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Andrea Martin swings back into the spotlight

The comedy vet proves you’re never too old to join the circus — or at least to swing from a trapeze while belting out a song in Broadway’s hit revival ”Pippin.”

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Andrea Martin is reaching new heights in her career. Literally. As in, 14 feet high up off the stage at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, where eight times a week she performs her big number in the musical revival Pippin while swinging upside down from a trapeze — no harness, thank you very much — as a sweaty, shirtless 25-year-old named Yannick holds a limb or two to keep her from becoming a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-like headline. It should also be noted that she’s wearing a costume that would make Gisele Bündchen feel self-conscious. And she’s 66.

”The truth is, I’m really scared of heights,” Martin says over a cup of tea with honey and lemon at the old-school theater haunt Sardi’s, where her caricature will soon be hung alongside those of Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing. ”But when I’m up there, I’m not frightened. I feel younger and very vital as a woman. Why shouldn’t I?”

No arguments here. After a 40-plus- year career on TV and stage, she’s earning midshow standing ovations and is poised to win her second Tony award on June 9. Though she’s received the most Tony nominations for Featured Actress in a Musical in Broadway history, Martin is still best known for her improv mastery with the likes of John Candy, Harold Ramis, and Catherine O’Hara in the original 1976 cast of the Canadian sketch-comedy series SCTV. Not bad for a girl from Portland, Maine, who grew up doing local theater after school.

”I remember talking to Andrea on the phone about the role,” recalls Pippin director Diane Paulus, whose circus-inspired production picked up 10 Tony nods in all. ”I told her my plan and she said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t want to do this role and sit in a wicker chair. If it’s going to be a circus, I want to be in it too.’ She’s fearless.” Martin persuaded Paulus to bring up the houselights during her performance of ”No Time at All,” in which the audience is asked to join in on the chorus. ”I told Diane I needed the lights on to see the people singing,” Martin says. ”I know I look better with the spotlight on me, but I’d rather look worse and connect with everybody.”

Going cross-eyed to impersonate Barbra Streisand or committing all sorts of TMI crimes as Aunt Voula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she’s not a performer remotely protective of her vanity or dignity. Just ask Martin Short, who first met her during callbacks for the now-legendary 1972 Toronto production of the musical Godspell (featuring Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, and Victor Garber). ”I remember doing SCTV after she had left the show. She was visiting and wearing a very expensive dress, but she was enticed to join a set. It wasn’t working. And nothing was funnier than when Andrea was bombing. You knew she wasn’t going to finish this without making the audience cheer. It’s just not in her DNA. She ended up crawling off the stage, to hell with the $1,000 dress, barking. The audience was laughing harder than at anything they’d seen all night. That’s Andrea. She cannot be deterred.”

While many of her peers from the 1970s became comedy giants, Martin never skyrocketed to the same fame galaxy. ”I don’t think I was mature enough to handle the success at the time,” she says. ”I didn’t really have momentum in my life or a career plan. I’ve never been a big celebrity, but I’ve had a lovely career. Some people know me. Most people don’t.”

She betrays no hint of resentment until she’s asked why she never auditioned for Saturday Night Live, where so many of her buddies became household names. ”Nobody tried out for that,” she says. ”I did Lorne Michaels’ first show, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, so he really knew me. Either he was going to ask me or not ask me.” She shrugs, then adds, ”Life isn’t over yet. We’ll see what happens.”

After leaving SCTV in 1983, Martin kept busy raising her then-infant sons, Jack and Joe, while doing steady TV guest spots (Kate & Allie, The Tracey Ullman Show) and voice work (Apu’s mother on The Simpsons, Nathan Lane’s hippo pal on the animated George and Martha). Small but memorable roles in films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Producers never amounted to much. ”Andrea’s the queen of getting the ‘and the best thing in the blank was Andrea Martin’ review,” says Short. ”But if nobody’s paying attention to the blank, there’s not the heat.”

But Martin’s career ignited on stage. She won her first Tony at age 46 for her Broadway debut in the 1992 musical My Favorite Year, then received nominations for revivals of Candide (1997) and Oklahoma! (2002). Short recalls asking Neil Simon about Martin’s performance in My Favorite Year. ”He said, ‘She’s utterly captivating and you can’t take your eyes off of her. It’s nothing she’s doing except that she’s doing everything.’ ”

Anyone who’s seen Pippin would agree with the playwright’s assessment. And those who haven’t might want to hurry, because Martin’s contract currently runs through September. Beyond that, she’s planning to finish a book of essays (pal Steve Martin gave the collection its top secret title). Then she may bring back her 2011 one-woman show, Final Days! Everything Must Go!!, or try to land a gig in L.A. to be close to her sons, now in their 30s. ”I’m getting no offers,” she says, laughing. ”But there will be something. There always is. I just want to work. I’ll play Snow White. Just get me a wig and a lot of white makeup. Hey, Disneyland? Call me.”