DIVA TALK: Chatting with "Pushing Daisies" Star Ellen Greene Plus Clark's "Fifteen Seconds of Grace"

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with "Pushing Daisies" Star Ellen Greene Plus Clark's "Fifteen Seconds of Grace"
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Ellen Greene in
Ellen Greene in "Pushing Daisies." Photo by ABC

Ellen Greene is that rare breed: a gifted musical theatre actress and thrilling concert performer who is equally compelling on screen. This season, TV watchers across the country are lucky enough to have the opportunity to enjoy the innumerable gifts of this actress in the new ABC-TV comedy/drama "Pushing Daisies," which is written and executive-produced by Bryan Fuller and directed and executive-produced by Barry Sonnenfeld and concerns a rather unique pie-shop owner who is able to bring back the dead (there are serious repercussions, however, should the undead remain alive longer than 60 seconds).

Last week I had the great pleasure of catching up with the good-hearted Greene — best known for creating and preserving the role of the lovably ditzy Audrey in the Off-Broadway staging and subsequent film version of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's Little Shop of Horrors — who explained that she auditioned for the "Daisies" pilot and her role as Sylar's mom, Virginia Grey, on "Heroes" during the same two-week period. "I literally got them both at the same time," Greene says. "The casting people for 'Heroes' tried to work it out for me, [so] that I could do both shows. The day [after the 'Heroes' audition] was the reading [for 'Daisies'], so we had to make the decision in two seconds. Steve LaManna, my agent at Innovative, brought the ['Daisies'] script to me and said, 'Ellen, I see you doing this.' I loved it, but I loved 'Heroes,' too. They were saying that ['Heroes'] would be for more than one [appearance]. The next day, when I came in for the reading, Bryan [Fuller] said, 'Ellen, I made a call.' He made a call for me so that we could work it out, and they changed the schedule for me. So I started on 'Pushing Daisies,' and I think I did two days, and then I went to do two days of 'Heroes' with John Badham, who was directing it. It was very exciting. This all happened back in February."

Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz in "Pushing Daisies."
photo by ABC

Greene said that in her "heart of hearts" she knew that the "Daisies" pilot would be picked up for the new TV season. "You know, you always know magic when you see it, [and] you want it to linger longer." "Daisies" casts Greene as Vivian Charles — aunt to Charlotte (Anna Friel) and sister of Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) — the gentler, more affectionate half of the Darling Mermaid Darlings team, who has a love of cheese and humanity. And, Vivian is a character Greene truly adores. "This is my first series," Greene says, adding, "I've never done one because if you want [the show] to live a long time, you have to love your character. . . . It's such a wonderful, multi-layered [character], and I fell in love with Vivian. When you want to live with a character a long while, like I lived with Audrey, you want it to be someone that you love. If you love that character, usually, it will come that other people will love it — especially if it has this magical quality. . . . So, for me, as a series, yes I felt it was going to go, but [I also] wanted it to go. What no one knows is the journey that Bryan [Fuller] has in his brain is so wonderfully multi-layered and complex. Even though [the characters] live in this world — like 'The Land of Little Shop…,' this is the 'Land of Pushing Daisies,' with quotes around it — [but] it's very realistic. There is an obligation of a murder each week, but Bryan is the visionary, and what is so interesting is the characters' journey and their intertwining."

Greene speaks glowingly about writer Fuller. "[He has] this God-given gift [and] is dear and sweet and loving and… to tell the truth, he reminds me so much of the energy that passed between me and [the late lyricist] Howard [Ashman]. He's unique and kind, kind, kind, but he's not afraid of emotion. He's really a special person."

