The relationship between stage and screen has been long and fruitful, but not always easy. Movies have been drawing from theater convention pretty much since their inception, and turning movies into stage productions is only a slightly more recent phenomenon. Theater and film complement each other in many respects, and together, they gave birth to a genre that became a vital, storied part of the movie landscape in its own right: the movie musical. But as both media have evolved, so has the tension between film and its stagebound forebear, which looks increasingly musty in a pop-culture landscape dominated by large-scale, quadrant-spanning entertainment that can be consumed and discussed more or less simultaneously across the globe, rather than confined to the audience of a single theater, or at best, a single city. Theater, Broadway in particular, has responded by transposing seemingly every moderately successful film property—from animated Disney films to Bring It On and Heathers to Once—into a stage musical, while film has struggled, succeeding in fits and starts, to redefine the outmoded movie musical for the 21st century. After close to a century spent dancing in tandem, film and theater have fallen slightly out of step, which is why it’s worth looking back and celebrating what was possible when they were perfectly in sync. And there’s no better example of the sublime duet of stage and screen than Frank Oz’s 1986 musical Little Shop Of Horrors.
Little Shop’s path to the screen began way back in 1960, when B-movie master Roger Corman spent two days, $30,000, and the leftover sets from A Bucket Of Blood to slap together a chintzy-looking horror-comedy called The Little Shop Of Horrors that went on to become a cult hit, based in part on the presence of a young Jack Nicholson in a small but memorable role. The tendrils of Corman’s film crept into Oz’s film, via a 1982 Off-Off-Broadway (then Off-Broadway, then just plain Broadway) musical written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Menken and Ashman’s production married the black humor and basic plot of Corman’s film—which was itself pulled, via screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, from a couple different literary sources—to the sort of songs that went on to make the duo central players in the Disney renaissance a few years later. (The fact that all three of the Disney animated films for which Ashman and Menken wrote the music, The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, have since been transmogrified into stage musicals speaks to the pair’s ability to successfully merge the conventions of those media.) By the time Oz got his hands on Little Shop, it was already a hybrid, a formally traditional stage musical based on an off-kilter B-movie with few elements that would suggest a musical treatment, outside of a noir-inflected score that has no bearing on Ashman and Menken’s doo-wop-inspired songs.
Oz’s treatment of Little Shop Of Horrors is primarily beholden to Menken and Ashman’s musical—Ashman also wrote the film’s screenplay, which is condensed from the musical, but otherwise quite faithful—but Corman’s film provides its base DNA. What’s remarkable about Oz’s Little Shop, as opposed to, say, Hairspray, which charted a similar screen-to-stage-back-to-screen trajectory a few years later, is how much of that original DNA is evident in the final product. Beyond the characters and broad strokes, there isn’t a lot in 2007’s Hairspray that can be traced back John Waters’ loopy 1988 musical hybrid; by the time it completed its journey from one film to another, the story had taken a dramatically different tone. But Oz’s Little Shop maintains much of the B-movie tone, parodic humor, and performance style of Corman’s film, and it doesn’t shrink from the story’s horror elements. If anything, the cinematic verve and immaculate production values Oz brings to his version only enhance the deep creepiness at the root of Little Shop, making it arguably scarier than its campy source material. If Oz’s version of Little Shop Of Horrors transcends Corman’s original—and it’s easy to argue that it does—it’s because it grafts the best elements of the 1960 film and the 1982 musical into an alluring hybrid not unlike the mean green mother at its center. Oz’s Little Shop sings the language of stage and screen, in perfect harmony.
This unity is established from Little Shop Of Horrors’ opening prologue, which begins with a voiceover explaining, “On the 21st day of the month of September… the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence…” This wording is taken directly from the stage version’s opening number, but it’s presented here as text in an opening crawl, in a style reminiscent of early film serials, or perhaps the more recent Star Wars movies that paid homage to them. The Corman original also opened with a voiceover, though it’s markedly different, with the voice of a flinty cop establishing a loose crime-movie concept that really only bookends the film. With the play, Ashman and Menken blew up the relatively small-scale story of a strange, murderous plant to an epic alien-invasion tale, and the rejiggering of the opening narration into something portentous and epic sets the story off on that foot.
