Little Shop of Horrors is the little musical that could. First stage in an Off-Off-Broadway theatre, the show was only the second collaboration between then-little-known writing team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. It was a sci-fi horror musical parody about a human-eating plant. Yet: it is the seventh most-produced musical in U.S. high schools; its enjoyed 31 commercial recordings and 10 English-language recordings—including the most recent Off-Broadway production’s album featuring Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle, and Tammy Blanchard.
The musical that began as a quirky little Off-Off-Broadway show has earned a prominent place in the international musical theatre repertory. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has been archiving its influence. With an extensive collection of Playbills and programs documenting theatre in New York and around the world, the NYPLPA has 23 programs from 16 distinct productions of Little Shop of Horrors from around the nation. Each document is a fascinating peek into the variety of interpretations and contexts into which cuttings of Audrey II have been planted.
Take a look at four notable programs from productions of Little Shop around the country:
1. Original Off-Off-Broadway Program (1982)
It all began at the WPA Theatre, a company that originated not as the name might suggest in the 1930s era of the Federal Theatre Project and Works Progress Administration, but in the 1970s as the Workshop of the Players Art Foundation. After a brief hiatus in 1976–1977 season, it was reopened by composer Howard Ashman, director R. Stuart White, and managing director Kyle Renick. Ashman used the venue in 1979 to premiere a showcase of his first collaboration with Alan Menken, a musical adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In 1982, they premiered a full production of Little Shop of Horrors in the space. After a successful one-month run, the show transferred to Off-Broadway’s Orpheum Theatre. The Library preserves a copy of the program from May 15, 1982, when the musical was still in previews. Ashman is listed not only as the lyricist and book writer, but also as the director. Composer Alan Menken played the piano throughout performances. Unusually, for a show still so early in previews, the song list for this early program is almost identical to the one in a 1986 program from late in the run of the Off-Broadway transfer.
2. Original Off-Broadway Playbill (1982)
In July of 1982 the musical transferred to the Orpheum Theatre Off-Broadway, where it stayed for five years. The Library preserves six editions of the Playbill from the run. In early 1983 the penultimate song of the first act was eventually re-titled from simply “Git it!” to “Feed Me! (Git It)”, but the song list remained otherwise unchanged. The cast, naturally, changed more frequently, and the role of Audrey rotated particularly frequently. Ellen Greene, who originated the role, stayed until around May of 1983, when she was replaced by a 26-year-old Faith Prince, who would eventually win a Tony Award for her performance as Adelaide opposite Nathan Lane’s Nathan Detroit in the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. In 1983, though, Prince’s bio listed only regional credits and a strange comedy revue called Scrambled Feet, in which she sang an operatic aria next to a live duck. Prince has told the story that she had originally been cast to play Audrey, but couldn’t get out of a contract with IBM to perform in one of the company’s industrials.
Other programs in the folder document Marsha Skaggs, Eydie Alyson, and, late in the run, Annie Golden (who recently played herself in Joe Iconis’s musical, Broadway Bounty Hunter) having played Audrey. The transfer to Off-Broadway had been made possible in part by British producer Cameron Mackintosh, who in 1981 rose to fame with his hit production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. After the success of Little Shop in New York, Mackintosh lost little time in bringing the musical to London. The Library preserves a copy of the program (sold for 50p or about what was then about 75 cents) from the Comedy Theatre in London.
3. Brooklyn Glossary from the Program for the Original London Production (1983)
Anticipating that the Brooklyn-esque dialect of the show might challenge British audiences, the program included a short glossary of phrases and American brand names that provides a fascinating Rosetta Stone for transatlantic English speakers in the early 1980s (e.g. “Howard Johnson’s — An omnipresent chain of rubber-stamp restaurants, found predominantly along motorways, not ‘Granada’s’”).
Even before the original Off-Broadway production closed in November of 1987, regional theatres began to license the musical. The famous film version—with a significantly modified ending—came out in 1986 with Rick Moranis as Seymour and Ellene Greene reprising her role as Audrey, likely inspiring a new wave of productions around the country. In 1986, the Barn Theatre, a small venue just outside of Kalamazoo, produced the show as part of their summer stock season. Barbara Marineau (War Paint), and Carolee Carmello (Parade) both had their turns with Audrey, while Rufus Bonds (Parade) played Audrey II.
4. Movie Musical Program (1986)
The musical has been revived in New York several times since 1987. In 2003, the first Broadway production opened with Hunter Foster as Seymour and Kerry Butler as Audrey. Encores! Off-Center produced a concert revival with Jake Gyllenhall as Seymour and Ellen Greene returning to the role she created 30 years before. Few Off-Broadway musicals are so perennially revived. Ashman’s clever lyrics and Menken’s catchy melodies always appeal, but it is perhaps the story of a generally “nice guy” who rises to riches by gradually giving more of his soul to a insatiable and ever-growing monster is one than resonates. The cast lists in the programs across the years suggest that the casting of Seymour has shifted from actors known for playing generally nebbish roles (like the original actor, Lee Wilkof) to romantic leads (Gyllenhall, Groff, Jeremy Jordan). A rich history of casting, creative teams, and more are available for to the public for viewing and research—and what a legacy it is.