When the Kennedy Center announced the cast for its upcoming Broadway Center Stage production of Little Shop of Horrors, it made an inspiring and somewhat familiar choice for Mr. Mushnik, inviting Lee Wilkof, the man who first gave life to Seymour in the original Off-Off-Broadway production in 1982, the chance to revisit Skid Row from a different vantage point.
It was early August when Wilkof’s agent reached out to him by email to gauge his interest in the role, and he was on board immediately.
“This is a show very near and dear to me so doing it at the Kennedy Center, which was also a big attraction for me, of course I said yes,” he says. “The short rehearsal period for a man my age is a bit challenging, but thank God the show is in my brainpan.”
Of course, that muscle memory is so infused in Wilkof that there were times early in rehearsal when he started to sing Seymour’s parts.
“I can meet someone and not remember their name ten minutes later, but I remember Little Shop,” he says.
The beloved musical, by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, was based on a low-budget black comedy from 1960, and generated quite the buzz when it first opened at the original Workshop of the Players’ Art Theatre above a massage parlor. It quickly transferred Off-Broadway to the Orpheum Theatre.
“When I first read the script, and heard the music, I knew it was something special,” Wilkof says.
In 1982, Wilkof was living in Los Angeles, chasing something “other than a theatre career,” and always felt his career was going to be in TV and movies.
“Someone from my earlier days in New York contacted me about reading for this new musical, and I was familiar with the original black-and-white movie,” he says. “There was a guy named Ghoulardi who would do horror movies on Friday nights in Cleveland, and I was from Canton [Ohio], and a few times a year he would show this movie and my friends and I would always go.”
Surprisingly, Wilkof originally went into his audition trying to land the role of the dentist.
“I was bald since I was 18 and I went in with a toupee. I had known Alan and he chuckled when he saw me because he knew I was bald,” Wilkof says. “I was embarrassed so I removed it, and Howard Ashman goes, ‘You’re not a dentist; you’re a Seymour.’ They gave me some time, and I read for Seymour instead.”
Not only was it a boost to his professional career, the musical marked a deeper life changing experience for Wilkof—it’s where he met his wife, Connie Grappo.
“She was Ashman’s assistant director,” he says. “I met this magnificent woman, we are still married and have a daughter, and the most precious thing in my life is the result of my doing Little Shop.”
When the final casting decisions were being made, Wilkof and Nathan Lane were the final two choices for Seymour, and Grappo convinced Ashman that Wilkof would be more right for the role.
“That’s why I married her,” Wilkof jokes. “I was attracted to her from that very first audition.”
She was also instrumental in helping her future husband understand the nuances of the role down. In Wilkof’s eyes, with only about two weeks before the opening at the WPA, he was only a “C” and people were growing frustrated with him. He felt intimidated and thought his inexperience was hurting the show.
“I decided to call [Connie] to ask if she would help me because I knew Howard was overwhelmed with everything,” he says. “Earlier that day, Howard had told her he wanted her to start working with me. I got this one-on-one attention and she saved me.”
Once the show opened, Wilkof made his move and asked her out. Two years later they were married.
Little Shop of Horrors was an enormous success, selling out nightly with people begging for tickets.
“They wanted to take it to Broadway but wisely, Howard said nope and it went Off-Broadway a couple months later and it ran for five years,” Wilkof says. “It was a charmed show.”
The musical, he says, worked for so many reasons. The brilliant script, the wonderful music, Ellen Greene’s iconic portrayal of Audrey, and the masterful puppetry by Martin Robinson.
“The plant was amazing,” Wilkof says. “I had done a little puppeteering when I was a kid; I loved ventriloquism and puppets, and I got to do some puppet stuff in the show and that was thrilling for me. In the number, ‘Ya Never Know,’ I’m holding the plant and my arm is in the puppet and it’s trying to bite people, and it was so cool.”
When the show transferred Off-Broadway to the Orpheum Theatre, he stayed six months and then left to open in the Los Angeles production of the musical, and played Seymour there for another six months.
“I came back to New York and I was the vacation cover over the course of the next four years, which was fun and let me work with a number of different Audreys,” Wilkof says.
Since that time, Wilkof has returned to the show for special occasions. He wanted his daughter to see him do the part, so when she was six, he put on the glasses to play Seymour in a one-night only performance at a community theatre in Canton. About a dozen years ago, he played Mr. Mushnik in a production in Florida.
He’s thrilled to be playing the role again and is enjoys working with Josh Radnor and Megan Hilty as the new incarnations of Seymour and Audrey.
“I’ve been a little bit of a fountain of information for Josh,” Wilkof says. “He said to me the other day, ‘I’m going to copy what you did on the album’ because my Seymour had a little bit of a speech difficulty in a line in ‘Grow For Me,” where I say ‘weird and ezotic’ (instead of exotic), and he’s going to that. But he’s finding the character himself and he’s very good. And Megan is great. It’s truly a lovely cast.”
Wilkof admits he’s “stealing” himself a bit for his character, drawing upon some of the Mushniks he’s worked with in the past— Michael “the Dunkin’ Donuts guy” Vale, Hy Anzell, Jesse White, and Fyvush Finkel.
“I was just a kid, around 30 when I first did Little Shop and I thought, ‘Man, these Mushniks, boy they’re old. Cut to now, and I looked them all up and I’m older than all of them were,” Wilkof says. “So, I’m probably the oldest Mushnik ever but still probably the most immature. I feel very fortunate for that.”