Ellen Greene in "Pushing Daisies"
photo by ABC

Greene, who can be heard on one of the great solo recordings, "In His Eyes" (available at www.ellengreene.com), actually has nothing but praise for the entire cast and crew of "Pushing Daisies." "First off, I love working with Swoosie Kurtz!" Greene exclaims. "She's a wonderful actor. And, Kristin [Chenoweth] — unbelievable! I mean, she's so magical. . . She's gorgeous. She's got a body of life. And I got to sing with her! That was really, truly exciting. . . I just saw Kristin singing 'Glitter and Be Gay,' and my mouth was open. Someone was playing it in the make-up room. We'd only just met when she came to do the pilot. A bunch of six nicer people, I couldn't be more fortunate to call my family — from Lee Pace, who is so dear. When I first saw him, I said he's like a Gary Cooper. He's bashful, he's shy, he's sensitive, he's a great actor, he's beautiful, he's delicious. Then there's Anna Friel. To me, she lights up the screen. She is as dear as they come. She's also very funny. . . . And she has the obligation, of course, of being the heroine. She's just such a smart girl, and she's such a kind-hearted woman, and she's a mother. Gracie is her daughter, who is very sweet. . . . And when you hear [Friel] speak in her English tongue, you go, 'Oh my God, your American accent is brilliant.' I'm wild for her. And, Chi McBride is the funniest, tenderest, kindest [man]. He's also really good. He has some meat in the next [episode] we're doing. He's got drama chops, too." She is also completely besotted with Sonnenfeld, who directed the show's pilot — entitled "Pie-lette" — and several other episodes. "The day before we started shooting," Green says, "we all went out to dinner. . . I got to sit next to Barry and Anna, the two of them such delights. . . Barry was so charming and so funny, talking about his 'sweeties,' his wife and daughter. He's just the most charming man. . . . He's also one of the funniest directors I have ever, ever worked with. . . . I like dear, kind souls who have a good sense of humor and are deep [and] complex."

Ellen Greene in "Pushing Daisies."
photo by ABC

Greene says the highpoint of her week is the day the new "Pushing Daisies" script arrives. "I literally thrill," she says. "I quiver all over, and I'm thrilled because I'm going to get to sit down and read it, and that's the most exciting moment. I will say the second most exciting moment is when we sit around the table and read it together." Because Greene and Kurtz's storyline is not the main thrust of the series — although it's this writer's favorite part of show, as there is something magical that happens when the characters enter the home of the Darling Mermaid Darlings — Greene's working schedule is not as demanding as it is for some of the cast. "Anna and Kristin and Lee and Chi are working [the hardest]. Swoosie and I are so happy the day we get to go to work! We're always so excited. I try to remember to bring baked goods or something. We just feel like a family."

Fans of Greene and the show have a treat in store: On the Nov. 21 episode Greene — who boasts one of the more powerful, emotion-filled voices around — will get the chance to sing on screen in an episode entitled "Smell of Success" that offers some of the backstory of Vivian (Greene) and Lily Charles (Kurtz). "[Swoosie and I] are such a good matching. It's just a yin and yang," Greene says. "Our story is funny on one level, and another [level] is the sisters' relationship — our story that you don't know yet. . . So it's a complicated, wonderful relationship. We were so delighted and surprised when we read the script [for the Nov. 21 broadcast, which features direction by Lawrence Trilling]. I get to the first read-through, and all of a sudden, I find out I'm singing towards the end of the story. And, then they send us a rewrite, and a moment that we knew about [is now included in the script]. We're getting a moment to show you some of our story. . . . And then the best [of the] gifts that they gave me was they said, 'Ellen, we're going to let you sing a song — a Cat Stevens song.' I worked on it for a long time because I actually didn't know it."

Greene asked me not to divulge which Stevens song because she wants people to be surprised, but I can say her singing is beautiful, and as always, heartbreaking. She did say that James Dooley — who has penned the show's original music and oversees its musical aspects — "is so gifted. I've gone to two of his sessions, actually three. He let me invite Christian [Klikovits]. They gave me permission to let Christian play the piano part on this song, so that was very exciting to be able to put him in part of this magical moment that I'm very proud of. . . . There's nothing more exciting than singing on camera. That was a dream when it came true the first time — I couldn't believe it. In actual fact, the day I did the ['Pushing Daisies'] number, I remember it felt like the same thing [as] when I went [in to record] 'Suddenly Seymour.' Of course, it's not as grand, but this was pretty special, the way they went about it. What they gave me in the script is very, very special."

