DIVA TALK: A Candid Conversation with Little Shop of Horrors' Ellen Greene

News   DIVA TALK: A Candid Conversation with Little Shop of Horrors' Ellen Greene
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Ellen Greene
Ellen Greene

ELLEN GREENE
Those lucky enough to catch stage and screen star Ellen Greene's Dec. 16-18 concerts with The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington at Lisner Auditorium might want to send a thank-you note to current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was during Greene's campaigning/fundraising for Clinton a few years back when the Little Shop of Horrors star met Lane Hudson, a public relations consultant whose former boyfriend was a member of the DC Chorus. "I was asked by my friend, boss and mentor, Bruce Cohen ['Pushing Daisies,' 'Milk,' 'American Beauty'] to come to New Hampshire for the primary and join the LGBT contingency for a benefit to raise money for Hillary along with his then-partner and now husband Gabe Catone," Greene explains. "From then on I was hooked! There was also a strong contingent from DC, and among these people was Lane. We went on to become good friends, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, Hillary was not doing so well, so we decided to give it a big push. Bruce couldn't go, so Lane and I produced and staged our own benefit show... It was wonderful, and we felt it did help her. She did better than expected! And, although Obama won that state, we felt we had done our part. We became known as the 'Lucky Charms,' traveling all over the United States for her and sometimes along with her.... Lane and I have since kept in touch. He had a boyfriend who used to perform in the chorus, and he suggested to [chorus executive director] David Jobin, my wonderful producer, last Christmas that they have me perform this season." And, that is how the idea for Red & Greene, this weekend's holiday concerts, were born.

Greene, who has the rare ability to make audiences laugh just as she breaks their hearts, has spent considerable time selecting material for the four concerts. In fact, she recently tested her selections for a group of friends in Los Angeles. "We did a run-through at ['Pushing Daisies' creator's] Bryan Fuller and Scott Roberts' house, and Anna Friel came with her boyfriend, Rhys Ifans, from 'Anonymous,' and Bruce came, and of course, my beloved agent Steve La Manna, who really helped pull all of this and me together. We did a dress run-through for them, and that was exciting. With the enormous tree to our left, and fire behind me, it was soooo very Christmasy! I loved everybody at Bry and Scott's that night.... I'm excited about this show because it feels like I'm in a musical again, and it's a big show. The men have been terrific to me. They told me it was going to be 225 men, and I said, 'I can handle that!' We have put an awful lot of work in it, and I hope I don't f**k it up," Greene says with a laugh.

 

Greene in "Pushing Daisies."
ABC

The Tony-nominated artist also gave a somewhat impromptu performance at the Washington bar JR's earlier this week. "David, who owns the bar, is so amazing. He publicized it, and last night the place was packed to the roof. There were people everywhere. They said they never heard it quiet like that... I did ['Somewhere That's] Green'; 'Not While I'm Around,' which was the song that Bruce and I had come up with, thinking that Hillary, if she could sing, she would sing this to the country. I also sang 'Suddenly Seymour' with everyone as a sing-along. And, I did this all on my knees because I was out on the bar. I was afraid to stand up! I was wearing heels, so I was kneeling on my knees," she laughs. "Then I sang 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,' and they started singing along with me, which was so sweet, so it was a really exciting evening."

Greene is also excited because the concerts mark her first East Coast gigs since resuming her musical partnership with former husband, musical director and pianist Christian Klikovits, who collaborated with Greene on her critically acclaimed evenings of Torch!, which she has performed to enthusiastic crowds on both sides of the Atlantic. "The way we work," Greene explains, "is in order to figure out what we want to do, we have to do about four times the material. We try new things, we arrange it, rehearse it, we perform it for ourselves and we compare. Then we figure out what our favorites are, what's best for the show, and we pare down. Then we'll think of another idea or I'll say, 'What about trying this?' It's like [planting] an amazing tree and allowing it to grow and see what blossoms. It's very collaborative. There are some emotional bouts, but we'll always be that way. I love him to bits. He's in my blood. He's like my brother, and he's married to a wonderful actress, Kathrin Beck, who I'm also bringing to DC because it's the holidays, and I love her. She's wonderful, and I think she really has chops. It's all been great because you know how much I really wanted to work with Christian again. It broke my heart when we weren't working because I thought, 'What a waste of time.' So, that's very exciting, and, also, we added Stephen Erdody, a brilliant cellist and a truly good man, who was brought to me by James Dooley [composer of 'Pushing Daisies']. Stephen is a Grammy Award winner, and we've just been thrilled to work with him."

