Ellen’s Back

Ellen Greene and Jake Gyllenhaal in the Encores! production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” | JOAN MARCUS

Ellen Greene and Jake Gyllenhaal in the Encores! production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” | JOAN MARCUS

Real theater comebacks — the kind that incite an electric buzz of anticipation and, when truly triumphant in performance, drive an enslaved audience mad — are rare, indeed. But the long-unseen Ellen Greene, who just recreated her role of Audrey, the hapless but heartbreakingly irresistible heroine of “Little Shop of Horrors,” truly made it happen at Encores! last week. Pencil slim and looking hardly a day older than when she last played the role in 1986, her enormous, gorgeously unrusted pipes shook City Center to its very core and her ineffably winsome line readings (“Mr. Mushnick!”) made a new generation of achingly young theater queens in attendance fall both all over themselves laughing and instantly in love with her. The raucously unalloyed love that filled this venerable hall for her and the entire, perfectly cast show will be one of the year’s theatrical high points, for sure.

Meeting her again after some years, she threw her arms around me (“I remember you!”), and exclaimed about her show’s imperishable appeal, “Isn’t it amazing?” Recalling the show’s origins more than three decades ago, she said, “Originally, when we were shopping for theaters, we first did it at this very small theater upstairs, over this whorehouse on Fifth Avenue and I remember it was very warm. We had to take off our sweaters, but Cameron Mackintosh came, who became our London producer, and the Shuberts, and it was quite exciting with so many people there and producers starting a bidding war. We had the month of June to relocate, and we looked at other theaters, and came to the conclusion that we could book it on Broadway and maybe not run as long, or be Off-Broadway and run forever, and we found the Orpheum downtown. They wanted to revamp the theater, so Howard [Ashman, the show’s lyricist] sent me away to relax on Fire Island, [sings] ‘where the boys are.’ And it was fun, and then we came back, and it was magical how it was put together so quickly and so surprising. Howard let me do so much; he got me and I got him.”

The show was turned into a wonderful film in 1986, and I remember, during the promotion of it, Greene went on Joan Rivers’ show. Theater fan Rivers enthused about how rare it was for a theater actress to recreate her role on film, and Greene said, “Yes, and I hope it sets a precedent.” Like a shot, Rivers, fired back, “It won’t!”

“Little Shop of Horrors”’ original Audrey makes an already-legendary comeback at Encores!

“When you went on her show, they took a nice portrait of you and then sent it to you as a gift. She also wrote thank you notes, and it was the classiest backstage I’d ever seen. She was wonderful and gorgeous. Actually, when I first put together the Audrey thing, with the blonde wig and everything, Howard wasn’t sure he liked it and said, ‘You look like Joan Rivers.’ Well, I took that as a compliment because she was gorgeous, even when I met her years later, and the funniest woman ever. And, yes, I thought it would be a precedent but it wasn’t.

“I’ve been so fortunate. John Landis was first going to direct the film. I finished the play in 1984 with reviews that nobody could buy in comedy theater. Marty Robinson, who created the plant for the play was my boyfriend and we were living together. Howard sent me the script as a gift, before I was even cast in it. John Landis invited me and Marty to lunch at the Russian Tea Room. I was just his girlfriend there, and John’s talking to Marty about all the plans, a charming man, and his wife, Deborah, was going to do the costumes. At the end of the lunch, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re playing Audrey!’ Well, I quietly went downstairs to the powder room to scream ‘Ahhh!’, but instead I got sick and got rid of my lunch. I came back and just said, ‘Oh!’ I had only done two films before that, and I knew how many big names wanted it, so I thought I probably wasn’t big enough.

“So Landis was going to do it, but then there was that horrible helicopter accident on the set [of ‘Twilight Zone,’ which killed Vic Morrow]. And then Scorsese was doing it for a moment, and then not. So then there was Frank Oz, who I knew from Marty, and Jim Henson and Joe Raposo from ‘Sesame Street.’ Frank was doing a movie, and I asked him if I could I talk to him during lunch on the set. I said, ‘You should do “Little Shop!” You understand the show: the plant is larger than life, but he has a heart and he’s innocent and sweet and silly, and [“Sesame Street’”s] Grover is all of that. And not only that, you understand the puppets!’ He was magnificent, it was a great film, and they later released his cut of the film, which was glorious!”

Ellen Greene with David Noh.

Ellen Greene with David Noh.

In the 1970s, Greene really ruled New York, with Paul Mazursky’s classic — and I believe greatest film — “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” and her appearance as Pirate Jenny in the Public Theater’s electrifying Richard Foreman-directed “Threepenny Opera,” with Raul Julia. In addition, she reigned supreme at the legendary cabaret Reno Sweeney, where, instead of doing my NYU homework, I would sit at the bar and catch her spectacularly eclectic gigs, where she would dedicate “Knights in White Satin” to the waitstaff (“Babes, I love youuu”), who would be wearing T-shirts that said “Ellen’s Back.”

