Short and Sweet

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Martin Short makes his first appearance onstage at the top of a lavish Hello Dolly staircase — with his head cut off by the top of the proscenium. It's a fitting way to get things started, since Fame Becomes Me, his slick, scattered, very funny new Broadway musical, is all about showbiz ego being cut down to size. Short calls it a one-man show — but five terrific performers are on hand to share the spotlight (and on occasion upstage him). He bills it as the story of his life — troubled childhood, years of hoofing in Broadway chorus lines, the inevitable drug-fueled crash and rousing comeback — only most of it isn't true. His voice cracks at the big note in his opening number; his brother from Canada pops up in the balcony to complain that Marty is being unfair to the family; and he confesses that, when it comes to his daunting Broadway challenge, he goes by Mandy Patinkin's advice: "Always leave the audience wanting less."

Fame Becomes Me is, quite obviously, a send-up of that overexposed Broadway form, the autobiographical one-person show. "All I ask is you love me, and like me as well," Short sings in the canny, Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman opening number. The verdict here: love Marty, like the show as well.

If this were a perfect world, Martin Short would have been a big Broadway star long before now. On TV he was the only performer who managed to make the jump between the two premier satirical sketch shows of the '70s and early '80s, SCTV and Saturday Night Live,, and he made the usual transition to less-inspired film roles. But it wasn't until he starred on Broadway in 1993's The Goodbye Girl, an underrated musical with Marvin Hamlisch's best post-Chorus Line score, that he showed how effortlessly his lithe, smallish body could take over a Broadway stage. There hasn't been much for him to do on Broadway since then — although he did cop a Tony for his tour-de-force performance in a revival of Little Me — so it took Short himself (along with Shaiman, Wittman and co-writer Daniel Goldfarb) to come up with the ideal vehicle for his ironic but totally ingratiating stage personality.

Fame Becomes Me uses the autobiographical device as an excuse for a demolition of earnest showbiz tell-alls, Broadway-musical clichés and just about any other media target that it can lay its hands on. Some of it goes by so fast you want to do a quick rewind — Short's buttery impression of Ray Bolger, as an animated fencepost in a spoof of The Wizard of Oz, for example, or the spot-on impressions of Jodie Foster and Renée Zellweger announcing the nominees in Marty's Oscar category (he loses, but makes a soused acceptance speech anyway). Some of the Broadway parodies — a Tommy Tune on stilts, a Godspell-Jesus Christ Superstar sendup — are more familiar, but sharp and funny nevertheless.

To be sure, Short also trots out his expected gallery of TV characters — the nerdy Ed Grimley, the old-codger songwriter Irving Cohen — and an ad-lib segment in which Short's most tiresome character, Jiminy Glick, does an interview with a surprise guest from the audience (Channing Frye of the New York Knicks the night I was there) nearly brings the show to a stop. For that matter, the whole self-referential, show-about-doing-a-show conceit (see The Drowsy Chaperone and off-Broadway's [Title of Show]) is in danger of becoming a cliché of its own. For all the earnest sentimentality of Billy Crystal's one-man show 700 Sundays (which Alan Zweibel, a contributor to Short's show, also helped write), at least it had the virtue of being about something.

Still, Fame Becomes Me shows what can happen when smart TV gag writing is given some Broadway polish, and a performer who can squeeze every ounce of juice out of a line, and then italicize it with a bodily contortion you don't expect to see in people older than eight. "Just remember," Short says, in one of his mock-sincere moments after returning from rehab, "my rock bottom is still your wildest dreams." I'm not quite sure why the New York critics who lost their heads over Spamalot — a lumpier,and even more self-referential show than this one — were so grumpy about Fame Becomes Me. Even at its rock bottom, it satisfied my wildest dreams.