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Hail to the queens: Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me is the latest Broadway hit to lift the show-tune queens out of the piano bar and put them center stage.

Just six years ago, when Survivor premiered, reality TV was a novelty. Now it's a prime-time genre that practically crowds out sitcoms and cop shows. Something similar has happened in theater, where musicals about musicals (most recent example: Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me at Broadway's Bernard Jacobs Theatre) have taken over the field. What's fascinating about the latest batch is that they all bring blinking into the spotlight a figure who usually thrives in the dark: the obsessive, opinionated musical theater queen (MTQ).

Martin Short may not be technically gay--spilling the (mostly fabricated) story of his life in Fame Becomes Me, he never shuts up about his wife, Nancy--but many of the characters he made famous on SCTV and Saturday Night Live were pretty damn queeny, and they all show up on Broadway. Jiminy Glick, his rotund purveyor of fatuous/insulting celebrity interviews, pulls people out of the audience and submits them to questions like "Where were you when the queen had Diana killed?" The show is basically a glorified TV special driven by day-old one-liners and impersonations. But what boosts Short's MTQ rating is his collaboration with gay lyricist-composer team Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Wittman's direction and the duo's songs whiz Short and his Comedy All-Stars through hip Broadway parodies including Hair, Wicked, and Tommy Tune (played by the hilarious Brooks Ashmanskas on stilts). The climactic number advises that if you want to have a hit, "let a big black lady stop the show," which Capathia Jenkins proceeds to do, while pointing out that the showstoppers tend to be written by "gay white Jews," as Shaiman beams and waves from the piano.

Such postmodern high jinks also flourish in two other current shows about shows. In The Drowsy Chaperone (at Broadway's Marquis Theatre) coauthor Bob Martin plays Man in Chair--that's MTQ to you--who cheers himself up by putting on the cast album of a 1928 musical and giving us a running commentary as the show comes to life in his living room. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's score is a clever pastiche of period cliches, and Martin and Don McKellar's story, about a leading lady (the fabulous Sutton Foster) leaving the theater to get married, is purposely less interesting than Man in Chair's backchat about characters like Trix ("an aviatrix--today, we'd call her a lesbian").

The creators, in this case composerlyricist Jeff Bowen and book author Hunter Bell, are also onstage for [title of show] (at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre through October 1), in which they play themselves racing to write a new musical in three weeks to get into a festival. If The Drowsy Chaperone mixes "The Daily Show with No, No, Nonette," as its out gay director Casey Nicholaw says, [title of show] is A Chorus Line meets Seinfeld, focusing on quirky details of musical theater life in New York. Bowen and Bell portray two very different MTQs--Jeff is cool and exacting; Hunter is a pudgy, red-haired sexpot. The show's philosophy gets stated in the finale (not by a big black lady): "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than 100 people's ninth favorite thing."

When A Chorus Line opened 30 years ago, it was an anomaly--a show about performers auditioning for a show. Now that nearly every new musical--from TDe Producers to Spamalot--comments on or cannibalizes other musicals, will the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line (opening October 5) seem old hat or fashionably in synch?

Shewey writes on theater for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:THEATER
Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 10, 2006
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