“Oh, wow! You came there? It was amazing, my luck! In the early ‘70s, Reno’s was my home, as was the Public Theater. Reno’s and I were both born in 1973. I performed there and got my first musical, ‘Rachael Lily Rosenbloom,’ and my first opportunity to go into ‘The Boom Boom Room’ at the Public.

“Paul Mazursky saw me the day there was a brilliant review in the Times, and he left after the first act. I thought he hated it, but he said, ‘I saw enough,’ and they called me in for ‘Next Stop.’ I got the part because Paul did a lot of things by instinct. He brought me back in his life many times for premieres of his films or whatever. He and his wife loved to have me in his house, and he was so supportive, so kind. He loved talent, a great director, and not one person did not like working with him. The incredible cast had Lenny Baker, what a great guy, who passed away way too young. There are all these ghosts in my life: Shelley Winters I was honored to do two films with, Dori Brenner. Lois Smith is still around, though, Jeff Goldblum, the best actor, and gorgeous Chris Walken. Every time I see him, he’s so dear.”

I told Greene the poster from the film hangs next to one from “The Boys in the Band” at Julius’, favorite movie locale and the oldest gay bar in the city: “Oh, I love Julius’! That’s where we filmed the second scene of me, Sarah, with Lenny, as Larry. We took over the city when we shot the film. Everybody so loved Paul! We’d rehearsed the entire thing for two weeks — unusual — so we were a company and that’s why there’s such magical chemistry in it. Paul did it old school, he wanted to have the work on the screen, and said, ‘I don’t care about all the extras!’”

Greene’s quite brilliant, exquisite, alien-looking, and alienated Sarah is that echt New York girl, who comes to the city, drawn irrevocably to the glamour, fun, and excitement, but really not quite sure why she’s there, a striking precursor to the denizens of “Girls.”

“Sarah was a secretary, and that was so interesting. The reason she didn’t stay with Larry was that she wasn’t magical. She knew she wasn’t. He was, though, and she couldn’t live up to what he was, but in that moment, she was special. But she still lived with her mother, and it was amazing to work on that. If you say I was still able to make this boring girl so interesting, that was because Paul was a great director who told me to trust my instincts, the first to ever tell me that.”

“They honored Paul at the DGA [Director’s Guild of America], and I thought it was just gonna be this big Jewfest on a Sunday, with Birkenstocks and newspapers, so I went alone. It was close to my house, and I didn’t invite anybody. Well, it was a big to-do with tables and really gorgeous food, with a lot of names — Mel Brooks, George Segal, Elliott Gould. I was late, and everyone was going into the film, which I thought was going to be a lot of clips. Someone handed me a program and said, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful,’ and I said, ‘Oh. Oh, thank you,’ not knowing what she was referring to, and sat down.

“Paul is sitting with his wife Betsy on the aisle and I’m two rows in front, by myself, near Jill Clayburgh and her kids. I loved Jill, when she passed away I was so puzzled — she was really like a girlfriend. Paul had a heart like a marshmallow, which you would never know, always cool, and he walks over to me and says, ‘Oh, nice coat!’ I open the program and they’re screening a few cuts… and then the entire ‘Next Stop.’ I got out of my seat and went to him, ‘You didn’t tell me they were screening ‘Next Stop!’ He said, very cool, ‘Well, they asked me what I wanted to see, and I told them.’ And here I didn’t invite or tell anybody! It was my first film, and I hadn’t seen it in years, but sitting alone was that great moment.

“Afterwards, we took pictures together and I go to say goodbye to him. I started to tear up, and he goes, ‘Don’t.’ And, in two seconds because he could control me like nobody, the tears went back in and I kept it together, because if I went, he would go, and he didn’t want to go. He was quite ill by then. He was so deep, so when he passed, I wrote this big article in Playbill, which compares him and Joe Papp as the two men who were leaders and father figures and who gave me great chances.

“At The Public, in those days, you checked your ego at the door. Everybody was talented so nobody was talented, and if you weren’t in a show, you were developing a showcase or workshop. In ‘Threepenny Opera,’ in that tango dance, I got compared to Martha Graham. It was choreographed by Raul, Richard Foreman, and mostly me. One night, we just came up with this bizarre dance that was really hot, sexy, and really dirty. It was at the famous 1977 blackout in Central Park, as I was just about to start ‘Pirate Jenny’ when the lights went out. I thought, ‘Ohmigod, there’s wheelchairs there!’ My face was painted whiteface and it all happened in my mind in a second that this could be chaos. Don’t lose control. I used to walk out on a plank and walk back and I said to myself, ‘Do what you always do and you won’t fall off.’ I started to sing and then Amy who played piano, God love her, followed and played, no lights, by just instinct. The crowd calmed down and they started seeing my white face in a black dress and they focused on me and I focused on the song and I didn’t fall off. I walked back and it was an amazing moment. Then I sang everything from Reno Sweeney, my club stuff, to keep everyone calm. It could have been a really frightening moment, a stampede.”

