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On July 27, 1982, Little Shop of Horrors transferred from the 98-seat WPA Theatre to the much larger Orpheum Theatre—where it proceeded to run 2,209 performances and made a star out of Ellen Green as the lovable, ditzy Audrey. She would go on to reprise her role both in the 1986 film and again in the 2015 Encores! Off-Center concert opposite Jake Gyllenhaal.
In this 1982 feature, the show's creators Howard Ashman and Alan Menken recall how (and why!) they saw musical potential in a cult favorite, micro-budget 1960s horror film.
In your wildest fantasy, can you picture anyone taking a 1960 film called The Little Shop of Horrors about a man-eating plant that barks “Feed me!” when it craves human flesh and turning it into a musical? (The film, by the way, was shot on a dare by director Roger Corman in five days on a budget of $15,000 and it was recently included in a Festival of 100 Worst Films Ever Made.)
This is precisely the miracle wrought by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken with their critically acclaimed musical, Little Shop of Horrors, that recently moved from the small Off Off-Broadway WPA Theatre to the larger Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue and Eighth Street. Mr. Ashman is responsible for the book, lyrics and direction of the bizarre enterprise, Mr. Menken wrote the appropriately outlandish music and Kyle Renick, producing director of the WPA Theatre, blessed their project with an outstanding production.
Any discussion of the musical is bound to revert to nostalgia about the outré film that inspired it. During a recent visit with the authors and Mr. Renick at the Orpheum Theatre, I had the opportunity to compare notes about this black comedy.
I first encountered the film in the spring of 1961 in a rickety photoplay house (admission, 15 cents) in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was mesmerized by the spectacle of a Skid Row flower shop where a nut named Seymour nurtured a growing plant that required warm bodies for sustenance. One curious scene involved a masochist (played by a very young, spaced-out Jack Nicholson) who goes to a sadistic dentist for the thrill of his drill. It was comedy at its blackest.
In years to come, The Little Shop of Horrors achieved cult status. It was shown mainly on late late TV shows, and that’s where Howard Ashman and Kyle Renick first saw it.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw it,” recalls Ashman. “I was around 14 and I watched it late at night in my bedroom in Baltimore. I got hooked on it. Later, I met tons of people who saw it when they were 14 or 15. I never met anyone who saw it as an adult.”
“I saw it in college,” says Renick. “We all loved horror movies so we stayed up late to watch it. I laughed so hard that I thought I would do internal damage to my stomach.”
It was Ashman who was inspired to do a musical version of the strange film. He and composer Alan Menken had collaborated on a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a hit at the WPA Theatre, but less successful when moved to the larger Entermedia Theatre.
“We were both depressed,” says Ashman, “so I decided that the next show we worked on would have to be something that was fun. I suddenly remembered that when I was 16, I had written a terrible musical about a man who fell in love with a flower that had opiate powers. I realized that I had subconsciously ripped off The Little Shop of Horrors. My show was called The Candy Shop.”
Menken had never seen the film but luckily, a few weeks after Ashman told him that he would like to make a musical of it, it showed up on cable TV. “We videotaped it,” Ashman says, “and Alan liked it because it immediately gave him musical ideas. It reeked of the 1960s.”
Renick, as a fanatical fan of the film, was very enthusiastic about the show as a WPA production. In 1977, he, Ashman, and Edward T. Gianfrancesco had taken over the WPA Theatre from its original founders, who had started it in 1968. They found a loft at Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, built a 98-set theatre and dedicated their enterprise to neglected American classics like Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come and Edward Albee’s adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café and new American works. Renick does not know why the original founders called it the WPA, but he added, “The legend is that someone heard the letters WPA and liked the combination. We have a standing joke that WPA stands for ‘We’ll Produce Anything.’”
It took the WPA Theatre a year to secure the rights to Roger Corman’s film, The Little Shop of Horrors. “There was no wrangling,” Renick says. “Corman’s lawyers agreed to assign the rights to us to do a stage adaptation. It took Howard and Alan about eight months to write the show.”
Reports Ashman, “We wrote the show in fits and starts. Once we found the right approach to it, we finished it in about eight weeks.
Composer Menken adds: “Howard and I work fairly quickly once we have the handle on what we’re doing. But we did go through a long period of outlines and song styles that we discarded. I decided that I wanted the musical approach to come from some early 1960s music—the girl group sound. It has a very dark, menacing ring. You can almost hear whips and chains in the background. There were two ponytailed teenagers in the movie and we decided to turn them into a black trio that functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.”
