The grimy foundations that let ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ sing.
by Nancy Netherwood
I consider Little Shop of Horrors, the timeless tale of a downtrodden florist’s assistant who gets his shot at fame and fortune in the form of a sentient, flesh-eating plant, to be one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. Blending kitsch comedy, sweet romance and lurking horror, director Frank Oz creates a technicolour, sound-stage world where cheerful doo-wop numbers accompany scenes of gruesome dismemberment, paying loving tribute to B-movies and classic musicals whilst following its own deranged logic.
It sounds like a car crash, but Oz holds all these seemingly contradictory elements in perfect balance, and, more importantly, he understands that it’s in this unexpected collision that the story finds its underdog magic; the bubblegum brightness and easy laughs don’t work without the vital counterbalance of strangeness, sincerity and real darkness.
When Oz came on board to direct the 1986 film, the musical’s composer Howard Ashman reportedly said to him, “this is supposed to be stupid. My tongue was firmly in my cheek when I wrote it!” And that’s certainly what I got on a first watch – 102 minutes of colourful, campy fun, with great songs and ludicrous characters (“Dentist!,” the number which introduces Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, DDS. is probably the part most people remember) but little that stayed with me past the credits. But the film invites repeat viewings and deeper readings, and when I casually dipped my toe back into the puppet-filled pond three years later I fell completely, deliriously in love.
Oz immediately establishes his vision – following a B-Movie-style opening monologue which hints at the extra-terrestrial origins of carnivorous plant Audrey II, we’re dropped straight from outer space into a murky puddle. The camera rises to reveal drab, junk-strewn Skid Row, the impoverished district where the story plays out, and the titular florist’s shop, it’s windows dark and devoid of greenery. As the title appears – in bright, cartoon lettering that promptly starts oozing blood – the street is highlighted by flashes of lurid blue lightning. It’s a perfect primer for what’s to come: the facade may be storybook simple, but it can barely contain the horror just beneath the surface.
People rarely remember that the opening number of Little Shop… is about crushing poverty and misery. “Skid Row (Downtown)” fulfils all the requirements of a Broadway opening number: it introduces the characters, setting and circumstances of the story, and, vitally, it establishes the tone. The melody is upbeat, the rhymes playful, the camera swoops lightly through the scene, but the world we’re brought into is undeniably bleak. Workers are driven into the ground by the merciless grind of capitalism; violence and abuse are normalised in the absence of even the slightest tenderness; and its inhabitants have no choice but to trudge on through a miserable life towards a premature death. Just your average musical puppet comedy!
It’s here that we meet our protagonists: Seymour – sweet, diminutive Rick Moranis, with his lumpy sweater vest and wide-eyed, rubbery face – and Audrey – a strange, incandescent performance from Broadway legend Ellen Greene. Seymour and Audrey have been raised on scraps – of resources, of attention, of hope – and are firmly at the bottom of the food chain. They have no money, no profitable skills and no one in their corner. Seymour works diligently for grasping florist Mr Mushnik, lamenting that, “Mushnik] treats me like dirt, calls me a slob which I am” – he’s not only crushed by the constant negativity in his life, he has internalised it. Audrey has the added mixed blessing of being a beautiful woman – she has something that people want, but it also makes her more vulnerable. Later, when a beating from her sadistic dentist boyfriend leaves her with a black eye and broken arm, Audrey sweetly says, “if he does this when he likes me, imagine what he’d do if he ever got mad;” she has such limited options that she has been conditioned to accept anything that has the appearance of love, at any cost, as the only alternative to destitution. As the song builds, Seymour steps out of the shop to walk amongst his downtrodden brethren and asks, with the resignation of someone who’s only know disappointment, “please won’t somebody say I’ll get outta here? Someone gimme my shot or I’ll rot here.”
These elements are all present in the stage show, but the fact that we empathise so immediately and invest so deeply in these characters is a real feat of adaptation: Oz’s direction of this sequence, which centres around emotive close-ups and beautiful musical arrangements, elevates the struggles of the neglected community, highlighting the real tragedy of their lives and affording them dignity in their dejection. It’s this opening that lays the sombre groundwork on which the colourful silliness can thrive.
The interplay between fantasy and reality comes to a head in the fantastically eerie eleventh-hour number “Suppertime.” Just as Seymour’s glittering future seems secured, Mr Mushnik reveals that he knows Seymour is responsible for the sudden disappearance of the dentist, and he’s turning him in. Seymour is suddenly confronted with the gruesome reality of his actions and the threat of very serious repercussions. Oz hard-cuts from Mushnik, grimly presenting the murder weapon, to a pale, anguished Seymour, to the sneering Audrey II, who narrates Seymour’s impending doom. The game is up, and misery is ready to welcome Seymour back with dank, open arms. And then the three ‘urchins,’ the story’s glamorous Greek chorus, emerge from the shadows outside, dressed in violet sequins and opera gloves, and Mushnik’s threats turn to blackmail – he’ll keep quiet about Scrivello’s death if Seymour does a runner and leaves the plant behind as the shop’s cash cow.
