Those anywhere near City Center during the first week of July could have heard the deafening roar of applause that greeted Ellen Greene as she made her long-awaited entrance in the semi-staged concert version of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors. Fans of the many unique talents of the open-hearted actress had waited years to see her once again step into the high heels of the lovably ditzy Audrey, a role she created Off-Broadway in 1982, later preserving her work on screen to equally stellar reviews. The beloved actress, it should be noted, managed to do the impossible, not only meeting, but exceeding, the exceptionally high expectations of these thousands of admirers, somehow melding the worlds of stage and screen into a definitive Audrey that will forever remain the benchmark of anyone who might someday dare to take on the role. This writer can't remember another performer whose every word, note and breath was met with unbridled adoration, and the astonishing fact is all the hoopla was deserved; one suspects that any actress who can draw laughter and tears within the same line is incapable of a false emotion. And, that aforementioned applause that wholeheartedly welcomed Greene back to the New York stage was momentous. Those thunderous and lengthy ovations also followed her heart-stopping rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" and her thrilling duet with Jake Gyllenhaal on "Suddenly Seymour." In fact, most everything that she and the flawless cast delivered was met with uproarious approval in what can only be described as a thoroughly magical experience. (Read more about the highlight of the past summer in 11 Reasons Why Little Shop of Horrors Was a Night We'll Never Forget.) In early August I posed a set of questions to the gifted singing actress, who spoke about her return to the New York stage, her work opposite screen favorite Gyllenhaal and her future plans; that interview follows.
As you were getting ready to make your first entrance at the first performance, what was going through your mind?
Ellen Greene: Absolutely frightened, mixed with excitement, for I was about to be my Audrey again, but mostly shaking like a leaf. I had thought about and looked forward to this moment for over a year, and I had started going through all my scripts and working on the role right after I had finished a film during January.
I was so excited for this meant so much to me. Howard and Alan's Little Shop would live again, my Audrey, too, and so, too, would my Howie live again. The expectation I knew would be so high — 30 years?! Geez! So many had wanted me to do this for a very long time, and I so did not want to disappoint anyone or let anyone down. I hadn't done the play since I left London in March 1984 after performing the role for the six months that I was allotted by U.K. Equity.
As for the film, I had started with the film's pre-production in London, August 1984, and finished re-shoots in September of 1985. I don't know if this was ever done before, someone coming back and performing the role they created after not doing it for such a long time. I knew I would be competing with people's cherished memory of the play, the film, and my own Audrey in both, and was hoping I would be able to pull it off. Mostly, I was trying to breathe — for my heart was beating so — as if I was about to have an assignation...about to meet a lover. And, I guess, I was also thinking of Howard…how I felt he was with me, and that steadied my heart...and also Alan, he was there in the audience.
Ellen Greene and Jake Gyllenhaal Dazzle in Little Shop of Horrors! See the First Bow and Cast Party
A fabulous moment happened as I arrived backstage for the first performance. I was walking down the street almost to the stage door, all bewigged and Audreyfied, and there was Alan stepping out of a cab with Janis, his wonderful wife. I laughed, called out his name and said Howard had something to do with this. I thought, as we walked towards each other, that this chance meeting was to bring me luck, that it was "bashert," fate, and I told him so as he hugged me. And, also to my delighted surprise, in front of me on the street and coming towards me was my dear Bruce [Cohen, producer of "Pushing Daisies," "Milk," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Beauty"], who I also received a hug from. Being the great producer that he is, and with a twinkle in his eye, I was admonished with, "What are you doing out here?!" as he looked at his watch, for it was a little after half-hour, and he made me giggle.
Little Shop was such a love affair to create back in '82, and I was about to do Howard and Alan's work again. And, finally, I would be her again! I was so thrilled for I love my Audrey — being her and living in that magic land! The land — sweet and touching one moment and silly the next. Just when you think you are about to laugh, you are made to cry, and the very next moment you are made to have a good laugh, and we so need laughter right now. So right before I stepped out, to answer your direct question, I took a deep breath and said, "Here we go, Howard," and I brought him onstage with me to quiet my heart.
The audience response was explosive. Were you expecting that reaction? What did it mean to you to receive that kind of applause throughout the night and at the curtain call?
EG: I knew that I would get some reaction, yes, but the force that hit me was so…well, forceful and electric. Such a roar filled with so much energy and a joie de vivre…so joyfully alive, so palpable! Exciting, but a bit overwhelming, and I knew I needed not to let it upstage the play. Backstage the assistant stage manager, Sara, said to me in a surprised, excited voice, "This sounds like a rock concert!" The company was very talented, and I so appreciate all their hard work and good hearts, and it did sound like that — a rock concert. Or maybe they were so explosive for they hadn't seen me in a while, and probably were relieved I wasn't dead and I could still fit into the dress, wig and lashes!