I asked Greene what her life is like now, living in California. “This past year has been studying ‘Little Shop’ because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I’m so excited because I want Howard to live again, because I am his ‘Little Shop.’ I left here in 1996 because it was the end of my marriage to my dear Tibor, whom I’m still very close with. The 1990s were very exciting: I got married, but then deaths started to happen. Howard was the first to go in 1991, and Peter Allen in 1992. It was one after another one, either getting sick, or in the middle of it, or dying, and that pattern kept going nonstop. All these major players of my life, so many, and finally after I sang at the Bottom Line for Peter, in 1992, I basically stopped singing. My heart started going into my throat. When Don Palladino died, I think in 1996, that was it for me.

“Joe [Papp] had gone and there were so many ghosts that I’d been near to through all these diseases, because I don’t believe in not being there for people. Are you ambitious or do you decide to be an authentic person? And also your work is better if you are a person as opposed to the other. But there were just so many, and then my husband was overwhelmed and he got into heroin. I saved his life, and he’s remarried and has a child. My second husband, Christian Klikovits, who is my musical partner, got me to sing again in 2001. And now it’s great to be at Encores! working with [summer director] Jeanine Tesori with whom I have such history. I’m so glad she got the Tony [for the “Fun Home” score], and to be with her ad Dick Scanlan and Jake [Gyllenhaal]! I’m not going to hold his beauty and his youth and his height against him! [laughs] You know, I just say it’s okay!”

Marlene Dietrich, costumed Ernest Dryden, in “Garden of Allah.” | MGM

Marlene Dietrich, costumed Ernest Dryden, in “Garden of Allah.” | MGM

You can enjoy an absolute orgy of vintage color at MoMA this summer with its festival “Glorious Technicolor: From the George Eastman House and Beyond.” Some of the most glowing examples — literally — from Hollywood’s Golden Age are on tap through August 5 (moma.org/visit/calendar/films/1583).

Feast your eyes on the sumptuous spectacle of Ingrid Bergman, yes Swedish, but the definitive Spanish heroine, Maria, in Hemingway’s florid “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (July 12, 5:45 p.m.; July 13, 6:45 p.m.). You can see and hear Red Skelton, the woofable Ricardo Montalban, and Betty Garrett and the wet and wonderful Esther Williams (both gowned by the great Irene) charmingly singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in “Neptune’s Daughter” (July 9, 7 p.m.; July 10, 1:30 p.m.). Judy is well represented by one of her two most iconic films, “A Star is Born” (July 17, 1:15 p.m.; July 23, 7 p.m.).

Less sublime, musically speaking, is the two-ton lavish mistake that was a tiresomely heavy Ginger Rogers’ “Lady in the Dark” (July 22, 4:30 p.m.; July 28, 7:15 p.m.). A half-breed and gorgeous Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck (in his single sexy performance) writhe and pant with lust in the spectacularly trashy “Duel in the Sun” (July 25, 7:45 p.m.; July 27, 4 p.m.). Marlene Dietrich wears perhaps the greatest movie wardrobe (Ernest Dryden) in the somnolent romance “Garden of Allah” (July 21, 1:30 p.m.), or as the queens use to refer to it, “Chiffons Over the Desert,” which Cyndi Lauper featured in her video for “Time After Time.” (The sublimely exotic dancer Tilly Losch steals both of the aforementioned films with her savage grace.)

You will shriek hysterically when Maria Montez screams “Gif me dose cobra jools!” and dances while pointing to her subjects for instant designated death, in Robert Siodmak’s camp miracle “Cobra Woman” (July 12, 3:45 p.m.). There’s a rare Technicolor screen test of Katharine Hepburn for a 1934 “Joan of Arc” that was never made. It’s screened with “Nothing Sacred,” with Carole Lombard and Frederic March (July 21, 6:45 p.m.; July 26, 3:30 p.m.).

Finally, the most beautiful film in the series has got to be “Frenchman’s Creek” (July 20, 6:45 p.m.; July 22, 1:30 p.m. ), Mitchell Leisen’s sumptuous Daphne Du Maurier adaptation, with Joan Fontaine at her most patrician-lovely fighting off the advances of a snarling, peruked Basil Rathbone and falling for pirate Arturo de Cordova (although they loathed each other in real life).

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com, follow him on Twitter @in_the_noh, and check out his blog at nohway.wordpress.com.