Full confession...we tried to talk him out of it. It was 1981 and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater had closed, disappointingly and too soon — stumbling in the transition from the WPA Theatre on 19th Street to the Entermedia in the East Village. Now Howard was talking about a new idea for a show. A musical based on Roger Corman's "The Little Shop of Horrors."
Howard's family and friends were duly horrified. If making a musical out of a Kurt Vonnegut classic was problematic, making a musical out of a Roger Corman B-movie set on Skid Row and featuring a talking plant was suicidal.
And we loved Howard a lot. So we tried to talk him out of it. We rented a Betamax (look it up) tape and screened the movie. Howard, my husband and I, some friends, and Howard's agent Esther Sherman gathered around the television and — all but one of us — shuddered.
Howard was fine. If he shuddered at all, it was with suppressed laughter. The rest of us tried to talk him out of it. Note to future historians of theatre: Howard Ashman was not a man easily dissuaded, a fact for which I, and I'll venture a few others, are profoundly grateful.
Thinking back to those early days of the show is unavoidable. Especially now, when we have the inimitable Ellen Greene reprising her inimitable (though it's been tried) Audrey.
Some early memories:
- Going to Howard's for dinner and being entertained with the latest lyrics of a new song, or a scene or a set piece he was particularly pleased with. I like to think I was a sounding board but the truth is, the only time I ever said I didn't like something was a best-forgotten song that was a little too "Fifty Shades of Grey." A sample verse:
"The worse he treats me
The more he loves me
Well that's a fair exchange, I guess
But I'm still prayin'
That he won't stop sluggin'
Cause that would mean he loved me less"
- The very first preview at the WPA, when Howard gave a short speech before curtain, telling the audience that they were seeing a work in progress and not everything was absolutely ready yet. Howard was a charming man, never more so then when he was in front of an audience.
- Opening night at the Orpheum, Orin Scrivello DDS's dentist chair failed to appear. So Howard stepped out from the wings, placed a wooden chair on the stage, and the show went on.
- The first time I watched Audrey's death scene and realized that, yes indeed, she was going to say it: "Oh, don't you see? / Finally I'll be / Somewhere that's" — and you could almost hear the entire audience go there as one, Yes, she's gonna do it—"greeeeeeen!"
- Howard's concern that famed William Morris agent Biff Liff would be offended by the name Howard gave the William Morris agent who pursues Seymour: Skip Snip.
- "Oh God, how I mist you!/Oh pod, how you tease!" A personal favorite lyric.
- The vines. I loved those vines falling from the drop boxes every night at the end of the show. Never ceased to amuse me (as well as the audience).
- My husband trying to convince Howard, unsuccessfully, that the show would run at least a year. That was in August of 1982 and lines were forming nightly outside the Orpheum Theater. Optimism was not Howard's strong suit.
- Howard being thrilled when told that the show was being ripped off by some pennyante manufacturer selling plastic Audrey II banks without a license. You put a coin in its mouth, it opened, and kerplunk, a penny saved. I still have mine — though it hasn't worked in years. - Picking up tickets at the box office with the ever-useful phrase, "I'm Howard's sister."
- The pure joy of seeing someone I always believed would succeed become a success. Howard had been committed to theatre since first seeing a production of Baltimore's Children's Theater Association and by the time he was ten, he was a card-carrying member of CTA. But right before Little Shop, Howard seriously considered a back-up career in publishing. As difficult as failure can be, I think "almost-success" was even harder for Howard, whose twenties were filled with lots of almosts. As Howard's kid sister and first fan (or so I'd like to think), I believe Howard would have had a great career in publishing, but I'm profoundly grateful that Little Shop was Little Shop, and Howard remained true to his love.
Sarah Ashman Gillespie is the webmaster of HowardAshman.com, where she blogs about her brother's life and work.