Ellen Greene in "Pushing Daisies"
photo by ABC

With the possibility of a lengthy writers' strike, it is unclear how many new episodes of "Pushing Daisies" will make it to the screen this season. "This is Bryan Fuller's baby," Greene says. "It's his third time up, and he really deserves [the success]. On the same token, I totally understand, and I totally side with what the writers are [doing]. . . .I believe writers deserve. They're the ones who create. None of us could have anything without them. I honor writers. I really love writers. It's just such a brave thing to look at a blank piece of paper and create something and then put your name on it. Because, what if everyone derides you? . . . It's a hard quandary to be in, but I'm hoping that people really do tune in and adopt our show, so that when we do come back [after the strike], there's somebody to come back to, and ABC and Warners know that [the audiences] want us. I'm hoping people really will tune in for the last few episodes and if they like them, write in and say so. I know what's in store for [the characters] through Bryan's brain, and it's so great. I want to see these scripts written." And, I couldn't finish the interview without asking, "How are those pies that are seen in every episode?" "Well," Greene — who's also known for culinary talents — pauses and says with a laugh, "They're not as good as mine!"

["Pushing Daisies" airs Wednesdays on ABC-TV at 9 PM ET; visit http://abc.go.com/primetime/pushingdaisies for more information.]

Victoria Clark: "Fifteen Seconds of Grace"
Victoria Clark, who is best known for her Tony-winning performance as doting mother Margaret Johnston in The Light in the Piazza, displays her numerous gifts as a singer and an actress on her debut solo recording, "Fifteen Seconds of Grace" (PS Classics). Clark, who has a rangy soprano that soars effortlessly, features a mix of songs from the musical theatre as well as tunes penned by the next generation of theatre composers. The singing actress kicks off her recital with the traditional hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing?," which features a wonderful orchestration by composer Jeff Blumenkrantz. In fact, the orchestrations on the recording — penned by Blumenkrantz, Ted Sperling, Jeff Klitz, David Loud, Ricky Ian Gordon and Alex Rybeck — are a major contribution to the 12-track disc, which also boasts musical direction by Tony winner Sperling.

Highlights of the new recording include the moving "Thomas," a song about Clark's young son that was written by Jane Kelly Williams and is paired with "Swinging Song"; Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli's delightful "Someone to Cook For," also written for Clark that allows her to express, in song, one of her other passions, cooking; "Departure," a haunting poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay set to music by Blumenkrantz and touchingly performed by Clark; a glorious rendition of Jerry Herman's "Before the Parade Passes By"; a lovely reading of Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in His Arms"; and the title tune, "Fifteen Seconds of Grace," also written by Jane Kelly Williams.

Those are the highlights, but Clark, whose voice is filled with warmth, makes a strong case for each track. She may ask "How Can I Keep from Singing," but certainly listeners of the disc will hope she never stops.

[Clark will celebrate the recent release of her CD with 7 and 9:30 PM concerts at the Kaplan Penthouse in the Samuel B. and David Rose Building at Lincoln Center. She will be backed by musical director Ted Sperling and an 11-piece orchestra and will offer selections from "Fifteen Seconds of Grace"; John Pizzarelli will be a special guest. Tickets, priced $50 and $90, are available by visiting www.victoriaclarkonline.com.]

Tony winner Barbara Cook, who will perform in concert with the New York Philharmonic Nov. 19 and 20, will present an encore performance with the famed orchestra Jan. 8, 2008, at 7:30 PM. Lee Musiker will again conduct the evening at Avery Fisher Hall, which will feature a mix of Broadway and popular standards. Cook last appeared with the Philharmonic in 1985 when she played Sally Durant Plummer in the all-star concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Tickets for the added performance are priced $29-$119 and are available by calling (212) 875-5656 or by visiting www.nyphil.org. Avery Fisher Hall is located within Lincoln Center at Broadway and 65th Street.

Nancy Anderson, recently seen in the new musical Yank!, will return to Birdland Nov. 25 at 7 PM. Anderson will celebrate her debut solo recording, "Ten Cents a Dance," at the famed jazz club where she will be backed by Ross Patterson & His Little Big Band. The singing actress will also welcome special guests Dee Hoty and Melissa Errico. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $30 cover charge and a $10 food-drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.BirdlandJazz.com.

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

The cast of "Pushing Daisies" (l.-r.): Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene, Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Kristin Chenoweth and Chi McBride.
The cast of "Pushing Daisies" (l.-r.): Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene, Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Kristin Chenoweth and Chi McBride. Photo by ABC
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