Greene in Little Shop of Horrors.

A long-time champion of LGBT causes, Greene well understands those who have kept secrets long under wraps. In fact, these concerts have allowed the multi-talented performer, who possesses an emotional depth few can boast, to unburden herself with a longtime secret that she feels will answer questions of both friends and fans alike.

"We are only as sick as our secrets," Greene says. "For many years, I have been private about something because my friends were worried it would harm me in some way—maybe towards work or people's attitude towards me. But [it may explain the] secret behind possible stage fright, the secret behind why I don't drive, the secret behind why probably I've always identified, since I was a young child, with people not being treated fairly or differently.

"When I was very young, we had a woman who worked in our house. Essie basically brought me up. I loved her; we shared a room together. She was with me from when I was 5-14, and she would tell me stories about how she had to sit in the back of the bus, and it made no sense to me. I couldn't figure out why. I would make her tell me all these different stories, and I would just ask her questions about why. I really, really couldn't comprehend it—not in a mean or aggressive way—I just didn't understand. I couldn't wrap my head around it, and it used to haunt me. 

"When I was very young, for a few years they didn't know what was wrong with me," Greene continues, "and I was given a lot of IQ tests by my mom at her vanity. I had this poem that I wrote—because I do write a lot of poetry —called 'Trancey.' It's about me having a petit mal seizure in sixth grade at school. When I was a child, I took medication for three or four years. I don't remember how long to be honest; a lot of it is hazy, probably because I want it to be. It wasn't a very pleasant part of my life; that's why I rarely talk about my childhood. But I was on medication, and then I was taken off of it.

 

Greene and Raul Julia in The Threepenny Opera.
photo by Barry Kramer

"Years later, in 1975-76, when I was doing Jenny in Threepenny Opera for Joe Papp, if people remember, Blair Brown took over for me for several performances. I was exhausted, and they put me in a hospital and ran some tests. One day they said to me, 'Look, we don't want you walking around the streets, and two years from now you have a grand mal seizure. We would be remiss in our duties.' Sure enough, in 1978, I had my first grand mal seizure, which was witnessed by my first boyfriend, Tony Berg, and I was put back on medication, and there were a few years of dealing with the seizures. Many things can bring on a seizure—emotions, bad eating habits or lack of sleep—but the last seizure I ever had was before Little Shop. I do believe that when God takes things away, he gives you back, and I got the gift of Little Shop, the play. As I mentioned, the last time I ever had a seizure was in 1981, but people kept wondering at that time, 'Where did she go?' Well, I went and dealt with life. People who loved me didn't reveal that I had been ill, and my sweet friend, Greg Fauss, who is no longer here, rescued me in many places. He actually kept rescuing me. I was having seizures in different restaurants, and he would come and get me. Once, I woke up, and I was told that I had a seizure on 43rd and Broadway, and I woke up at St. Claire's Hospital.

"Greg was my dearest friend, and he wanted to become a lighting designer, so together we bought lights and created the lighting for my show at Brothers and Sisters and later at Reno Sweeney's. He stage-managed, helped with costumes, and went on to light Chita Rivera and Peter Allen's shows. He was like my brother, and when he died, I was responsible for him and went to the morgue to identify him and arrange to have his body sent home. I'll never forget how dear, sweet Howard Ashman let me out of the first tech days of Little Shop to go to Greg's home for the funeral. Greg was a really loyal friend, who loved me very much, as I loved him. He watched and worried over me. He died very young from a heart attack, at age 32. I loved him so.

