DIVA TALK: A Chat with Little Shop's Ellen Greene Plus Ripley Shines at Broadway Unplugged

DIVA TALK: A Chat with Little Shop's Ellen Greene Plus Ripley Shines at Broadway Unplugged News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Inspiration: Ellen Greene, as photographed by Toshi
Inspiration: Ellen Greene, as photographed by Toshi

ELLEN GREENE

Ellen Greene doesn't do anything simply or without careful thought and analysis. Sure, she could have easily titled her debut solo recording "Ellen Greene Sings Torch" or "Ellen Greene with Christian Klikovits." Instead, the multi-talented actress/singer decided upon "In His Eyes" and a cover that spotlights musical director Klikovits with a black-and-white photograph of Greene hanging on the nearby wall.

"I love things that make you think," Greene recently told me by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I had painted Christian's home — three walls red and two walls a rust color. He had always loved the Toshi photo [of me], and that painting is sitting on his wall. I was looking at it and thinking about all different stories and Christian's take on me and how I feel — because when you love someone, it's not just the way you feel about them but the way you see yourself in them. That warm feeling that you get the way someone perceives you that makes you feel wonderful about yourself. Seeing that picture on the red wall, I started thinking, 'Wouldn't that be a wonderful story, a picture of Christian against it?'"

Greene enlisted the help of photographer Greg Gorman, who told her, "Ellen, come to my studio, tell me the idea, let me meet Christian, and we'll see." Greene, without hesitation, did just that. "Greg loved the idea, but he wanted to make it more contemporary, so we put Christian in a more contemporary outfit. It was Greg and Christian who said [the CD] should be called 'In His Eyes.' Christian also wanted Bruce Glikas' photo that he took of me onstage at Joe's Pub. He's loved that photo forever—it's been on his desk. He said, 'I want that photo [for the back cover].' And I said, 'You know what? It makes sense. You've taken the old me and the new me, and I've taken the old me and the new me, and it's become an amalgam of both — the voices from the past and the present, and, combined, it makes a new story.' It's 'in his eyes' — the way I feel, the way he sees me. It's also not just me, but ideas we share, stories we tell, how we're viewed. It's many things. That story means a lot to me."

There are many stories, in fact, to be found on Greene's wonderful recording, a dream come true for the performer who has been thrilling audiences the past few years with her acclaimed cabaret and concert act, "Torch." "It's truly exciting," Greene said about the arrival of "In His Eyes." "If you have an idea that is in your heart for so long, when it is finally realized — and it’s realized with a very strong sense — it’s truly exciting. When you do a play [or movie], you do what the director is envisioning. But when you do something that's totally your own and then you collaborate with someone — where Christian begins and where I begin and end is seamless. And then working with [engineer] Bernie [Kirsh] — it was so wonderful to work with people who were full and open: full of ideas but open to be bendable and malleable and compromising in the best terms. You want to know the truth? I’m the most proud of this project than anything else because it came out with all its wonderful imperfections. I really feel over the moon!" It's actually quite amazing that the CD was completed at all, given that Greene and Klikovits only had three days in the recording studio and Greene was simultaneously starring in the L.A. production of Warren Leight's Side Man. "I was doing Side Man on the weekend," said Greene. "It was so much fun and so frightening to [play Terry], because she goes the gamut. It was just an amazing company. I forgot how much I love doing plays. I guess I was on some sort of a roll," she added with a laugh. "To go from creating this character then to being in the studio — who knew if I could do this? Christian did, [but] I didn't. . . Monday I had off from the show, and on Tuesday we [recorded] from 11 to 11, 11 to 12 the next night and 11 to 1 the third night. Basically, the first night it was Christian and me laying down tracks together. That's really hard because if one person gets it good, then the other person [may not], but we're so tight that I would say it took me about three, four songs in to go, 'Ahhh.' Then we got the sound right. It was an amazing moment in my life!

"So the second half of the first day we clicked," Greene continued," and by the second day, all the tracks were down. I was now doing the tracks that Christian didn't have to play on. By the third day, that's when the cello came in, the violins came in, the viola. And Christian is standing there in the studio, Bernie is sitting, and I'm standing next to Christian. He is following his music. Because I was so busy with Side Man, I'd never heard any of his arrangements. It was absolutely thrilling. The two of us — our eyes are down. I was afraid to look up it was so extraordinary. It was coming to life! I had no idea his arrangements were going to be almost classical. I noticed his hands were following the notes on the pages of his arrangements. I was so touched—my eyes welled up. It was beautiful."

