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Finding a youthful take on life as ‘Oklahoma’s’ Aunt Eller

By Michael Kuchwara The Associated Press
Thursday March 28, 2002

NEW YORK — Quick. Think of Aunt Eller, the matriarchal heart of “Oklahoma!”, and you probably will conjure up the image of an older pioneer woman, wearing a gray bun and churning butter. 

“I do churn butter,” says Andrea Martin with a laugh, describing the memorable opening moments of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical when Aunt Eller sits alone on stage and Curly warbles (from the wings) “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” 

“And I guess if the producers had their way, I would wear a gray bun. But I’m not 60. Who are we kidding? When you hire me, you are going to get somebody with a youthful energy, a youthful body and a youthful take on life.” 

From Betty Garde in the original 1943 production to Charlotte Greenwood in the movie version to Mary Wickes in the last Broadway revival (which was in 1979), Aunt Eller usually has been more matronly than modern. 

Not so Martin, who projects an exuberance and energy that, while remaining true to the ensemble nature of the show, helps lift the Royal National Theatre’s revival right off the stage of Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre. 

You wouldn’t expect anything less from a woman who was part of “SCTV Network,” the raucous, legendary television series from the late 1970s and early ’80s that helped launch such other genuine comics as Martin Short, John Candy and Rick Moranis. 

“But I also have many more years of experience than the kids in the show just because of the nature of how old I am,” says the actress, who, at 55, looks more like a sassy fortysomething — an Auntie Mame in training. 

Martin, her hair a mass of dark red ringlets matched by a stylish red jacket, sits in a conference room in producer Cameron Mackintosh’s office near the theater and talks about what goes into making Aunt Eller believable on stage. 

“I know what it is like to raise two boys as a single parent. I certainly know what it is to persevere and to have some kind of wisdom that you develop with age.” 

Martin played Ado Annie, the show’s flirtatious second female lead, years ago when she had just gotten out of college, but says she didn’t really remember the show when asked to do the latest revival. So she reread the script and viewed a tape of the London production. 

Not that she didn’t feel a little defensive about taking on the role, particularly after many of her California friends, from Tom Hanks to Steve Martin and more, told her that when they learned she was doing “Oklahoma!”, they assumed she was playing Ado Annie. 

“Most women my age think of themselves as 25,” the actress says. “They think of themselves as Ado Annie. 

“I thought, ‘Well, people do have a preconceived idea about Aunt Eller, but maybe by the end of it, they will think differently,”’ she says. Director Trevor Nunn helped a lot. 

“Trevor has absolutely no ego agenda,” Martin explains. “He comes with a kind of nonjudgmental approach to acting. It doesn’t mean he has no ideas, but you feel very cared for and respected. It’s been a real collaboration.” 

Martin, who makes her home in Los Angeles, has been fortunate in her New York stage appearances, at least in getting recognition for her work. She made her Broadway debut in 1992 in a musical version of “My Favorite Year.” The show didn’t last long, but the actress won a Tony Award. Other Tony nominations followed when she appeared in revivals of “She Loves Me” (1994) and “Candide” (1997). 

“I have never played a part that didn’t solicit great applause and great laughter and have great star turns,” she says contemplating her career. ”‘Oklahoma!’ is an adjustment for me, but it is for this reason that I wanted to do it. 

“I wanted to see if I could bring a genuine authenticity to this part without getting that kind of response. Would I be able to — at the end of the evening — know internally that I did a good job without hearing from an audience that I was doing it? That is a very big challenge for somebody who has done comedy all their lives.” 

In 1999, Martin did the workshop productions of “Seussical,” playing the Cat in the Hat. By the time the musical arrived in New York the following year, she had dropped out. With David Shiner as her replacement, “Seussical” proved to be a highly publicized flop in New York. 

“My last son was home for only one more year (before going to college) and every time I thought of myself on stage being the Cat in the Hat, the thought that I would be missing his prom or his football games — I couldn’t see myself doing it.” 

“Turning down “Seussical” was a difficult but right decision, she says. 

“I got to spend a year with my son. And then the day I put him on a plane to college, I got a phone call about ’Oklahoma!”’ 


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