Didi Conn on Grease, Middletown and Enduring Friendship

[Didi Conn with Adrian Zmed in the new play Middletown]

Sometimes life imitates art. Just ask Didi Conn, whose recent stage reunion with old friends is giving us a  happy walk down memory lane and attracting new pals.

Conn is best known as Frenchy the “beauty school drop-out” in Grease, the John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John classic movie musical that has celebrated its 40th Anniversary, and she continues to have an active career as an actress, voice actor, writer, and devoted mom and autism advocate.

She stars in the new show with Cindy Williams, (Shirley Feeney from Laverne & Shirley), Adrian Zmed (Office Vincent Romano from T.J. HOOKER), and Donny Most (Ralph Malph from Happy Days.)

Middletown is the heartfelt and joyful story about two couples reminiscing about their friendship that has endured for 33 years. The show explores the highs, lows and everything in between.

Writer Dan Clancy is best known for his play The Timekeepers, which ran off-Broadway and in Israel for 13 years.

“I wanted to tell a relatable ‘every-person’s’ story in a direct and straightforward manner where human emotions are front and center – without bells, whistles, special effects, or props,” said Clancy. “I wanted the words to speak for themselves.”

Conn commemorated the 35th anniversary of “Grease” by writing “Frenchy’s Grease Scrapbook: We’ll Always Be Together,” which was published by Hyperion, and she played Vi in the recent Fox Television special: “Grease: Live!”

She is an accomplished Broadway, film, television, and voice actor, and a writer.

Conn has starred in the films You Light Up My Life, The Magic Show, Almost Summer, and was the voice of Raggedy Ann in the animated musical, The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy.” 

She played the title role in the Academy Award-winning short film Violet. On television, Conn was a regular on The Practice and played for three seasons on the hit series Benson.

Her guest appearances include: Transparent, Law and Order: SVUShe is loved by children of all ages for her 10-year run as Station Mistress Stacy Jones on the award-winning PBS television series Shining Time Station.

Conn made the feature film, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, starring Alec Baldwin. She was a guest actress at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute Playwright’s Lab for six years and co-founded First Stage, a Los Angeles playwrights’ organization. Conn, a devoted mother of a son with autism, is also the national celebrity spokesperson for the Autism Speaks.

Currently, Conn is the creator and executive producer of a new animated preschool musical, “Didi Lightful,” with music and lyrics by David Shire, her husband, an award-winning composer.

Conn is extremely excited to be part of a four-member cast of Middletown, and to continue to wax nostalgic with her scores of fans.

“Peg, the courageous character I will be playing finds strength through her timeless connection to her best friends. This is a subject close to my heart,” Conn exclusively explained to PCM.

“Middletown reminds me,” she said, “of a quote I love from an unknown author that goes, ‘Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.’ ”

When you meet your fans. What do they say? What do they want to know? Are they singing songs from Grease?

Didi Conn:  What makes me happy when I get recognized is that it makes people feel good. That’s the gift of it all. That particular movie was about a bunch of really good friends. There was something about the casting of that movie. We were all drinking from the same water fountain, or something. They picked a group of goofy kids, and even though we are 40 years older, we are still the same people. Who would have known that we would still be friends after all of these years. What a bonus.

Please tell me more.

So, what happens when I meet people is that they smile and feel good and a lot of people tell me, especially beauticians, men and women, that everyone calls them a beauty school dropout; even ones that are successful as a hairdressers, or at one point they failed their tinting class. It’s very gratifying to know that you have been in something that is so entertaining.

[Cindy Williams and Don Most in the play Middletown]

How did this show, Middletown come to you?

Well, Seth Greenleaf, the director, put this together and discovered Dan Clancy, this wonderful writer in Florida. It’s a perfect vehicle for two women and two men who are in their 60’s, who can relate to having friends for 33 years. That’s the basis of the story that these are couples who have shared so much over the years. You find out how they met, their individual relationships with each other and their children. It’s written with enormous heart.

Can you relate this to Grease and your enduring character of Frenchie?