Greene believes that performing in Side Man and then recording the album is comparable to her experience as Audrey in the original production of Little Shop of Horrors. "There are times, like with Audrey," remembered Greene, "where I met [writer/lyricist] Howard [Ashman], and it was so fateful. I remember walking to unemployment going, 'Skid row, skid row, skid row. I don't want to be in a camp musical.' And I'm on line for unemployment and I'm reading the words of 'Somewhere That's Green' and listening to the music, and I was so taken with it. It was like I already knew it — I didn't even have to memorize it. When I went to read the material, the voice [of Audrey] fell out. I never thought about it, I never planned it. A lot of it was instinctual, but if you stay out of your own way and you also listen — because you have to trust some people — everybody there got me. What's amazing is when you are on that fabulous, creative roll, it's very exciting."

That creativity was almost silenced a decade ago when Greene was performing a benefit concert at the Bottom Line in memory of her friend, the late Peter Allen. "I was doing the Peter Allen concert, and my friend Donn Palladino was in the audience. I had already lost Howard [Ashman] and so many other people. When I was 19 my father died, [so] I started burying people very early. I was singing 'Love Don't Need a Reason,' and I was onstage singing this about Peter and looking at Donn and knowing that he was going to go and that I would hold him through his very last moment, which I did. I just thought, 'I can't sing anymore. I can be other people, but to be myself onstage it just hurts too much.' The one song I sang in Peter's show that wasn't his was 'Goodbye My Friend.' It broke my heart, and I said I don't want to do this anymore."

Thankfully, Greene met Klikovits a few years later. They had been eyeing each other in an L.A. gym for over a year when the two finally spoke. "When I met Christian, I had been asked to sing for children. Children can always get me to sing. It was for a school, and my old manager said, 'They want to do Little Shop of Horrors as the opening. Would you stage that for me and then sing 'Green' for a benefit?' . . . I was getting over my first marriage; [Christian and I] had talked once before, and the second time I found out he was a pianist. He said, 'Well, why don't we work together?' I said, 'Oh, okay.' I was really hesitant. I knew I said I'd do it, but I was really scared to do it. He was so persistent I couldn't back out. That whole day until we met I was a nervous wreck. I think we started with 'Someone to Watch Over Me.' At that time, I had no idea he knew my work. Well, by the end of the rehearsal we danced, and he gave me a kiss. It was pretty fabulous. And our first-year anniversary was the 25th."

And from that first meeting and that first kiss grew a relationship that would lead to marriage and a concert act — "Torch" — that would take the twosome to venues around the country. "Christian would make me presents of CDs, a lot of different music, and then I would listen to it. I found a lot of things and different writers, too. He brought Jane Siberry to me. I brought him things like 'You Take My Breath Away' and 'Man with the Child in His Eyes.'"

"I think life always teaches you something," Greene concluded. "Sometimes you get waves of creativity, and sometimes it's time to stop. It was actually good for me to stop singing because I finally left New York, and [now] I'm exiled in L.A. I had to go through some period of looking back. . . The honor page [on my CD] — and then it became realized on my website, and you can see their faces — it feels so good because this is a way I can be very proactive and I can honor everyone [I've lost], and I can be proud that I knew them, but I don't have to hold it in my heart and keep me from creating. Everybody has to learn to go on their own journey and learn their own lessons and be their own teachers and, for me, this has been, if nothing else besides creative, it's been exciting to learn. I love to learn. I've made a lot of mistakes, but I like imperfection. I really think that is perfection in a way."

And, for a taste of that perfect imperfection, be sure to check out Greene's new recording, "In His Eyes," available at www.ellengreene.com.

BROADWAY UNPLUGGED

Alice Ripley is back, proving once again that she is the most exciting belter of her generation. After she was denied the chance to repeat her Florida performance as Audrey in Broadway's Little Shop of Horrors (one of the worst casting decisions in recent history), I feared Ripley might go the pop route, and I'd never hear the singer-actress perform another show tune. That, thankfully, proved false when Ripley wrapped her wonderful voice around Triumph of Love's "Serenity" this past Monday night at the Broadway Unplugged concert at Town Hall.

