When you think of Martin Short, a few things come to mind. There is the image of the sombrero-wearing actor riding a horse in the desert with fellow funnymen Chevy Chase and Steve Martin in Three Amigos. There are the Saturday Night Live characters he brought to life, like bespectacled celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick and Wheel of Fortune superfan Ed Grimley. Broadway enthusiasts will remember his Tony Award–winning turn as the lead in Little Me. And anyone who even occasionally catches a late-night talk show will recall at least one of his countless appearances opposite Carson, Letterman, Fallon, Kimmel, and the rest. Yet the common thread running through these defining performances—besides Short’s effortless comedic skill—may be something so subtle you didn’t even notice it: his voice.
“I’ll be at the airport, wearing sunglasses and a hat, and just ask someone for a newspaper, and heads will turn around because people recognize my voice,” says Short, who mentions that he recently had a layover at Philadelphia International Airport. “It’s kind of fascinating…. It’s something about the pattern of voice and the use of phrasing.”
To suggest that Short is best known for his elocution is certainly not meant to downplay his incredible achievements. For four decades, he has embodied the sort of showbiz razzle-dazzle that hardly exists in Hollywood today. He acts. He sings. He dances. He has starred in Broadway musicals and one-man shows. He writes and produces. In 2014 he became a New York Times best-selling author for his memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend.
Short’s singular showmanship means he’s guaranteed to command the stage when he appears as the special guest artist at the Academy of Music 159th Anniversary Concert and Ball on January 23. Philadelphia’s only white-tie gala, the Academy Ball, now in its 59th year, has become one of the most successful fundraising events in the country thanks in part to its guest artists over the past decade, an impressive list that includes Sting, Billy Joel, Hugh Jackman, Diana Krall, and Yo-Yo Ma. Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, attended in 2007. Last year Al Pacino dazzled with a monologue from Shakespeare’s Richard III and poetry by E.E. Cummings. But what all of these dynamic artists share is a passion for orchestral music.
A symphonic music lover since childhood, Martin Short brings showbiz razzle-dazzle to the Academy Concert and Ball.
“I’m very aware of why I’m here,” says Short, who has also appeared with the Boston Pops and the Portland Symphony Orchestra. “I’m here to entertain and to work with the symphony, not apart from the symphony.”
Short’s keen awareness of the collaborative spirit of the concert—and, in a larger sense, of symphonic music—comes from his parents. He grew up in a small town outside Toronto, where his mother was concert-mistress with the Hamilton Symphony Orchestra and his father was its president. Short recalls watching his mother “practice five hours a day during the season” and, even more impressive, attending his first concert. “I was 5 years old the first time I went to the symphony,” he says. “I couldn’t get over this incredible sound that was happening live, not from speakers or a phonograph. The symphony has a really special place in my heart.”
The respect is mutual. “To work with a performer of his caliber, who will share comedy, song, and dance with us, will create a truly memorable evening,” says Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, now in his fourth year of conducting the anniversary concert. “When his performance versatility combines with the outstanding musicianship of The Philadelphia Orchestra, we will create electricity on the stage.”
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Short hopes to bring that same electricity to his new projects in 2016. He is readying a TV series with a sketch/variety feel (on which he’ll be both a writer and performer) that joins NBC’s prime-time lineup in the spring. He will also go out on the road with actor, musician, and friend Steve Martin in their show An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a mix of music and comedy.
Short says it’s the breadth of his work that inspires him these days. “When you’re starting out, the motivation is to pay the rent,” he says. “It’s trickier when you reach a point in your career where you don’t have to worry about that. It can put even more pressure on you. My job is constantly exhilarating, but what enhances that is the variety of things.”
While Short won’t disclose the details of the Academy performance, he hints that the concert may include some banter with Nézet-Séguin and perhaps even the score to Three Amigos. He mentions getting the audience involved and interacting with the orchestra: “This will be a very loose, fun evening…. You want to pull the audience in. I want to make the concert feel like a party.”