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July 17, 2015

July, 2015; July, 1977; November, 1965; June, 2014

Unless my colleague Matthew Murray has squealed on me, no one knows I made a tremendous mistake late last year.

But I want to own up to it. After all, like so many of us, I enjoy bragging when my predictions turn out to be 100% accurate. And yet, how many of us admit when we’ve been so far off-base that we’re in the right-field bullpen?

So I’ll ‘fess up. Last December, when Encores! Off-Center announced its three summer selections for 2015, I droned to Murray, “Who’s going to want to go see LITTLE SHOP? It’s terribly overexposed.”

To his credit, Murray said, “Oh, I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in Ellen Greene.”

“Nah,” I said. “She’s in the movie. Anyone can see her any time. No one’s going to care.”

Well, a few weeks back, I certainly found out how smart I was. It’s not that people merely called Greene and her appearance in the Ashman-Menken classic a smash hit, but also a once-in-a-lifetime event.

And while I’m admitting mistakes, I must confess that this isn’t the first time I’ve snubbed Greene in LITTLE SHOP. Thirteen years ago, I made a list of what I considered to be “The 50 Best Musical Stage Performances Reprised for Hollywood” – and left Greene off the list.

“I have one MAJOR bone to pick: Where is Ellen Greene’s quirky, bizarre, hilarious Audrey from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS?” demanded Brian Vinero. “If the dumb blonde was already a cliché by the time Judy Holliday had to make the type fresh again, how much harder a task did Greene have more than thirty years later? But fresh she is the moment when she finds out that Seymour has named his plant after her and she is so overwhelmed that she can respond with nothing more than a squeak. Listen to her vocal blossoming from a whisper into a blazing belt to match her emotional blossoming in ‘Suddenly Seymour.’”

Agreeing with him was Eric Vbank, William McNeill and John Connors, who added, “For this relatively unknown off-Broadway actress to get cast alongside relative big-shots Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray and John Candy is pretty special - and she’s damn-near perfect in the role.”

What is this blind spot I have with Ellen Greene? I once interviewed her, and found her lovely, effusive and cooperative. So it’s not as if she showed me an imperious attitude that turned me against her. Let me say it again: lovely, effusive and cooperative.

Needless to say, although Greene doesn’t need my apology – she has thousands upon thousands of handclaps and cheers still ringing in her ears – I’ll give it anyway.

Onto other matters. This past Tuesday, “DistantDrumming” on All That Chat pointed out that “American Experience on PBS is airing a documentary on the (1977) blackout tonight. While I know there were far more important consequences of the blackout than the effect on theatre scene, did any of you happen to be at a Broadway show that night?”

I’m sure I’ll surprise no one when I say I was indeed in the theater on July 13, 1977 – at the Beaumont in Lincoln Center seeing THE CHERRY ORCHARD with Jeanne Nicolosi, now one of the city’s top talent agents. The production had two Tony-winners: Santo Loquasto for Best Costumes and Jennifer Tipton for Best Lighting.

But when the place suddenly went black, I didn’t blame Tipton, but the person on the light board. How sloppy!

“Hey,” meekly mewed one of the actors. And soon we heard a woman entering the theater and announcing that the city was enduring a blackout.

“Let’s see what’s going on at CHICAGO!” Jeanne said breathlessly. She was an enormous fan of the musical and, like all of us who saw the original as well as the revival that’s run more than eight times as long (and counting), we know that it can’t hold a matchstick, let alone a candle to that original production.

Speaking of candles, little did we know that a few minutes later, THE CHERRY ORCHARD would continue by candlelight. Those that stayed said it was a magical night.

But we were busy crossing the Lincoln Center Plaza, getting a bit of light from the cars driving (and honking) along Broadway. I saw a bus approaching. With the 46th Street Theatre a full nineteen streets away, time was of the essence. If we tarried too long, everyone from CHICAGO would have left.

“Let’s run for it!” I said to Jeanne. “I don’t have correct change!” she yelled, and in fact, I realized that I didn’t either.

But then I remembered a story I’d read in TIME the week after a blackout in 1965 had plagued not only New York, but also much of the Northeast. An executive was checking into a swank Manhattan hotel when the lights went out. How could he possibly get to his room? A chambermaid who was going off-duty volunteered to take him up the stairs. With a flashlight she carried for emergencies, she guided him up the stairs on a long arduous journey. Once they arrived at the door of his room (in the era of keys and not electronic cards), he took out his wallet and offered her five dollars. She shook her head and said, “No. Tonight everybody helps everybody.”

So after we got on the bus, I said to the driver in my most sincere voice, “We don’t have correct change. But tonight, everybody helps everybody.”

And he said “Get off the bus.” Yeah, New York in the ‘70s was a more hostile place.

So we hoofed it over to the 46th Street Theatre, as the Rodgers was then known. It took a good half-hour, but the cast of CHICAGO was still there at the stage door, which makes sense; perhaps the blackout would be over in a few minutes. (In fact, it took about 12 hours for power to be restored.)

Again, illuminated by headlights, Jeanne and I could see the cast bidding farewell to Alaina Reed, who had been playing her last performance as Mama Morton. The cast felt terrible that the blackout had denied Reed a final burst of applause at show’s end, so they gave it to her before joining in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

(There’s no people like show people; they sing when things are black.)

As for that 1965 blackout, it took place on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 5:27 p.m. I was offered a ride home by a friend who had already agreed to transport three others; being the last to be asked, I made sure I sat in the car’s least comfortable, center-position back seat.

We were on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge where we saw the lights go out on every building.

“Wow!” exclaimed the driver. “All Cambridge has lost its power!” Little did he or we know how much of an understatement this was. But after he turned on the car radio, we heard that this wasn’t just a local blackout, but one that was affecting the entire Northeast corridor from Canada to Washington, DC.

And that’s when I blurted out with pain, “Then how is THE ZULU AND THE ZAYDA going to open?!?!”

Yes, the new play with music (by Harold Rome) was scheduled to open at the Cort that night. But these theatrical civilians didn’t know that. By virtue of the many headlights’ illumination seeping into the car, I could see the two in the front bucket seats and the two people surrounding me give very befuddled expressions. This was an all-Gentile car, so the Jewish word “Zayda” (for grandfather) was an unfamiliar one. For that matter, “Zulu” wasn’t one used too often in our small talk, either.

The answer to my question? THE ZULU AND THE ZAYDA had to wait until Nov. 10 to debut.

That brings us to FLY BY NIGHT, the musical produced at Playwrights Horizons thirteen months ago. In it, a man decides to commit suicide by throwing an electrical appliance into the filled bathtub in which he’s standing. He does – but it happens to be Nov. 9, 1965 at 5:28 p.m.

I don’t know which of the bookwriters – Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick or Kim Rosenstock – thought of this brilliant plot twist. But I’ll tip my hat to all of them instead of taking a wild guess and making an Ellen Greene-level mistake.

         — Peter Filichia



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