The evening — created, assembled, written and hosted by witty critic Scott Siegel — was a delight, from beginning to end and featured some of the theatre's finest. Ripley, who boasted the most powerful voice of all of the women who performed (and most of the men), began "Serenity" gently, building to a stunning climax, belting "and suddenly, serenity, is merely a word I heeaaaaard, soommmmewheeeerrrrre!" It was not only powerfully sung, but beautifully acted.

Ripley, however, wasn't the only performer who shone in the two-act evening, which allowed the sold-out audience the chance to hear voices completely unamplified. Because I grew up in an era that employed microphones, I've never had a problem with amplification and actually enjoy the huge sound that a good sound system can provide. But I did relish the chance to hear a wide array of voices without the benefit — or to some minds, the detriment — of amplification. I was sitting in the middle of the orchestra section and had no problem hearing any of the performers. In fact, I did notice that the lack of mics forces the audience to listen a little more closely and may actually draw the listener into the performance a bit more fully. Certainly the crowd at Town Hall was enraptured by the performers on hand and greeted most everyone with thunderous applause.

Recent Boy From Oz co-star Stephanie J. Block kicked off the evening with "Don't Rain on My Parade." If no one may ever top Lillias White's rendition of that Funny Girl tune at the 2002 Actors' Fund concert, Block did well and demonstrated the power of her pipes. Other highlights of the first half included George Dvorsky, who delivered a wonderful version of Stephen Schwartz's "Proud Lady"; Ann Harada, who seven months pregnant, managed to score with Stephen Sondheim's "There Won't Be Trumpets"; Barbara Walsh, replacing an ailing Julia Murney, delivered one of the most touching songs of the night, William Finn's "Holding to the Ground" (she also impressed by going for — and nailing — the song's high note); Michael Cerveris, who performed Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat," offering a glimpse of his recent performance as George in the Ravinia Festival's Sunday in the Park with George; and Chuck Cooper, who closed the first half with Eubie's "Low Down Blues."

If Alice Ripley was the most impressive female performer, it was Marc Kudisch who stood out among the men, masterfully interpreting both "My Fortune Is My Face" in the first half and "Song of the Vagabond" in the second. Norm Lewis' rich tones on a passionate "Make Them Hear You" — from Ahrens and Flaherty's Ragtime — were also stirring, and Mary Testa drew the most laughs of the evening with her dead-on rendition of "Hard Hearted Hannah." Other second-act notables: Christine Andreas, whose lovely soprano soared on Lady in the Dark's "My Ship"; and Alix Korey, whose rangy belt easily scaled the heights of Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses." The evening concluded with the entire company singing a glorious "You'll Never Walk Alone." DIVA TIDBITS
Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie and Michael Cerveris will star in a concert version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion to benefit Friends in Deed. Murphy and Mazzie will re-create the roles of, respectively, Fosca and Clara, which they performed in the original Broadway production. Cerveris will co-star as Giorgio, repeating the role he played at both the Kennedy Center and Chicago's Ravinia Festival. The tenth anniversary concert on Oct. 20 will be held at the Ambassador Theatre, 219 West 49th Street and will feature other original Broadway cast members. Show time is 7 PM. Tickets for the one-night-only concert are priced $150 and $500 and may be purchased beginning today (Oct. 1) by calling (212) 239-6200. VIP tickets are priced $750 and include a cast party; call (800) 996-5433 for VIP tickets only.

Tony Award winner Judy Kaye, most recently on Broadway in the long-running hit Mamma Mia!, will star in the new play with music Souvenir. Stephen Temperley's two-hander will feature Kaye as famed coloratura Florence Foster Jenkins and musical director Jack Lee as her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Souvenir examines Jenkins' career as well as her relationship with accompanist McMoon. Vivian Matalon will direct the production, which plays the York Nov. 23, 2004-Jan. 2, 2005. For more information visit www.yorktheatre.org.

Jackie Hoffman, who has turned kvetching into an art form, will strut her stuff for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS next month. Hoffman, who plays Prudy Pingleton and a handful of other characters in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, will perform her critically acclaimed show, The Kvetching Continues, as a benefit for the charitable organization. The Oct. 11 evening at Joe's Pub is set for 7:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located at 425 Lafayette Street, between East 4th Street and Astor Place. Tickets are available at the Public Theater's box office or by calling (212) 539-8778.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)