Ellen Greene On Creating the Role of Audrey and Returning to Little Shop of Horrors

Diva Talk   Ellen Greene On Creating the Role of Audrey and Returning to Little Shop of Horrors
 
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 Ellen Greene
Ellen Greene

Ellen Greene
For the numerous fans of Ellen Greene, the forthcoming Little Shop of Horrors concert, which features the inimitable singing actress re-creating her signature role as the lovably ditzy, golden-hearted Audrey, is the hottest ticket of the summer. In fact, originally scheduled for one performance, the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken classic will now be offered three times at New York's City Center due to ticket demand: July 1 at 7:30 PM and July 2 at 2 PM and 7:30 PM. For Greene, whose New York stage and concert appearances are all-too rare, it's a chance to revisit the role that is most dear to her, one she helped create with Menken and Ashman, later reprising her work in Los Angeles, London and on screen in the Frank Oz-directed feature film. Although Greene has performed her two show-stopping ballads — the touching "Somewhere That's Green" and the spirit-raising "Suddenly Seymour" — throughout her eclectic career, the upcoming performances, part of the Encores! Off-Center summer season curated by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori, mark the first time audiences will have the chance to hear Greene perform the entire score in three decades. A week ago, I posed a set of questions to the gifted artist, who envelops both song and spoken word with a rare mix of naked emotion, honesty and humor; her refreshingly candid answers follow.

Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in <i>Little Shop</i>
Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in Little Shop Photo by Peter Cunningham

[Directed by Dick Scanlan, Little Shop will also feature Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal as down-on-his-luck plant-shop worker Seymour with Taran Killam ("Saturday Night Live") as Orin, Joe Grifasi as Mushnik and Eddie Cooper as the Voice of Audrey II with Tracy Nicole Chapman (Chiffon), Marva Hicks (Crystal) and Ramona Keller (Ronnette) as The Urchins. Patricia Wilcox will choreograph with musical direction by Chris Fenwick.]

Question: What was your initial reaction when approached about stepping into the role of Audrey again?
Ellen Greene: Well, it was my Jeanine [Tesori] who called and asked me. I had been in her First Picture Show in its many forms with Estelle Parsons, a wonderful and fascinating musical about the first female filmmaker. I love Jeanine, her heart and her talent, so I told her I would say yes to anything she wanted. I loved working with her that much, but when she said it was Little Shop, my heart brimmed over with joy. I loved that land of silliness, magic innocence, great music and vulnerable love. So many have written me asking me to do it again, so the reason I am doing this is for old friends who knew that magic time and were there when Little Shop was born, for people who never got to see it or my Audrey on stage, and mostly for my dearest Howard [Ashman] to live again.

Question: When was the last time you played the role in a production?
Ellen Greene: The play ... Well, not since Cameron Mackintosh's West End production at The Comedy Theatre in 83-84, and the film I stopped shooting in September 1985 ... so not for quite some time. I have been Audrey, singing "Green" several times and sometimes "Seymour": Cameron Mackintosh's fabulous Hey, Mr. Producer! for the Queen in 1998, with Christian [Klikovits] for Showstoppers in 2004 at Lincoln Center (Bob Billig asked me. He was the original musical director of Little Shop and my first friend in NY — we did my first two shows together, Kismet with John Raitt and George M!  — a six month bus and truck ... eek!!), in 2011 in London, as a surprise for the audience, during a benefit for The Dress Circle at Her Majesty's Theatre, and for the DC Gay Men's Chorus that same year for Red & Greene, their Christmas show.

Question: What has surprised you the most as you have been working on this musical/role again?
Ellen Greene: How it touches me so, all the memories that keep flooding back. It was such a joyful creation... we laughed so much. I didn't expect so many memories to flood my senses as I studied the role again. It felt like a hug, one that was mixed with so many emotions and so many memories. I listened to an early performance with Lee Wilkof, the original Seymour (and my favorite), and I remembered how glorious he was. Not only was his voice gorgeous and his character dear, but he was the most reliable, loyal, dependable, sweetest curmudgeon actor I had the good fortune to work with. I cried so at the end, and I remembered how much I loved these sweet peeps in this land.

