When newly minted Fun Home Tony winner and artistic director of the Encores! Off-Center series Jeanine Tesori calls, people tend to pick up. And in many cases, like that of Ellen Greene, the reply is, "Anything you ask me to do." That's how Greene, the iconic originator of doomed flower-shop associate Audrey in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, came to be starring in a sold-out, three-performance revival of that classic show at New York City Center, July 1-2, costarring film favorite and recent Broadway star Jake Gyllenhaal as Seymour. "When she mentioned it was Little Shop," Greene says before an emotional pause, "I went, 'What a gift. Of course.'"
Unbelievably, this production marks Greene's first New York theatrical appearance since a short-lived 1993 revival of Three Men on a Horse. Though currently Los Angeles-based, it was hard to ignore the allure of returning to the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken tuner she helped build from the ground up, and reuniting with a character that really launched her career. "Ellen is forever Audrey," says director Dick Scanlan.
In a conversation laden with as many tears as there were laughs, Greene and Scanlan bonded over their shared fandom of the work and new Little Shop costar Gyllenhaal, recalled memories of the storied original production, and provided a sneak peek at what will and won't be seen on City Center's stage when Greene reclaims the role that made her a star.
Was there a point while you were working on the original production of Little Shop of Horrors when you realized it would become a worldwide phenomenon?
Ellen Greene: When we were doing it, no. Every once in a while, you get a magic moment in your life. When we did the [original at the] WPA [Theater], there were amazing performances and a bidding war [for the rights to a future life]. We looked at all the theaters on Broadway and Howard said, "OK, I could run a shorter time on Broadway, or we could run forever off-Broadway." He ended up liking, and I liked, the Orpheum, and then we opened.
Dick Scanlan: One of my great mentors is Otts Munderloh, who was the sound designer of the original. He has seen it all and he has done it all. He tells me this story. At the first performance at the WPA, he said when [Ellen] finished "Somewhere That's Green," the audience was sort of astonished for a moment, and then literally an eruption happened. He said it was overwhelming for him. He didn't fully understand what [the show] was until he experienced an audience experiencing it, and that was one of the moments in his career that's in his heart.
Dick, do you look at yourself as a kindred spirit to the late Howard Ashman, given that you're both primarily writers, who on occasion direct their own work?
Dick: People sort of lump it all together and I don't think they fully appreciate [it]. If all Howard did was lyrics, he'd be a legend. Then you add the book and the direction and it's sort of astonishing he hit a grand slam like that. The things I direct are things I'm creating, [like Sherie Rene Scott's Everyday Rapture and Whorl Inside A Loop]. At a certain point, the creative process becomes one. Howard maybe felt that.
Ellen: You're gonna make me cry. The way you talk about Howard's work, I just so appreciate that. You get it.
Dick: I have to say, living in it, the profundity of its caliber reveals itself more and more to me every hour. It's like, Oh my god, look at how well-made this piece is. It's astonishing.
Ellen: And he wasn't precious. I was fortunate that he allowed me to help shape the show. He allowed me to build Audrey. Howard was a strong director, and yet by the same token, he let me run and rewrite things. There was a number in it [at one point] and I said, "Honey, you don't need this. Get rid of it. That's campy." This is a love story of two people. She's seen too many men. "That's what you've written, listen to what you wrote." She tries to please them and she sees the good in them, even though she doesn't think she deserves it. And [Seymour] probably never had a date in his life. That's the beauty when these two fall in love. It's not two perfect people.
Does the age difference between you and Jake Gyllenhaal matter?
Ellen: Well, if I looked like sh*t. But I don't. I have my [Dorian Gray] painting further and further back in the closet. [laughs] [Audrey] was always older than [Seymour]. There are many elements [in which] I hope I don't disappoint, but I'm obviously competing with my younger self. I have been in Audrey drag [recently], for the D.C. Gay Men's Chorus, and I was shocked: It looks good still. [Scanlan] looked at all sorts of ages, but Jake, he came to Dick and said, "I want the part, and I want to do it with Ellen Greene." You can't deny it when a great actor says, "I want the part."
Will there be an Audrey II plant in this production that terrorizes the audience at the end?
Dick: No. We have so limited time, especially tech time. In total, it's about four and a half hours. We're doing something else, and I think it will be very fun.
Ellen: An easier way to understand, it will be as if you were in our rehearsal period. You're seeing us bones-dry, but you get to see when a play is born. But I'm gonna be Audrey. I'm gonna look like Audrey…Just a little more up the hill.
Ellen, what's the best piece of advice you have for all the young women who play Audrey in school and community theaters?
Be innocent. Enter this silly world and put on the clothes of the character. Not the actual clothes, but the endearing [quality]. She's been hurt. She sees good in people. She has a depth of vulnerability. She's innocent and silly. Just when [the audience] arrives to cry, make them laugh. Just when they're about to laugh, make them cry. It's a land. And you live in that land, just like Grover [the Muppet]. He's larger than life and is full of heart and joy, but he's real. That's the show.