"Sometime in 1979, I was still out in Los Angeles and didn't have much money. Mary Colquhoun, who is sadly no longer living, but was then in casting at the Public Theater, made up a story that I had to be auditioned for a play that I wasn't at all right for. They were determined to get me home to New York City. They never flew anyone anywhere, but they sent me a plane ticket, and little by little, between the Public Theater keeping me busy, another engagement at Reno Sweeney's, a film for Jack Hofsiss, with Scott Rudin producing, I got my courage back through work. There were a few ups and downs, but there were also amazing people who helped me along the way.

 

Greene in the film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors.
Warner Bros.

"Now, back to the more recent past. I was always questioning Bruce, Bryan, Steve and Christian, of course, and people who care about me, like you, whether it was time to share this secret. I know what it's like to be different, and I know we only have this one life, and if we're not proud of ourselves and we're not authentic to who we are, and if we're not caring people who want to do meaningful things with our lives, what is the point of being here?...I was on the verge of revealing this many times, and this very sweet guy, who was interviewing me for Metro Weekly last week, was the first to get the news, kind of by accident. He kept asking whether something had happened in my life that made me feel so personally empathetic with the LGBT cause. When I told him my story, he was very kind about it. He said he would not print that information if I didn't want him to, but everyone just said, 'You know what, it's time.' If there's a child out there who feels different—or an adult for that matter—they have an ally in me and always have.

"My mom passed away last year, and in looking back at her life, she felt that I could have an awful lot of resentment concerning my childhood. Over the years, I have helped a lot of people go and be peaceful and proud of their lives, and I said to my mom—because we were kind of estranged for many years — 'If all that didn't happen to me as a child and then later on as an adult, I might not have become who I am. I'm proud of myself, people love me and respect me, and I like me. I like who I am.' And, so, sometimes the adversities you go through help you become a person you are proud of, and instead of hating what you're going through, maybe bless it because for some reason, it is going to build you into that person that you are proud of being. I had a few tests this year of 'could I be my best self' when some people weren't being their best selves. I was glad that I could be, and I think sometimes hardships teach us these lessons.

 

Greene, with Jessica Biel, in the Hollywood Bowl's Guys and Dolls.
photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

"It's also very important to be authentic. I suppose with this one secret looming out there — and people asking questions like, 'Well, why don't you drive?' — it's always been uncomfortable. This way, it's simple, and probably also a little behind my stage fright because we want to be in control of our lives, and when we're not in control, it can be quite frightening. I have always looked to anybody who has innocence in them or anybody who has a sweetness or a dearness, and anybody who feels different. I mean, let's face it, epilepsy now has a face. People have been frightened of it. I've seen people's reactions to other people having seizures, and I've taken care of those dealing with epilepsy. I know what it's like to wake up and see those faces, and it's not as stigmatized as it was when I was growing up, but when I was a child, it was hard… And, it was hard to come out about it even now."

When asked how she felt when first discussing the illness publicly, Greene says, "Well, I was shocked actually. ...You know how achingly private I am, but the thing is, I don't want to be ashamed anymore… When you've been taught to hide something because people might think you're crazy, [it causes shame.] There was a time in my life that my mother told me that they didn't know whether they were going to send me to college or an institution, and it's rough to hear that… Childhood is tough. Adulthood is tough. And, people want everyone to conform because it makes them more comfortable. I don't think you should be different for difference sake, but if you feel something...just like "Boy Princess.' What a sweet book. What a sweet mother. They allowed him to just be whoever he is.

