By Bonnie Goldberg

Gordon Greenberg is clearly having happy days with the new production “Happy Days: A New Musical” he is directing at Goodspeed Musicals until Friday, July 4.  He has watched the production grow through its embryonic development last summer at Chester’s Norma Terris Theatre where is was workshopped. Now he is at the helm of a full fledged production at the East Haddam location.

“Happy Days” is the brain child of Garry Marshall and it recalls a kinder, gentler time when sock hops and poodle skirts were the rage and people like Richie and Joanie Cunningham, their folks Howard and Marion and their friends Ralph, Chachi, Potsie and the Fonz were the television family we most wanted to belong to in real life.

Calling himself a “tinkerer by nature,” he has enjoyed the process of continuing to develop and rework the script, add three new songs by Paul Williams, work in lots of new choreography and streamline the beginning and the end.  In the course of this procedure, the relationship between Fonzie and Pinkie has been expanded.

The show is “built to be a joyful event.”  Greenberg remembers fondly begging his parents to let him stay up late Tuesday nights to watch it and, by extension “Laverne and Shirley,” another Garry Marshall hit.  The Cunninghams were his “fantasy perfect family that no one I knew actually had. It was a place to vacation.”  This simpler time of home and comfort is the feeling the show is trying to recreate.  The show challenges Greenberg to be his best.

Typically for a new show, Greenberg works six months in advance, reading over the script and taking notes, thinking about it and making a scrapbook.  He works with costumes, sets and props and collaborates with a team so that what is in his head is communicated to the stage.  It’s exciting to watch it all come together and rewarding to see it become as good, or better, that what was in his head.  The actual rehearsal time is usually only three and a half weeks.

With “Happy Days,” he wants to create a feel good evening, with the central story being told, with the characters honored, the beating heart intact.  He wants the message to be “you can go home again” and prove Thomas Wolfe wrong.  What he finds so great about doing a show at the Goodspeed is that the entire organization exists to support the artists that work there.  Goodspeed is well established for people who are working new shows or reworking old ones.  Musicals, especially, need more nurturing than straight plays.

Here at Goodspeed, Greenberg finds a similarity of focus, “an ideal combination of isolated bucolic settings and talented staff and resources,” where he can “hide from New York and its distractions.”

The response from the audience has been “uniformly glowing.”  People come looking for a sense of nostalgia and discover a heart filled, warm and kind musical comedy that Goodspeed does so well.  A national tour starting in Los Angeles in the fall is planned and Greenberg will check in with the show every so often over the planned nine month run.

He is already working on his next Goodspeed musical “Half a Sixpence” that will open Friday, July 11 and run until Friday, September 19.  In the style of “Me and My Girl,” it was a big hit in London in the 1960’s and it is about a song and dance man, a Dick Van Dyke type, who works as a shop clerk and suddenly an inheritance changes his lot in life.

Greenberg, whose career began an an actor on Broadway at the age of thirteen in “The Little Prince and the Aviator,” definitely has a passion for theater.  A multitasker at heart, he enjoys jumping into different worlds and juggling “Happy Days “ with “Half a Sixpence” with a reworking of the Studs Terkel “Working” is just the pace he likes to set.  If he can read four books at a time, and he does, then directing a trio of plays is just another day’s work for Gordon Greenberg.  Clearly, his “happy days” are Sunday, Monday, every day.

(This interview appeared in the Middletown Press on June 12.)

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