Elissa Josephsohn, the face of theater, restaurant PR here
Publicist Elissa Josephsohn, who will be remembered in a tribute show Sunday at the Hawaii Theatre, put a face on theater and restaurant publicity in her 30-plus career here. Anyone working in the arts — music, theater, dance, museum — has encountered her fierce passion, unmitigated commitment to her clients and tornado-force support of creative expression through song, dance, and art.
She was a culture vulture with a big heart, a lot of aloha, and boundless energy.
Our first meeting, however, was somewhat brittle and brusque. Lisa was then a newcomer publicist, arriving from North Carolina, to do duty with the Honolulu Symphony, and she was pitching an interview with Lucy Simon, a musician (who composed “The Secret Garden”) who was in town for an appearance. “Call me when you have Carly Simon,” I told her. (You know, the “You’re So Vain” composer who is a sister of Lucy).
Well, Carly never materialized and Lisa often chided me about my early disinterest and dismissal. But she never gave up on her hype and promotional wizardry.
So many other troupers and shows have traipsed into my life, and Honolulu’s, since Lisa hit the pavement, particularly in the fertile and risky marketing of big-show legit imports you generally have to go out of town to see. Theatrical spectacles like “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” plus other significant but less flashy shows as “Stomp” and “Tap Dogs,” arrived on our shores partly because of Lisa’s determination and dedication to let locals experience what she truly loved: live theater.
And then there was “Les Miserables,” the one spectacle that developed a common bond between our professional and personal relationship— she, as a theater-restaurant publicist, me as an entertainment reporter and columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser — though we discovered its appeal separately.
Through Lisa, I got to interview Craig Schulman, the Jean Valjean who, during one of his visits, marked his 1,000th performance, and over time opened my ears, my heart, and my arms to the soul and spirit of legit theater. At that time, he was the actor who logged the most Valjean performances, and who could resist him after he delivered his show-stopping “Bring Him Home.”
Lisa saw “Les Miserables,” the London and Broadway favorite, more than 30 times. I’ve seen it more than 20 times since my first viewing on the Great White Way and learned, early on, that you just can’t keep up with Lisa.
Lisa’s passing, after a 2 ½ year battle with ovarian cancer, leaves the kind of void following an earthquake: a puka so big, it’s impossible to fill. No one I know has demonstrated her kind zeal and zest, to hustle and honor the players and the productions she committed to. Not yet, anyway.
But here’s where she had true p.r. smarts: She was savvy in mixing her restaurant clients with her entertainment ones — so Compadres, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Dixie Grill, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Brew Moon, The Black Orchid and other eateries regularly had hot tickets for opening night or closing night linked to one of her visiting or resident shows. Surely, the Honolulu Symphony, Diamond Head Theatre, Ballet Hawaii, Army Community Theatre and the Rehab Hospital all benefitted from her magic to bring the culinary and performing entities together as she put the fun into fund-raising.
She also was a shopholic, unable to pass a bargain on purses; a workaholic, toiling around the clock to get more ink for her clients; and a dietholic, attempting every weight-loss program until she discovered gastric bypass surgery.
Her determination to be thin rivaled her drive to get her restaurant or show a spread in the paper, a spot on both the 6 and 10 o’clock TV news, a segment on “Sunrise,” a slot on the Saturday Perry & Price breakfast show. She had a way to dodge a “no” and get a mention or a quick hit to ballyhoo her cause.
Kevin Gray, the Broadway actor who played Scar in “The Lion King” here but whose connection with Lisa was “The Three Tenors” show he did here with the aforementioned Schulman of “Les Miz” and Cris Groenendal of “The Phantom of the Opera,” perhaps said it best. “We all feel this loss so deeply and personally, but that is nothing compared with the loss felt by the arts community in Hawai’i, who have had an incredible advocate for so many years,” he told me. “She created a family of artists in Honolulu, who she supported and defended to her final day. She was very tough and tenacious, but if you were the beneficiary of her powerful spirit, you had a Guardian Angel, and a loyalty that was a ‘run of the play’ commitment.”
All of this was Act I of Lisa’s life. Act II is under way now, as the Guardian Angel connects with her theater pals — Jim Hutchison, Tommy Aguilar, Vinnie Liff — who preceded her to the theater in the skies. She must be doing her p.r., her parties, her projects. That’s Lisa. ....
'A HARD ACT
A tribute to Elissa Josephsohn
2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25)
Free, but donations suggested to the Elissa Josephsohn Spirit Fund at the Kapi‘iolani Health Foundation, 55 Merchant St., Suite 2600, Honolulu HI 96826, to enrich the lives of women cancer patients