"I think creating of any sort, whatever line you're in, is paramount—you can be an architect, you can be a banker, you can be anything—I think that when you create, you're closest to God and yourself. You can even create a life and even be creative in how you bring up that life..... I think when people create, and when people imbue art in whatever they do, and in their individuality—that is the most sacrosanct thing of humanity. When you are proud of what you think and your faults are yours, and your beliefs are yours, then you can infuse them into the world. That's why I keep bringing up Hillary. She doesn't say 'problem.' She says 'challenge' because it is a more positive way of thinking of something. A problem is a dead end. A challenge is ongoing and maybe we can solve it… She is a wonderful role model, someone you want to emulate. She is so fascinating and so bright and so unbelievably special—with a great laugh and a great sense of humor. I love when we have people that we can look up to. I'm not saying anybody should look up to me. I'm saying, okay, this pretty much would answer an awful lot of questions that people have had about me like, 'Where did she go?' Why it happened. Well, life happened, and I believe in living life."

 

Greene and Benedict Salter in London's Betwixt!
photo by Marilyn Kingwill

And, her current, fulfilling life, full of "wonderful, loving friends," recently included a return to the London stage in the new British musical comedy Betwixt!, which played the West End's Trafalgar Studios 2 and co-starred Steven Webb and Ashleigh Gray. About the experience, Greene, who played three roles – The Enchantress, Princess and Nymph Queen,  identical triplets – says, "I loved doing it! I loved London. ... I just loved working with Ashleigh and Stevie and [our musical director] George [Dyer]. They were stunning people to work with, so that was really quite wonderful, and I loved doing a musical again. Again, I had to get past the shy part. Once I got into the character and finally got the character's clothes around me, and by clothes, I mean the character's personality, I could hide. London was very exciting. There are a lot of very, very, very talented people."

Greene's multitude of fans will be happy to learn that there are two recordings in the works: a new Christmas CD and the release of her never-before-heard debut solo album. The holiday recording, she says, "will include 'Angel,' and we're going to do 'Hallelujah,' and this great Laura Nyro song 'Let it Be Me' that ends with 'Chestnuts.' It's not a typical Christmas album, but why would I do a typical album," she laughs. "I'm going to include the instrumental piece Steven and Christian are playing in this show. We have a big long list, about 14 songs. Then we also want to do [another album called] 'Naked' and maybe include my poem 'Trancey' in it somehow."

The other recording is one Greene made in 1973-74 that was never released. Entitled "All the Lives of Me (Looking Back to Go Forward)" (penned by her late friend Peter Allen), the recording was originally produced by Joel Dorn and arranged by Arthur Jenkins Jr., who are both now deceased. The album also includes "Dear Miss Streisand" from Paul Jabara's Broadway musical Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don't You Ever Forget It, which marked Greene's Broadway debut. Greene says she decided to release this vintage recording to honor all those whose work is reflected on the recording. "Joel, Arthur, Peter, Paul and Bob Lifton (the engineer) are all gone, and I wanted to honor them and their work. They were so very talented, and they believed in me at such a young age. I was very lucky to have them in my life. My father passed away before making 'All The Lives of Me.' The recording is really about 'innocence lost,' and with the recent loss of my mom and my father's brother, Uncle Herb, and also concurrently finding out that Joel, Arthur and Bob had passed, it seemed that if ever I was to release it, it should be now, a sort of 'going back to go forward.'" Among the song titles are "Never Neverland," "6:30 Sunday Morning," "Marry Me A Little," "I'll Pay the Check," "Home to Myself," "Make it Easy on Yourself," "Nights in White Satin" and more.

But, for now, the gifted singing actress is focused on her weekend of concerts with the Washington Gay Men's Chorus. "I am really looking forward to Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University. They said the ticket sales are great! I think people are just excited that I'm still living and performing," Greene laughs. "I love singing with these men!"

[Red & Greene will be presented Dec. 16 at 8 PM, Dec. 17 at 3 PM and 8 PM and Dec. 18 at 3 PM in Lisner Auditorium. Greene will be joined by musical director-pianist Christian Klikovits and cellist Stephen Erdody. Lisner Auditorium is located at 730 21st Street NW, Washington, DC. For ticket information visit www.gmcw.org.] Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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