vitality and fearlessness she brings to the role of Berthe,” Paulus says. “She’s a true force of nature.”
Martin sees the character as a counterpoint to the high-energy action around her onstage, injecting wisdom and groundedness for Pippin.
“I show him that life goes by very quickly and to seize the moment,” she says. “I hope it’s a double message — for a younger person to stop and also for an older person to say, ‘Anything is possible.’”
Martin conveys that sentiment to Pippin, and to the audience, during her solo, which frequently sparks standing ovations.
“Even though I’m singing that song to Pippin every night, I’m literally singing it to myself,” Martin says. “And to my sons, because they’re 31 and 33. It has a lot of resonance for me.”
That’s all Martin will say about her solo, however, during which she displays her aforementioned circus skill, created by Gypsy Snider of the Montreal troupe Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers of the Hand). She doesn’t want to spoil the experience for first-time viewers. More important, she doesn’t want to overshadow the nuances of her performance and its message.
If you walk away from the show talking only of her circus trick, “then I failed as the character, as a performer,” she says. “It’s not a stunt. It was never meant to be showing off. It’s meant to engage people more in what the song is about: that you’re only young once.”
Martin captures moments of her own youth in her book, “Lady Parts” — her first acting role as the Fairy Godmother in a children’s theater production of “Cinderella,” diary entries from when she was 10. But much of the book is also about aging, which she addresses with humor and candor.
“In that chapter, I start with how angry I am having to put contacts in when I can’t even see the contacts, and being hard of hearing and blaming it on being in a band — which I never was,” she says. Another annoyance? “The reality that Spanx don’t work. The fat has to go somewhere!”
Though Martin considers herself a natural storyteller, writing a book was “torturous,” she says. She is more comfortable onstage, where she can feel an immediate connection with the audience and other actors. To get through her first draft, she read every chapter out loud to an imaginary audience.
“That way I could tell if it was really my voice, if it was honest, if I was making a deep connection,” she says. “Because I have a connection with an audience, but I don’t have a particularly healthy connection with my own head.”
On the creative horizon, there’s a sequel to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in the works; Nia Vardalos will again star in the film and write the script. Martin will resurrect her role as the well-meaning but pushy Aunt Voula. (“What you mean you don’t eat no meat? That’s all right. I make lamb.”)
Martin recently shot the pilot for an online half-hour comedy — the details of which must remain as much a mystery as Berthe’s circus skill, she insists.
But enough about the future. Here in the present, she surveys the ocean view again and cracks another smile.