The inimitable beauty school dropout will soon be appearing in New Hope.
Didi Conn, who is best known for her role as Frenchy in the movie musical Grease, is touring the country as part of the cast of Middletown, a play that runs at Bucks County Playhouse from April 17 to 21. Afterward, the play will go to the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, Delaware, for shows from May 28 to June 2. The production has already been to Las Vegas.
Middletown follows the 33-year friendship between two couples — Peg and Tom, and Dotty and Don. In the New Hope shows, Conn plays Peg, who serves as a storyteller for the play. In Wilmington, the cast switches up the roles, and there she will fill the role of Dotty.
“The last line of the play is such a beautiful thing about a quote from Emerson, about the only way to have a friend is to be one,” Conn said. “It’s so simple, but it’s really profound, what it means to be a friend, to be there for each other and take care of each other and have each other’s back.”
The play boasts a cast of 1970s sitcom stars. Besides Conn, New Hope cast includes Don Most, Ralph Malph on Happy Days; Cindy Williams, who was Shirley Feeney on Laverne & Shirley; and Adrian Zmed of Bachelor Party and T.J. Hooker fame.
Conn has worked with both Most and Zmed before, but not in many years, so Middletown is a bit of a reunion, Conn said. Her first part was actually in Happy Days, where she played Most’s character’s girlfriend Joyce. (“He gave my character mononucleosis,” Conn said.) She also worked with Zmed, who played Johnny Nogerelli, in Grease II.
“The four of us getting together was like old friends, which is perfect for this show,” Conn said. “There was already a wonderful vibe with us that was very natural. It wasn’t something we needed to invent.”
That same sense of excitement and familiarity has carried into the audience, especially some of the older audience, who recognize the cast from their breakout roles. When Conn, who opened the Las Vegas show as Peg, introduced Zmed, the audience burst into applause.
“Because we’re all around the same age, we’ve experienced a lot in our lives separately and then because of television and movies and Netflix, people have really gotten to know us in a way or recognize us in a way that does our hearts good,” Conn said. “They seem to just, right away, buy into our lives and have an investment in it through the show.”
Similar to Middletown, Grease has a strong theme of friendship. Last year marked the movie musical’s 40th anniversary, and Conn has asked people why Frenchy is such a popular character. The resounding response has been because Frenchy was such a good friend to Sandy.
Frenchy and Sandy’s friendship continued off-set as well. Olivia Newton-John, who played Sandy and was already a well-known pop star, was nervous about the film, Conn said, because she had done a previous movie that hadn’t gone well.
Before the cameras started rolling on Newton-John’s first day of shooting — they were filming the scene where Sandy first goes to Rydell High School — Newton-John mentioned to Conn how nervous she was. Instead of telling her not to worry, Conn started doing in-character improv with her. They went right into the scene.
Afterward, Newton-John gave Conn a hug and thanked her.
“I kept looking for times when we were doing the movie of how I could help her,” Conn said. “It’s there in the script when I invite her to Frenchy’s house, and I want her to be a part of it and do her nails and do her ears, but also, in the other scenes, I’m always looking out for her and for Rizzo and all of them.”
Last June, Conn hosted a 40-year anniversary celebration Grease Sing-A-Long at the Hollywood Bowl for 18,000 people, where she could see “a whole sea of pink hair and the guys all had their hair greased back. It was as if there was a new movie.”
“Grease is a phenomenon,” Conn said, “because every generation rediscovers it.”
Conn grew up in Brooklyn, where she described her Jewish upbringing as “holiday Jewish.” She grew up Conservative and didn’t have a bat mitzvah.
Her son Daniel’s bar mitzvah was the most blessed event of her life, Conn said. Her son is adopted and autistic. He can’t tell time and doesn’t understand concepts like “tomorrow,” so they made him a book of everything that would happen the day of his bar mitzvah, including waking up in the morning and getting into the car.
Her son also loves dogs, so for entertainment at the bar mitzvah party, they had a dog magic act.
“When he got up and he looked out at the people for the first time — it’s a small synagogue and it was filled up — he looked up and he said, ‘Everybody here loves Daniel,’” Conn recalled. “Oh my God, that was it, and he did beautifully.”
Her Middletown performances in New Hope overlap with Passover, so her husband and son plan to come to the area for the first evening of the holiday. A friend is making them a whole Passover meal, while Conn will bring the seder plate and make charoset for a seder before the show that evening.
“I’ve gotten much more spiritual, but in my own way though,” Conn said. “I’ve gotten more spiritual, and I’ve studied the Kabbalah and I’ve found that an understanding of what love and beauty and family is from studying the Kabbalah.”
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