The curtain call — well, I have never been very good at that. It was always a note from Howard — to smile and to take it in. But…well, it was [and] felt a bit overwhelming. And, yes, frightening, too, to receive that much love in such a roar of sound. I remember looking up and thinking, "Oh, that's right…you all have been watching…," surprised that I forgot, knowing I open up so much. I felt quite shy and humbled. And lest I not forget what a gracious mensch was Jake. That was his idea — leaving me alone. I was ready to take the final bow with him, and he actually said to me, "Stay," like I was a puppy, and I replied, "Oh no, you don't!" Then he threw me a kiss and walked off. That was at the first invited dress, and then he just kept leaving me. He is and was so generous of spirit, so gracious, such a true gentleman. So was Taran [Killam]. He and Jake spontaneously blocked my exit the last performance — along with Joe [Grifaso] and Eddie [Cooper] from the other side, as the girls had already gone upstairs — so I acquiesced and then begged them to join me back onstage. I guess I also felt pride, for I so wanted to deliver for Howard and Alan, and the audiences' reaction said we did.
You and Jake made a great pair. Tell me about working with him. Would you like to act with him again?
EG: The short version is: I would work again with Jake in a New York minute. Jake is a wonderful person — kind, gracious, bright, warm and dear. (I'm making him sound like a Boy Scout, but it's true.) A truly great actor and acting partner. He was game to go to the depths of emotion one minute, really passionate — allowing himself through his character to be intimate and open, pouring out his heart or allowing me to pour out mine, to be able to be naked and unafraid, for I knew that he would catch me, and he did — for he knew how scared I was. And, of course, I would catch him. He's very responsive and open as an actor and intuitive, going to hard places — the uncomfortable places where real emotion lies — and then in the next beat, he will allow himself to just be silly and enjoy playing the fun of Little Shop. To sing with him was a true — there's that word again — delight. He met me with all the passion and beauty of song. At the end of "Seymour" I was spent — a song that is difficult for me, for in the lyrics I confess that, "Nobody ever treated me kindly." The frightening reality of being vulnerable, opening up, letting go, and giving in and trusting. "Please understand it's still strange and frightening for losers like I've been, it's so hard to say…" Today the word "loser" is used as a punchline, a put down, but the feeling down on oneself, having a low self esteem — the reality of feeling that word — well, it hurts and drains you causing a helplessness, as if there is a bottomless black hole. Well, during the matinee, I just lost myself in that well of helplessness, sadness and emptiness. I felt like I was hearing that lyric in such a new way, opening up a wound so old and deep. I lost myself in the echo of loneliness, and I did not come in with the next "Suddenly Seymour," but Jake came in with his entrance. He rescued me out of my and Audrey's reverie through his compassion, empathy and dearness that he so kindly gave me and showered on me. He helped me to get through that rendition of a very emotional song, and I was grateful.
It seems actually simple — this land of Little Shop — but to get it just right you have to play the truth in the moment and in the character and at the very same time live in this land never forgetting the sweet and dear humor. Jake did just that. When I first started playing the scenes with him, I looked up at him and said, for I realized, "My gosh…we have chemistry! Who knew?" But we did, and I loved working with him, and I told him so many times.
To be honest, I am not always fun to work with, for I was brought up at the Public Theater, mentored by Joe Papp, and I take the work very seriously. Before Little Shop, most of my work was dramatic, and if there was humor, as in In the Boom Boom Room or Teeth and Smiles, it was kind of a wry humor, not like Audrey's in Little Shop. My favorite time is always during rehearsal, and for Howard and Alan's sake, I wanted everything to be the best it could be and not disappoint anyone. Jake was kind and understood that, and he worked so hard and gave me himself totally and all his talent. And for that and his generous and kind nature towards me, I am humbly thankful. I told him that Howard would have loved him. I know Alan did — so did the audience.
During the short rehearsal period and four performances, Jake and I found so many new moments that were never there before in any of the productions that I had done — funny moments that I had never seen before and also new ones that were moving and touching. There was also this rawness that was new and a raw sexuality that came through our characters that was unexpected, but exciting. Jake's Seymour never knew love before...or I guess anything physical (which of course, she did, but also she was never respected or even liked…just a play-thing). Although I always loved how she saw the good in everyone — I guess to a fault. You can't fake authenticity or real, genuine or true kindness to an audience. It is not often that you are gifted with a fellow acting partner who gets you, gets the work and music, can wail, gets the humor and the pathos. Well, in my book, Jake got it all right! He's the "real deal," and he's nice. I hope we get to realize Little Shop in a full production, for I would so love to further work with him in that land again, or any other projects for that matter. It was that wonderful to work with him. He is that good of an acting partner…and a whole lot of fun!
When you look back upon the week, what stands out in your mind most?
EG: I always love the rehearsal period, working with everyone, finding moments. For instance, we did our first read through, and I was in tears, so happy that I heard the play again, and they were all so good! Also, the day we first sang out loud all of the music — afterwards, I was in tears again…. As I told the cast, through tears, that they were making me so happy even though I was crying again. Well, I looked like a fool, and they laughed. It truly was a wonderful moment, though, hearing the music for the first time again!
