Little Shop of Horrors, the beloved Off-Broadway musical, started its life as a cult-classic B-level horror film called "The Little Shop of Horrors." Famous for being largely shot in two days and on a shoe-string budget, the film relies on an off-beat and dark sense of humor. It derives much of its charm from how bad it is, which, for most, would hardly make it a top candidate to be musicalized.
Lyricist, playwright and director Howard Ashman carried the idea for turning the humble film into a stage musical for many years. When he decided to start working on it in earnest, the response from many of the people around him was less than glowing. Ashman’s sister, Sarah Ashman Gillespie, remembers renting the film on betamax and hosting a screening for her husband, Howard, and Howard's agent, Esther Sherman. "Howard and Esther were the only ones who thought it was a good idea," Gillespie remembers. "Esther just totally believed in Howard and in everything he did. She was an amazing friend and agent to him. I’m afraid the rest of us tried, gently, to talk him down."
Ashman didn’t let go of his vision, however, and he found support for the idea in Alan Menken, who would go on to write the score to Little Shop. Menken remembers the idea of musicalizing the Corman film being brought up very early-on in his collaboration with Ashman. "The idea was of huge interest to me," Menken said. "It felt like the story, the medium and timing was perfect." Ashman and Menken had had success with their first musical, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, but after its Off-Broadway run proved to be brief, they began working on adapting "The Little Shop of Horrors." Initially, they found the tone difficult to get right. Early drafts of the score and script contain a lot more camp humor, which is understandable given the source material. But, as Menken put it, their "stylistic take was not working."
"Howard came up with the idea of writing the show as 'the dark side of Grease,' using doo-wop, R&B and rock and roll as the main vocabulary for the score. There were a lot of musicals and cabaret pieces in the late 70s and early 80s that were playing with the interface of apocalyptic, end-of-the-world, tacky horror movies and pop music. But Howard’s insistence that we remain truly heartfelt and knowing, yet not getting into self-mockery, was the key to what made us different." With the tone established, Ashman and Menken got to work writing a new score. In this never-before-seen early draft of the lyric to "Somewhere That's Green," we learn that at one time there were plans for the song to be a duet between Seymour and Audrey. While the final song is made up of verses with a repeating final line, here we have a slightly different structure that includes a refrain in-between verses. You’ll also notice that verse three (beginning "To fill our leisure time") was ultimately re-purposed into the final song's bridge lyric.
Once Ashman and Menken were ready to have the piece produced, Ashman arranged for a month-long run at the Off-Off Broadway WPA Theatre, where he was artistic director. Menken remembers the "sheer volume of talent" that auditioned for the production, which can be seen in this never-before-seen call-back sheet from the original production.
Listed under Seymour, we see Chip Zien (of Into the Woods and Falsettos fame) and a then-largely-unknown Nathan Lane. Called back for Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon, we see future Tony winner Tonya Pinkins. To find the actress who created the role of Audrey, Ellen Greene, you have to look at the bottom of the sheet (where she is listed alongside Didi Conn, Frenchy in the 1978 movie adaptation of Grease), but in the larger listing of Audreys at the top, you see Randy Graff and Faith Prince, who went on to be Ellen Greene's first replacement in the role.
Even with the high caliber of talent both on and offstage, Little Shop's premiere production was a humble one to say the least. Menken described the theatre as a "sweltering (broken air conditioning) little 99-seat theater, on the 3rd floor of a building on 5th Avenue, between 19th and 20th streets, one floor above the Chop-Stix Massage Parlor." Menken served as musical director and piano-conductor during Little Shop's Off-Off-Broadway run, the last time Menken ever music directed a production of one of his scores. He minced no words when sharing why.
"I know that I was a pretty lousy conductor. But I more than made up for that with raw enthusiasm (I hope). I remember one embarrassing moment where [original Audrey] Ellen Greene paused so long between lyrics, while singing 'Somewhere That's Green' (between 'Far from Skid Row' and 'I dream we'll go') that I actually fed her the line in what was probably an embarrassingly loud stage whisper. Boy! She was not happy with me after that performance!"
