Jerry Zaks — the Tony Award-winning director of Guys and Dolls, Six Degrees of Separation, Lend Me a Tenor and The House of Blue Leaves — welcomed the press to the third floor rehearsal studios inside the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the current home to the award-winning 42nd Street revival. Zaks also acknowledged the presence of both the sister and partner of late lyricist-book writer Ashman.
The morning began with three production numbers from the campy, often-hysterical and surprisingly touching musical, which begins previews Aug. 29 at the Virginia Theatre, prior to an official opening Thursday, Oct. 2. The opening number — "Little Shop of Horrors" — kicked things off, with vocals from Carla J. Hargrove (Ronnette), Trisha Jeffrey (Crystal) and DeQuina Moore (Chiffon) and a new arrangement by musical director Henry Aronson.
Hunter Foster (Seymour), Michael-Leon Wooley (voice of Audrey II), Martin P. Robinson (Audrey II puppeteer), Kerry Butler (Audrey) and Douglas Sills (Orin Scrivello) then joined the three gals for "Git It," the rousing first-act number where Audrey II demands that Seymour "Feed me!"
The last offering was the second-act show-stopper "Suddenly Seymour" that featured Foster and the belty tones of a concentrated, teary-eyed Kerry Butler.
Composer Alan Menken, whose professional career began with the original Off-Broadway mounting, fondly recalled that production and explained, "At the WPA Theatre [Little Shop later transferred to the Orpheum], I played the show and musical directed it, which is something I don't normally do. It was Howard and me against the world at that point. I remember we even put in some of the money for the initial plant. It was just that little hole-in-the-wall theatre. I've never had an experience like the first public performance of Little Shop... the audience just laughing and crying and screaming. I just couldn't believe what I was feeling because it was this little machine that just took off and hasn't stopped since. "Little Shop, in a way," Menken added, "was Howard and my most complete collaboration. This was a baby that we built from the ground up. And the idea of reviving it has always been a challenge — both exciting and daunting — because Howard's not here [and] we have to let our baby go and let Little Shop walk on her own with some great support, but I've got to step back from it."
Menken is entrusting his "baby" to director Zaks, who joined the production team after the show's out-of-town developmental engagement in Coral Gables, Florida. That version featured direction by Connie Grappo, and — with the exception of Urinetown's Foster — an entirely different cast, which was scheduled to arrive on Broadway in July. It was decided, however, that that production would be scrapped, and Zaks was brought in to replace Grappo.
Zaks spoke a bit about his initial involvement with Little Shop: "The producers asked me to come to take a look at [the show in Florida]. I've known the producers for a while; they're friends. They did Smokey Joe's Cafe, [so] I flew down to take a look at the show as a friend. And then I, along with several other people who are friends of the producers...shared [our] thoughts with them, and then I left it alone. And, then they approached me to do it, which is an awfully complicated situation, very complicated and difficult.
"Having said that," he continued, "I've always loved the material, and I said yes, contingent on my doing it essentially from scratch, not just coming in and trying to mend what I felt needing mending. I wasn't interested in that. The [producers] agreed, and as soon as they agreed, we went into overdrive, and I decided which members of the production team to keep and which not to. Emotionally and psychologically it's difficult, but practically I just thought certain things were necessary. I immediately sat down with Kathleen Marshall and Scott Pask, the set designer, whose work I felt should be retained. . . . And they were willing and eager, and so far it's been a dream rehearsal period."
About his entire team, Zaks said, "They're very talented people, all of whom are devoted to doing the show as written by Howard Ashman. That is the that without which there is nothing. . . . Howard's recipe was so meticulous — and Alan's, of course — but to the extent that he wrote the words and he wrote the story, it would be madness not to use that as a springboard or a blueprint. That's the show, and all you need are people who can execute it as though their lives depended on it. [Ashman] said this show is never more effective as when it's done honestly, and he said the style will evolve with that, and I believe that. Mean what you say. Don't demonstrate your characters' eccentricities for me. Make me believe that the character wants something outside of himself or herself, and that's the way we've been approaching it."
Zaks' cast is equally enthusiastic about their director. Foster and Butler, as well as Douglas Sills, the Tony-nominated Scarlet Pimpernel actor who will play the demented dentist and a host of supporting parts, all remarked how enjoyable the rehearsal process has been. Said Foster: "[Jerry Zaks is] just very positive. It's all about moving forward. There's no negative vibe. It's all about being positive and saying yes. And when we get that kind of positive reinforcement, we want to strive to work as hard every single day. So it's a joy to come in every single day and work hard because he provides such a positive atmosphere. That's the biggest thing. So many processes you go through are not positive, and he really just makes it a real treat to come in here and create and take chances and risks. And I think we all get excited about that, and we work harder, and the process is much smoother."
Foster also spoke about portraying the beleaguered Skid Row plant-shop clerk Seymour. "I think Seymour's an honest guy, a simple guy. He's not complicated. He's very straightforward. It's pretty much, what you see is what you get. But he just gets caught up in his passion for what he wants, whether it's [being] in love with Audrey [or wanting] to get out of living in Skid Row, and he'll do anything to get out of that. [He's] like a lot of us. We get caught up in fame or money or relationships, and things just spiral out of control because we want something so badly, and I think that's what happens with him."
During the out-of-town run, Foster had the chance to work with the musical's original Seymour, Lee Wilkof, who was cast as Mushnik in the Florida run [Rob Bartlett will portray Mushnik at the Virginia]. Foster said that Wilkof "is a great guy. He told me about the history [of the show.] He was supportive, and that made me feel so much more at ease. . . . He [also] said that you'll be surprised at the number of girls that Seymour will get at that stage door [laughs]!"
But it's the "girl" onstage that Seymour is most interested in, Audrey, played by the recent Penny Pingleton of Hairspray, Kerry Butler. Butler said that Audrey "sees the best in everything. She's very, very trusting, and she's had her issues with men [that] just come from her childhood — that her father left her. She has such a low self-image. She thinks that nobody would ever like her, and I think she tries to please people, but she has a really good heart."
Butler added that she's thrilled to be in the production, as is co-star Douglas Sills, who is playing the musical's villain, Orin Scrivello D.D.S. "Villain. Is he a villain?" Sills asked with a laugh. "I think I'm always more comfortable playing someone that other people think is a bit off-center. Those are very comfortable spots for me. The guys who are less comfortable are the ones that people perceive to be more traditionally heroic or good-natured. So this settles much more to the center of my personality as did the idea of playing Booth in Assassins when that looked like that was going to happen. Those are [roles] that feel incredibly comfortable to me, so I'm really looking forward to it, throwing people around and being the bad guy."
For anyone who saw the original staging, one of the many memorable moments occurred during the musical's finale when a cascade of plant tendrils fell onto the audience from above. Choreographer Kathleen Marshall, whose work has been seen in the Broadway revivals of Follies and Kiss Me, Kate, revealed that on Broadway "we can't do the vine drop. In the little, tiny Orpheum Theatre, you could do that in an instant. The Virginia is so cavernous, there's nothing you could do that will hit everybody instantly at the same time — it's just too enormous. And there are so many rules now about fire regulations — you can't touch people. It has to be eight feet above the ground, [but] we have other ideas that hopefully you'll get to see and be surprised!"
When asked to sum up the message of Little Shop, director Zaks paused and said, "Be careful what you wish for." Those who wish to catch the eagerly awaited revival of Little Shop of Horrors can purchase tickets by calling (212) 239-6200.