The first time Jake and I sang "Suddenly Seymour" together is a moment I will never forget. It was just magical! I told Taran that "Gas" was such a hard song, and he and Jake were magnificent performing it! My first meeting with the very talented Chris Fenwick, the musical director, well, it was just glorious and so very easy. I just told him to breathe with me, and he got it. I loved working with him. Jeanine [Tesori] had told me Chris played like she did, and I covet her hands and talent. I think she has the hands of life. She's extraordinary when she plays. So right before our first performance, I needed to have some changes made to "Seymour," and Chris was right there for me, very kind and collaborative. I should mention my dear Christian [Klikovits]. He did invaluable work with me pre-rehearsal and in the studio. As I told you earlier, I started working on Little Shop back in January, after we finished our Christmas album and after the film I did, and the work that Christian and I did really gave me a strong foundation — a platform to grow out from. As I said, we even went back into the studio and recorded all the music for Jake and the rest of the cast. Christian knew what this meant for me to be doing this again and was so, so generous. Anyhow, I owe Christian a lot, for when the nerves came, I had months of rehearsal to fall back on.
If you could choose your next project, what would that be?
EG: First, let me say, I read the Playbill Staff picks for Jake and myself. I was not only touched and flattered, but it made me smile and laugh out loud. So please thank them so.
Well, first and foremost, of course, I am hoping to realize Little Shop either for here or London. I so loved performing at The Comedy Theatre, now renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre, in the West End. I first came to London in August 1983 from the L.A. production of Little Shop, and we rehearsed in Convent Garden. I lived in a sweet mews that I also lived in during the nine months of filming at Pinewood Studios in '84-'85. We opened Little Shop on Oct. 5, 1983. Then, a few days later, Howard left for the States and wrote me that beautiful letter.
I was lucky and got nominated for an Olivier Award, and the show, produced by wonderful Cameron Mackintosh, won the Evening Standard Award for the Best Musical of 1983. (Cameron was later to magnificently produce in June 1998 "Hey, Mr. Producer!" for Her Majesty The Queen that I was fortunate to take part in.) A truly exciting moment was when I was to accept The Evening Standard Award, on behalf of the show, with the speech Howard wrote me. I was honored to tears by a standing O with Sir John Gielgud in the front row, beaming. What an honor and such a beautiful statue. I loved performing and living there. So my hope would be there or both. So we will see.
As for projects, Christian and I are going to start work on a new album named "Naked," and we have several ideas for shows — one based on "Naked," and there is also my Peter Allen show. I may even give in and do a show of all the songs from Broadway shows I like. And, if any of my friends out there have any suggestions, I would love to hear them! My friends have wanted me to do this for years, so we talked about that, too. We hope this Christmas season to do a Christmas show and make available our Christmas album, "Songs For a Winter's Night," that you were kind to give a beautiful review. I might add that the Christmas album can be purchased at CDBaby or on iTunes. George Dum — another Austrian, our engineer — was fortunate enough to be able to clean up two of the tracks from my first unreleased album, "All The Lives of Me," produced by Joel Dorn and arranged by Arthur Jenkins Jr., who are both gone now. This album that I made when I was 22-23, was transferred from cassette, hence why we had to clean the tracks, and we were able to include two of these tracks on the Christmas album as a bonus. We are now going to try to clean up all the rest of the tracks and release "All The Lives Of Me" on iTunes, hopefully this coming year, too. The album is a story of a girl's journey from innocence to womanhood and of innocence lost. I always saw it in my head more like a film or a pas de deux. It certainly is not a typical album, but I would like to honor both Joel and Arthur.
I remember Dr. John said it was his favorite Joel Dorn album and going over to Dr. John's house with Joel to play it for him. I did it with my first partners: John Randall Booth and also Greg Fauss, who died at 34. It starts with a composition of Randy's [John Randall] called "Pussywillows," then "Never Never Land," then the character starts questioning in "Dear Miss Streisand" (from Rachael Lily Rosenbloom, and don't you ever forget it!), next the beautiful Peter Allen song, "All the Lives of Me" — that was my theme song. Peter always made me sing it with him, in his key I might add. Peter was the first to start me singing higher in a belt, for his key was high for me, but I loved to sing harmony with him. For his 40th birthday I was "his surprise," and I was to come out from behind a curtain at Studio 54 — I think I was flown in — and after I surprised him, of course, we sang it together. After "Lives" comes "Nights in White Satin" (now a woman learning about the vices of life), then "Make It Easy on Yourself" (sung to a gay man who loves both this woman and a man), "Home to Myself" (the loneliness of living alone). Then comes a 16-part a cappella piece I sang and over-laid my vocals. It is from the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur, which then leads into "Marry Me A Little" (the plea and yearning for a returned love), then again the a cappella piece with an added descant line, followed by a poem into "I'll Pay The Check" (the woman now older), and then the story finishes with her walking all alone in Central Park with "6:30 Sunday Morning" — I believe it's the first song that Peter wrote — complete with rain and a bird singing.
Also I would love to release "The Peter Allen Tribute," live at the Bottom Line in 1992 performed with Bette Sussman, after that also is cleaned up. Both would be transfers from cassette, so it's tricky, but we were happy with the results George got on "The Lives Of Me" and "Marry Me" for bonus tracks on "Songs For A Winter's Night," so we are hopeful.
Also, I am in two films that haven't been released yet. Oh, and I am writing.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens Their Favorite Things and Best in Show.