And the friends I made ... Leeland (for that's what I call him ... for he lives in the land of Lee) and Constance Grappo (she was Howard's assistant director ... a wonderful director and painter in her own right...smart, loving and thoughtful). They became my dearest friends. So many became my family...Alan and Howie, my brothers.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken Photo by Peter Cunningham

I remember Audrey coming to life. After I read the script, I was on my way to unemployment, and I remember saying to myself, "Skid Row? Skid Row? Skid Row? I don't want to be in a camp musical." I only had a recording of "Green," and after listening to the song a couple times through, while I was standing on line at the unemployment office, I realized I knew the song. I never know lyrics immediately, but I started to sing along. So with tears in my eyes from the lyrics...all of a sudden I knew her and this land. (Howard and I met the year prior while I was at Cambridge performing Seven Deadly Sins with Carmen De Lavallade.) I wasn't available to do his project, but I so wanted to meet him. I sang every song in my repertoire, we played and laughed for an hour. So when I went in for Little Shop, he and Alan were behind a table in a small room with a piano to my left. I read, and my Audrey voice just came out...I never planned it. Then I asked to sing "Green," and they were surprised that I knew it, but Alan went behind the piano, and what followed next felt like magic. As Alan played and I sang "Somewhere That's Green," my eyes and Howard's eyes welled up, and there was this quiet after ... It was palpable. I knew then, I would know and love these two men for the rest of my life. There was a love unspoken between us.

As to Howard and Alan's relationship, I was so very fortunate to witness the strong bond between them both and to watch them work. Their fun teasing as they worked, their deep love and respect for one another and their shared musical genius together...all this coupled with a very disciplined hard working ethic. That kind of inside view was a rare opportunity to be shared by a small coterie of friends. I was very grateful. I still am.

The original <i>Little Shop</i> company
The original Little Shop company

One more person I would like to add to the creating of Little Shop is Esther Sherman. She was Howard's agent and my G-d agent. She was always there supporting the show. She loved it!! She had fed Howard when he wasn't working, and she fed me when I wasn't. She loved and supported us all, and she is missed.

The creating of the play was also magical between Howard and myself. He tossed the camp stuff out and edited his first act, and it was up and staged that first week. The second act the same...edited and staged in the second week. I was so very fortunate that Howard wanted my input. He just loved me and got me, and we both made each other laugh. Sometimes when I create a character - "over there" sometimes magic happens all by itself. I was lucky to be in the thrall of one of those magical moments. I felt she should be ripe as a peach, so I gained a bit of weight. The dress, Howard first thought it too dressy, but "like Gracie" I thought it was just right...and as Audrey would say, "This is good taste." High heels teetering like the material....just when you want to laugh, you cry, and just when you are about to cry, you are made to laugh. The Audreyisms started to come in around now, too, and before long everyone was talking like Audrey...cause it was fun, I guess. The make-up? Who knows...but I felt she would be too hard with that make-up as a brunette...She needed to be crowned softly. So I asked Howie to meet me at a wig shop on 14th Street. He did, but he wasn't convinced when he saw me in the wig, but let me run with it. I came back and with the help of Paul Homes (our loving stage manager), we cut the wig together from a full-length Bridgette wig. So when I went to show the initial Audrey in costume, make-up and wig to Howard, Connie, Lee, Marty (Martin Robinson, who designed the plant) and Paul...I don't remember who else was there, but they didn't like it. Howard said I looked like Joan Rivers (I was to be on her talk show years later, and she couldn't have been more lovely, funny and classy … she looked beautiful, and it was a great show to be on...she is much missed.) So, I just said to all, let me finish her and then tell me what you think after, and Howie did just that. I guess he liked it. What great memories and what wonderful talented people I got to know and love.

Question: What does this role/musical mean to you?
Ellen Greene: I spent five years of my life being Howard's "keeper of the flame." That's what he called me. I got to do the play in NY, LA and London and then back to London to film at Pinewood for the better part of a year. He had given me the film script as a gift earlier in the year, so when the screen test came up, Howard help me prepare. I tested for the film with Frank [Oz] and Howard there and got the part. I was so lucky, I know. Then the film for nine months. As I've said, the beauty though was the beginning building the show. It's so rare that Howard let me help shape the show and create Audrey, and there was Alan's gorgeous pulsing music throughout, letting my rock side come out. You know, I have become a bit of a reticent actress.. I guess the 90's were too much for me...too many talents and big loves/friends of mine dying, but they would be the first ones pushing me back on stage to do this. I guess to honor them and their belief in me. (If it wasn't for Christian, I wouldn't have got my heart out of my throat to sing again years back, when I met him.) This is less about me, and more about honoring everyone and hopefully not disappointing anyone. I am competing with everyone's memory of Little Shop and my younger self, so my hope is I honor that challenge.