There have been no complaints from audiences or critics about the musical’s gruesome subject matter. “That’s because we don’t treat the material in a gruesome way,” states Ashman. “There’s not a drop of blood onstage—just red fabric. Sweeney Todd, which I liked very much, was a serious treatment of horrific subject matter. We’re a spoof. We’re in it for a laugh.”
Ashman points out the difference between the film and the musical. “People who see our show say, ‘It’s just like the movie.’ It really isn’t. The movie falls apart in the middle and has a weak ending. We added the S&M romance between Audrey and the sadistic dentist. We dropped the character who eats carnations and got rid of Seymour’s mother, who had an iron lung and bitched about everything. Most important of all—the bodies fed to the plant in the movie were accidental deaths, like a bum who is hit by a train. In our version, the deaths are planned by Seymour and he kills off some very important characters. I think our show has a more coherent structure. Once the musical was finished, a major problem was to find someone who could play Audrey II, the malevolent plant that reduces the cast to a minimum.”
“We needed an expert in puppetry,” says Renick. “We were lucky. The third or fourth person we interviewed was Martin Robinson, a professional actor and puppeteer who works for the Muppets and also plays Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. He turned out to be ideal for the job.”
According to Ashman, when they contacted Mr. Robinson, he shouted, “Oh, my God! That’s my favorite movie! I saw it when I was a little kid and I dreamed for years about designing that plant. I have dozens of sketches I’ve already done.” He brought his designs to the WPA and he ended up designing the infamous Audrey II’s growth.
“We wanted the plant to have a deep, New Orleans, funky kind of sound,” says composer Menken, “and we found Ron Taylor, a wonderful actor with a powerful voice. I won’t tell you where his voice comes from in the plant—and I won’t tell you how Marty manipulates it. We have to keep some secrets.”
The cast assembled for this Venus-people-trap musical also turned out to be ideal. The authors have high praise for Ellen Greene’s ditzy interpretation of Audrey as a combo of such 1950s blondes as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday and Edie Adams, for Lee Wilkof’s Faustian Seymour who sells his soul to the plant, for Franc Luz as Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, for Hy Anzell as Mushnik, owner of the thorny flower shop, and for Marlène Danielle, Jennifer Leigh Warren, and Sheila Kay Davis as the supreme Greek chorus.
Little Shop of Horrors opened to rave reviews at the WPA and quickly became a sellout. Like the movie that inspired it, it became a conversation piece with word spreading rapidly about the fantastic plant that bellows “Feed me!” and eats people. The show ran from May 6 to June 6 and by this time, Broadway producers were practically knocking down Kyle Renick’s door to move the show uptown.
“I had 26 offers from commercial producers to transfer this show,” says Renick. And after much thought (and some fabulous dinners), Renick made his choice: the Shubert Organization, which had never before produced an Off-Broadway show. “I had a meeting with Bernie Jacobs of the Shubert Organization,” Renick remembers, “and I knew that he was in tune with our demands. He understands the difference between a Broadway and Off-Broadway show and he seemed to be willing to allow us creative freedom. Also, he brought two gentlemen into the deal that are very valuable to our show. David Geffen has his own prestigious record company, which means that the cast album will be done in the finest of taste and Cameron Mackintosh, the British producer of Cats and 99 other shows, will ensure that Little Shop of Horrors will get a wonderful production in Britain.”
Because the WPA Theatre had enjoyed a big success when it moved its production of Key Exchange from its own theatre to the larger Orpheum Theatre, it decided to do the same with Little Shop of Horrors. The financial statistics of the transfer are staggering. The show cost about $25,000 to mount at the WPA (the most expensive show in its history). Tickets at the 98-seat theatre cost $7. Cost of the same show at the Orpheum? Between $350,000 and $400,000, with a ticket top of $22.95.
The move has more than paid off. The critics who did not review the show at the WPA have flocked to the Orpheum and added their hosannas to the tributes already bestowed on the show. Audiences are also jamming the theatre and emerging with happy smiles, bellowing “Feed me!” At this point, it would seem that Little Shop of Horrors is going to fulfill the authors’ and Renick’s secret hope: that the show remain at the Orpheum and run forever.
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