Seymour hesitates; the three women are silhouetted in the shop’s window, dancing slowly, hypnotically; Audrey II opens her cavernous mouth in a silent offer to Seymour – I can make all this go away, just stand back and let it happen. This the turning point of the film, the moment in which Seymour can take a stand or continue to be guilty through inaction; shimmering, artificial glamour presses right up against ugly reality, beckoning him. The urchins are now inside the shop, bearing witness as Mushnik unwittingly leans in to inspect Audrey II’s open mouth. Seymour almost warns Mushnik – but it’s too little too late. By failing to step in, Seymour has made the sacrifice that will ensure his continued success, and forfeited any chance of redemption. The urchins recede into the shadows again – the moment has been marked, as all the film’s darkest moments are, with glitter as well as gravitas, and the harshness of the real world can be kept at bay a little longer. But it won’t last long – at least, in one version of the film.
The film’s two endings are probably the biggest source of contention amongst Little Shop… fans – the theatrical cut (the only one available for many years) offers a cute, contrived conclusion, but it grants our heroes their hard-won happiness, whilst the original cut allows the narrative and thematic momentum to cruelly take them, and then the world, but ensures that the story delivers its warning against the ruthless exploitation and insatiable appetite of capitalism. The film has been setting us up for this harsher ending all along – from the urchins warning in the prologue that, “you’ll never stop the terror,” to Audrey, dressed in virginal white, being seized by the now-enormous plant in the finale, like a daisy ripped up by a destructive child, we should know the score.
And yet, though fitting for a cautionary tale that tales its cues from classical tragedy, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Seymour may have entered into a Faustian pact for success, but it’s not Audrey II’s offers of fame and riches that finally convince him, it’s the hope that these things might make him worthy of Audrey; she is delighted by his success, but all she really wants is a generic suburban home with a “cute little guy like Seymour.” Is Seymour really so irredeemable for being tempted out of stagnation and poverty at the cost of two manipulative abusers? Unlike the tragedies which inspired it, Little Shop… lets us dare to hope for a better future for these poor, doomed souls. The alternative ending is closer to Cinderella or Hansel & Gretel, with its downtrodden young heroes, having accepted too-good-to-be-true supernatural assistance, narrowly escaping to secure their happily ever after. It’s the ending the heart wants, even as our heads tell us it doesn’t quite fit.
Frank Oz has spoken extensively about the choice to reshoot the film’s ending following test-screenings. “In a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow,” he explains. “In a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead […] and so the audience lost the people they loved.” It’s something that The Rocky Horror Picture Show also struggles with – whilst the stage show ends with a raucous, audience-inclusive reprise of “The Time Warp,” the film leaves us with the haunting lines, “and crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race. Lost in time, and lost in space, and meaning” before fading to black. But Rocky Horror… is a more cynical prospect from the start, and its grotesque, archetypal characters don’t inspire the same adoration as Moranis’s clumsy nerd and Greene’s kind naif.
Oz also cited as a factor the different relationship that a viewer has to characters on screen. Stage musicals require exaggerated performances, with actors often playing to an audience who can barely see their faces, creating a heightened artificiality, a comfortable distance; Oz points out that, in film, “the close-up shows the absolute nuance of the feeling behind the face,” rendering the musical’s cartoonish characters authentically human, their inner turmoil painfully real. Audiences feel like they’re in the room with these people, their empathy fully engaged, and if anything happens to them, the audience will feel it deeply. Oz, in reference to the film’s test audiences, put it simply: “They loved those people, and they hated us for [killing them.]”
With the original ending restored to the film in a 2012 Director’s Cut, you can now decide Seymour and Audrey’s fate for yourself, and it’s a testament to Oz’s filmmaking that both feel entirely plausible. The original ending is beautifully crafted, and there’s a sort of grim satisfaction in seeing the story play out as it was intended to; but that sugary theatrical ending has earned its place too. There’s something to be said, in the current climate especially, for choosing a happy ending, for choosing to believe that something sweet and uncomplicated is possible. To quote another Ellen Greene character, the eccentric Vivian in Bryan Fuller’s glorious, Little Shop… inflected series Pushing Daisies; “I think it’s brave to try to be happy.”
Onstage, of course, there is no alternate ending, and the show’s popularity has never waned. It’s performed by hundreds of amateur companies every year, whilst professional theatre frequently offers fresh interpretations that remain true to the story’s spirit – I last saw it in an almost dystopian reimagining at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2018, whilst a recent production at the Pasadena Playhouse cast Filipino-Ecuadorian actor George Salazar as Seymour and African-American-Puerto Rican transgender actress Mj Rodriguez as Audrey. The production itself was not a radical reimagining, but the casting of these two actors in a major production challenges the default image of two cisgendered white heroes, cemented by Moranis and Greene; and with people of colour making up a huge percentage of those living in poverty and violence against trans women still horrifyingly prevalent, it adds another facet of sober reality and exemplifies the show’s capacity for profound meaning amidst the fantastical chaos.
Much as I (clearly) adore the film, there is no definitive iteration of this story. Little Shop of Horrors will continue to inspire revivals and reinterpretations, from the long-rumoured movie remake to your university’s annual musical; it can be an eco-fable, a B-movie, a Shakespearean tragedy, a screwball comedy, a retelling of Faust, because it’s all of those things at once. It’s the strange little show that will never die, a “strange and exotic plant” that’s constantly mutating whilst holding your heart in its grimy fist.