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Question: What is your most vivid memory about performing in the original Off-Broadway production?
Ellen Greene: The beauty of Howard and Alan's musical.

I guess the best first moment was the first showcase performance. We were being paid $50 a week. The original WPA...the theatre, a tiny space, that was located on the 2nd floor at 138 5th Ave. above a whorehouse. Alan played piano for the performance with a few other musicians. (I loved when he played/plays...he has so much heart). All I remember is it was crowded.. and it was hot. Cameron Mackintosh was there, the Shuberts, Dick Wolf, Liz McCann, and because he was tall I could see him..sweet, supportive Tommy Tune. After it was over, Kyle Renick, the WPA producer, was beaming. (I did a play for the WPA years later that Howard had wanted me to do, Anne Comire's Starting Monday, so I would know what he was going through from the inside. The character dies from malnutrition from cancer in the end. I also got to sing in one more Alan musical, Weird Romance. I suppose the best thing was the birth of Little Shop and creating this land for we were all under its spell, and we all became enchanted.

A sad, but touching memory, showing how generous, kind and sensitive Howard was towards me. A very dear friend of mine, Greg Fauss, he was 32, and he passed suddenly. (Greg did everything with and for me. He and I created my sound and lights for our shows at Reno's and such.) It was late at night when I got the news and I had to go and identify Greg at the morgue. We were in the middle of tech at the Orpheum (we had revamped the theatre for Little Shop), and I was distraught. So during this very precious time for a show, Howard let me out of the our tech rehearsal for a few days to follow Greg back to be buried. I remember Howard standing there worried for me outside of my apartment on West End Avenue with grief on his face for me.

A silly piece of trivia: Between the showcase that ended June 6, and after we chose the theatre, Howard sent me to Cherry Grove to rest while they revamped the Orpheum that Little Shop would call home.

Me and Lee (Wilkof)...he was my fave on the Orpheum Stage with Howard (Ashman) directing the shoot before opening
Me and Lee (Wilkof)...he was my fave on the Orpheum Stage with Howard (Ashman) directing the shoot before opening

Question: What are you most excited about in terms of doing Little Shop again?
Ellen Greene: Well, of course, I am excited about working with Jeanine again, I have gotten to know Dick Scanlan well, and he is just lovely and cares so much. And then this great cast. Jake, he is such a fine actor; Joe Grifasi, he's a sweetheart and talented; then Taran, who's funny; the girls I know from Caroline, or Change; and Eddie, who I hear is wonderful, will play the plant. I am really looking forward to rehearsal... It's my favorite time. But most of all? Getting to live in that land and being Audrey again. She is such a pure spirit. She sees the good in everyone. There is so much happening in the world now and so much vitriol. It will be fun to be silly and make people laugh. All the old friends and people who I haven't seen for so long and love the musical.....making them giggle will be a real treat.. and just when they are laughing touching their hearts. Well, hopefully, I won't disappoint.

Question: What can audiences expect from the Encores! production?
Ellen Greene: What they have in mind for Little Shop is a true concert performance with scripts. I do know that I have heard from some people that they expect a staged musical with scripts.

I would hate to have them come with certain expectations, and have them disappointed, and so I am really glad you asked that question. They feel a true concert will give a pure representation of the story, lyrics and music, and honor the beauty of Howard and Alan's musical. It's a tremendous gift that Jeanine and City Center have given me. To let Howard and Audrey live again. I'm so very excited!!!

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A footnote: Although this interview was completed before the Tony Awards, Greene wrote to say how thrilled she was that Tesori's Fun Home was so honored on Broadway's biggest night, winning Tonys, including Best Musical.

[Tickets for Little Shop begin at $25. Phone (212) 581-1212 or visit NYCityCenter.org. Greene's newest solo recording is titled "Songs for a Winter's Night." Click here to purchase on iTunes. Actual copies of the CD are now available on CDbaby.com.]

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

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.

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