However in spite of (or possibly partially because of) the show's humble beginnings, Little Shop of Horrors became a big hit nearly overnight once it premiered May 6, 1982. Suddenly Little Shop was a hot ticket, and the lines were around the block. As Menken described it, "There is no experience quite like the birth of a hit musical. And Little Shop of Horrors was like an explosion."
Producers quickly stepped up to transfer the production to a commercial open-ended Off-Broadway run, and these were no small-time producers either. When Little Shop of Horrors opened at the Orpheum Theatre a month later on July 27, 1982, it was produced by the WPA Theatre, the Shubert Organization, David Geffen and Cameron Mackintosh. Within just a few years, the show had major productions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, London and Paris in addition to a national tour and, in 1987, a Japanese tour (starring American actors). In 1986, a movie adaptation was produced. Ellen Greene reprised her star-making turn as Audrey, acting alongside such comedy legends as Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, James Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest and Bill Murray. The film remains popular today, as does the stage version; it remains one of the most-produced musicals by regional, stock, amateur and high school theatre groups internationally.
Little Shop's most important legacy may be that of the man who originally had the idea, Howard Ashman. With the great success of Little Shop, Ashman was recruited (along with Alan Menken) to help Disney reinvigorate their animation department. While serving as executive producer and lyricist on "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," Ashman greatly shaped these films and their use of musical theatre as a storytelling tool, often working far beyond the purview of his lyricist job title.
His experiences during the writing of Little Shop to streamline and economize the libretto as much as possible, combined with his life-long love and deep understanding of musical theatre, put him in a unique position to be profoundly influential when working with the Disney team on creating 90-minute film musicals. His influence on these films are a big reason why they were successful, specifically as musicals.
Tragically, Ashman passed away in 1991 from complications due to AIDS before "Beauty and the Beast" was even released. He never saw the full and continuing impact of his work on audiences, which is alive and well today. Both "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid" have been adapted as Broadway stage musicals. Ashman's lyrics are also featured in Disney's Broadway production of Aladdin; Ashman originally wrote six songs with Alan Menken for the movie, but most were dropped as necessitated by plot changes made to the film after Ashman died. However, Ashman's work was restored for the Broadway production — five of the six total songs originally written can be heard every night in Aladdin on Broadway.
In recent years, his collaborators have been speaking more to Ashman's artistic talents and the immense impact his body of work made on the art form. Alan Menken called him "the greatest musical theatre talent of our generation."
"For me, I have him in my consciousness every single day. There's never a new collaboration or association in theatre or film or television or recording where his legacy isn't one of the very first references that get made. His impact is universal and everlasting. And in his brief time among us, he made a gargantuan impact."
Howard's sister Sarah remembers the huge effect the sudden success of Little Shop had on her brother, and that it didn't go to his head as you might expect.
"Howard was one of those rare people who got better with success. He was busy and I missed seeing him as much as I used to but he was happy. And when Howard was happy, he wanted you to be happy, too.
"He was still funny, still intense, sometimes angry, sure of himself in creative matters and unsure of himself in most other things. "He was still, as always, Howard."
Ashman's presence will be keenly felt this week when Encores! Off-Center brings Little Shop of Horrors back to New York in a concert presentation at New York's City Center. Poised to reprise the role she originated and defined for all actresses who played it after her is Ellen Greene, who will be playing Audrey in full for the first time since making the film adaptation nearly 30 years ago. When asked why she decided to recreate her performance for our Diva Talk interview, she said that it was "mostly for my dearest Howard [Ashman] to live again."
The images in this article came from the Howard Ashman Collection at the Library of Congress—an invaluable research institution with fantastic resources for theatrical researchers. Among the numerous fields of learning it supports, the Library of Congress preserves unique working materials by significant American musical theatre writers, composers, directors, designers and performers, including George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Oliver Smith, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Special thanks to Mark Horowitz, a Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress, for making these materials available to us, and to Sam Baltimore for archival research and preparation.
If you liked what you saw in this article, you're in luck because more is coming. Later this year, Playbill will be unveiling an exciting new program, Treasures of the Library of Congress, that offers an unprecedented look behind the scenes at landmark musicals through writers' handwritten drafts and other rarities archived within the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Stay tuned to Playbill.com for more on that soon!