A lot of people ask why does everyone like Frenchy so much, after 40 years, and the answer is what a good friend Frenchy was to Sandy. In fact, when we were making the movie Olivia (Newton-John) and I were both together coming to the Rydell high school campus, and Olivia was very nervous. She had been in another movie but she wasn’t very happy with the results of that movie. She asked for a screen test before she gave the okay for Grease. She did the screen-test with John and they had instant chemistry, so she said “yes.”

Please tell me more.

The first day of shooting Olivia was very distracted and I started to improvise with her. I made up a whole story, just in the moment, that she’s my neighbor and she just moved in and how much fun she’s going to have. Then she just joined in and told me what it was like going to high school in Australia. Before we knew it they called “action” and we were right in the scene. She really thanked me for that afterward.

It sounds like you have so many fond memories from Grease.

Oh yes. We continued that. When the cast members came to Paramount, as soon as we went into the make-up room we called each other by our character’s names and we instantly went into character. Most of us were a bit older than those teenagers and getting into character like that every day it gave you the license to be silly, goofy and corny – so we improvised all day long and some of it went into the film. It kept things on a certain “hormonal level.”

[The cast of Middletown]

You feel that same pull for Middletown.

Yes. It’s what attracted me to the show because it is about these good friends who have been together for 33 years. It is a big reunion. I haven’t seen Adrian Zmet who plays my husband, since we were in Grease 2. Even better than that, my very first job in Hollywood was on Happy Days and I played Ralph Malph’s girlfriend. I hadn’t seen Donny Most since then. In a way this was such a delicious reunion for all of us.

Did you know Cindy Williams before Middletown?

Our paths had crossed at Paramount, but we had never worked together before. Without having to work at it, there is a wonderful connection between the four of us. We tried the show out in Las Vegas and the audience gets so excited to see all of us; it was lovely. Now we are set on a wonderful track coming to New Hope.

What do you and Cindy talk about? Do you talk about the nostalgia of your shows?

Sure. We talked a little bit about Penny Marshall, and the fact that they stayed friends all through the years. Cindy was in American Graffiti and right after that we did Grease. In the 70’s we were all in 50’s projects, so that was funny to reminisce about.

Tell me about the song Beauty School Drop Out.

It was the first song they wrote for the musical. It wasn’t because they knew someone named Frenchy, it was because they heard on the radio about this beautician, a man who had just murdered somebody and who was also a beauty school dropout. They thought, “A beauty school dropout, he should have gone back to high school.” And the song was born.

The theme of friendship has certainly struck a chord with you?

Absolutely. The last line in the play is a quote from Emerson – the only way to have a friend is to be one. It’s very simple, but true. When you put yourself out for someone else it does come back to you. That is the beauty of friends and friendship and the message of this heartfelt play.

What are you doing in the future?

I wrote a play and the Public Theater in New York is looking for a director. It took me eight years to write. First it was about a mother who goes toe-to-toe with autism, and then about standing on my two feet without my parents. It was about this low time in my life and going to the (boxing) bag and thinking, “How does a boxer get up each time? And at the end he is this champ. So it took me a while to figure it out. It’s called Holding My Own: A Power Play. I have an idea for another draft, but have been too busy to do it.

Anything else you have coming up?

Yes. The creators of the animated series for children, Peg + Cat are working with me and my husband on a series called Didi Lightful, and every episode is a mini musical. I am also going to England to do Cinderella on stage, so that will be great fun!

Why do you encourage people to come to see Middletown?

To have a great time. It’s well-written; very well played. It’s a very good play and it has a lot of heart.

Middletown will be delighting audiences at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA., through Sunday, April 21. Tickets may be purchased at The Bucks County Playhouse Box Office (70 S. Main Street), by phone (215) 862-2121, or online at www.bcptheater.org.

The show continues in Wilmington, DE (May 29 – June 2) at The Delaware Theatre Company.


The post Didi Conn on <em> Grease<em>, <em>Middletown </em> and Enduring Friendship appeared first on PCM Reviews.