Little Shop of Horrors
… twenty-two years later it was turned into an Off-Off-Broadway musical by the team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who later went on to write the songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, before Ashman was taken from us far too soon at the age of 41, one more artistic victim of AIDS.
I won’t say this was the unlikeliest source material for a musical—that honor would go to Sweeney Todd—but it’s close. Singing and dancing to a story about a man-eating plant? Okay …
The play later moved to Off-Broadway, and even later to the Great White Way itself. I have had the great pleasure of seeing it onstage twice, at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, and at a local theater production in Paso Robles, California. Both of them featured ingenious ways to animate the carnivorous plant, Audrey II, at its various stages of growth.
This film from Frank Oz came a few years later. And it’s a doozy. One of my favorite musical films of all time. Everything about it is brilliant, from the dazzling, huge sets (which used every sound stage at Pinewood in England) to the songs, to the performances of Rick Moranis, Vincent Gardenia, and especially Ellen Greene. She speaks in a squeaky whisper until the song “Suddenly Seymour,” when she amazingly belts it out enough to give me goosebumps.
Another ingenious touch is the appearance of a “Greek chorus” of three singers, who stroll through the scenes, invisible to the other characters, singing songs that perfectly capture the styles of doo-wop, Motown, and good old-time rock and roll. They are the unsung (so to speak) heroes of this production, and their names are Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell as Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon. Which just happen to be the names of three New York girl groups from the 1960s. Google them. You’ve never seen so much big hair.
There are totally brilliant smaller parts for John Candy and Bill Murray, in the Jack Nicholson part. They say he improvised all his lines. Then there was another even more brilliant part for Steve Martin, as the sadistic dentist.
But the real star of the show is Audrey II in its various incarnations. The largest one is just huge, and there was no CGI, no blue screens. This critter speaks so well you could probably read its lips, and it’s all rubber and hydraulics, operated by at least twenty stage hands. The only other trick they used was to shoot it at 12 frames per second, and play it at 24. That meant that the thing didn’t have to move too fast, but meant that when Moranis interacted with it—sometimes from just inches away—he had to sing and move in slow motion! You really can’t tell. It was voiced, hilariously, by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops.
One famous thing about it is that Oz wanted to go with the theater ending, where everyone died and the plants took over the world. He spent something like five million dollars filming huge models of the Brooklyn Bridge, the statue of Liberty, and other landmarks being overrun by Kong-sized Audrey IIs … and it tested so badly that he had to go back and reshoot a happy ending. That original ending was thought to be lost, but was recently discovered and exists on DVD. I intend to rent it soon and I’ll get back to you on how that looks.