Last week, we reviewed Happily Ever After,  a one-woman musical in Philadelphia that glimpses the possible futures of many beloved fairy tale characters. Soon after we saw the show, WVFC sat down with Mary Martello, the powerhouse actor, comedienne and singer behind the project. We talked about her 50-year career on the stage; her own reinvention from ingenue to comic genius; about “the secret” of menopause, and how envisioning Snow White in menopause taught her what “happily ever after”really means.

You started performing at age seven in Lansing, Michigan. Did you always know you’d be funny?

Well, it’s truer to say that I started singing at seven. Someone heard me singing with friends, just out on the street, and they told my parents “She’s good! You might want to encourage her!” So my mother found a singing teacher, and soon I had bit parts  in all kinds of little shows here and there. I was even on early TV in Lansing — I would get scared and run off, but my mom just helped me get right back on.

A child star! Were your parents stage parents?

No,  I wasn’t under the pressure kids can be under now. My parents just wanted me to be happy.

Which back then automatically meant getting  married — which you did, while developing your career at the famous Boarshead Theater in Lansing. But you’ve been in Princeton now for many years.

I moved with  my husband at the time – first to  Richmond, Virginia, which was  quite a culture shock! Then Princeton. I was performing in shows all that time — all the while having and raising four children. They got used to Mommy’s plays.  My youngest just turned seventeen.

When you moved to Princeton, the first thing you did was try to make it in New York. But you learned that producers didn’t want to help unless that was all you wanted to do.

Especially with kids. New York’s an actor’s dream. But I had no union card, and no leeway to work for nothing while I waited to get one. I did some good work in Gilbert & Sullivan plays with Light Opera of Manhattan, but it wasn’t going to be easy. And the commute was really hard. Then Nigel Jackson offered me a job at the McCarter Theatre Company in Princeton.

You and I have talked a little about Philadelphia, where artists are just as serious but no one thinks they’ll be world-famous.  It felt like an artistic home for you, you said.

In Philly this is a life calling for these people. No one’s getting rich, but everyone’s committed to doing excellent work. And because it’s not Broadway, maybe, the community of artists there are more willing to take risks, to let you take risks.

Did you always know you were funny?

Not at first. Like many young actresses, I  took myself way too seriously. I didn’t know I was funny till I was in my forties. As a friend explained to me, laughing, “Oh you were too busy being pretty.”

You grew up wanting to play Ophelia, like most young actors?

Last year I did play Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, at the Lantern Theater, and the opportunity to do that was very satisfying. I could draw on everything in my life, all the experiences that held those emotions. And I thought of the girl playing Ophelia, that must be so hard when you’re so young.

When I started doing those bigger musicals, I realized — I’d always imagined myself in those shows, but as an ingenue! Now here I was, doing the comic relief.

You’re an extraordinary physical comedian. Watching you in Happily Ever After, I thought I saw elements of Preston Sturges, Fellini, all those classics of commedia dell’arte — did you study that?

Not formally. As an actor, you learn about timing. You work with other people, you pick it up in pieces — bits of Moliere, flavors of all kinds of slapstick and comic situations.

Have you ever done a one-woman show before?

No! I’d done a few cabarets, but this  was the first I’d written out this fully, with a narrative and a shape.  The audacity of it all! I never envisioned it until Jen Childs, of 1812 Productions, asked me to.

You said it all started with a line from Beauty and the Beast: “There’s Been a Change in Me.”

I was playing a teapot in the wings, waiting in the wings, and I started laughing. And I began listening to all the songs in a different way. Wouldn’t it be funny if you got the songs from a different perspective? A  year or so later, Jen asked me:  “You interested in doing something with that princess thing?” As a performer, that’s it: when you get offered something on a plate like that, you say yes.

You went far beyond those Disney princesses, though. Did you always know that you’d have Peter Pan as a stand-up comic with AIDS, or  that Sleeping Beauty would have a dark secret?

Initially it was just princesses, but then it grew a story, one that had to encompass different aspects of my life — of all our lives. That’s how I ended up with Gretel and the Wicked Queen.  I actually had to narrow it down to those six characters. As for Peter Pan, I always knew I wanted a male character. And the tradition on stage, starting with Mary Martin, gave me a lot to work with.

How was it writing a show for yourself to star in?

Hmm. First lesson: The mindset of the writer and that of the actor are not the same. I had to keep stepping back and listening to the story. But also — how thrilling it was to have a bunch of artists — lighting designers, costumes designers — working on my show, having ideas, being excited about it.

Like the bluebird out of the Disney films, who appears and sort of taunts the princesses?

The bluebird was my idea, but it was the whole team [who made it work]. We found an animator, it’s projected on the screen, I see it while I’m singing and cracking jokes.

One reason I wanted to talk to you was because your “happily ever after” theme is what Women’s Voices for Change says about menopause, too. Belle, your first princess, describes it as freedom from “hormones that had hold of my brain.”

Menopause is such an alienating word, still. But what I didn’t know about menopause, until I went through it, was just that.  It truly is a relief. It’s like there really was a monster that had control of my brain, and I’d convinced myself that I was a rational person making rational decisions, but it was the hormones talking. And now that I’m past it,  I have to say, completely honestly: I have more energy now than I’ve had since I was a kid.

Happily Ever After runs through March 28 at the Adrienne Theatre in Philadelphia. Click here to order tickets.

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