But then Oz transitions—via a neat touch involving a bottle tossed into a puddle, an effect used more than once—into an opening number that’s pure Broadway, with the singing Greek Chorus (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) taking the audience on a singing-and-dancing tour of the film’s Skid Row setting. (In another nod to stage convention, the Greek chorus girls play dual roles, also serving as the dropouts who mill around Mushnik’s shop.) Much like a stage play, where the reveal of the set is often an integral part of the opening number, the opening here is presentational: “Here’s what we’re going to show you, here’s what it’s going to sound like, and here’s what it’s going to look like.” And what does it look like? A set! Oz chose to create a full set of Skid Row, complete with overhead train track, at London’s Pinewood studios, and Little Shop consequently has that beautifully artificial backlot look that was a signature of golden-era movie musicals. Apropos of its dirty downtown setting, there’s a layer of grime covering much of Little Shop—save, pointedly, the immaculate suburban perfection of Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green” fantasy—but calling its look “realistic” would be a disservice to the work Oz and his production team did to make Little Shop evoke an illusory storybook feel that calls back to both the stage production and the Corman film.
That purposefully artificial tone extends to the performances as well. Ellen Greene’s signature portrayal of sweet, silly, insecure Audrey is transported directly from Off-Broadway, where she originated the role. (Though she wasn’t the producers’ first choice; they wanted a big name for the co-starring role, which seems ridiculous, given Greene’s one-of-a-kind take on the character.) As the ostensible hero of the story, Rick Moranis plays Seymour with a gee-whiz energy that’s only slightly more grounded, but the real grandstanding happens on the fringes of Little Shop. Most of the supporting performances, from Christopher Guest’s bug-eyed “first customer” to John Candy’s radio DJ Wink Wilkinson to Vincent Gardenia’s Mr. Mushnik (a role wisely pared down from both the stage play and the original film), strike a tone somewhere between “heightened” and “completely overblown,” but it’s all in keeping with the film’s stage-y approach to human behavior and interaction.
And then there’s Steve Martin, making a meal of the role of the sadistic dentist who’s Audrey’s abusive boyfriend and Audrey II’s first entrée. Pitching his Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS, somewhere between Elvis and Satan, Martin approaches the role more like a sketch character than a film role, which is not an insult in this case. He cranks Dr. Orin up to 120 percent for utmost absurdity and disquiet. His death-by-giggle-gas is consequently one of the most disturbing moments of the film.
The only person who manages to pull focus from Martin onscreen is Bill Murray, in the same one-scene role that made Jack Nicholson a standout of Corman’s film. Murray’s masochistic patient, who frustrates Dr. Orin with the overtly sexual delight he takes in his painful dental procedures, was excised from the stage musical, but Ashman wisely re-inserted the character into the film, while Oz let the dependably genius Murray off the leash for his completely improvised performance. Murray’s cameo is the sort of detail that works better on film than it would on stage; it needs a star as recognizable and revered as Murray was at this point (hot off Ghostbusters) to not seem like an off-topic lark, and instead become one of the quintessential one-scene wonders.
But there are also a host of human performers in Little Shop who are never seen, and they represent the film’s biggest achievement in bringing the stage musical into the realm of cinema. The Audrey II puppets are an integral part of Little Shop stage productions; plans for building the original-design puppets are provided with the play’s script and score, and there’s a cottage industry in renting out Audrey puppets to amateur and school productions. But Oz, who made his name alongside Jim Henson, creating and performing The Muppets, upped the ambition considerably when it came to bringing Audrey II back to the big screen. (The plants used in Corman’s production are several generations removed from 1986 Audrey II. Corman’s are obviously Styrofoam and mostly static, with a silly-looking effect superimposing the faces of the plant’s victims onto its blooms.)
The 1970s and 1980s were a golden age of cinematic puppetry innovation, thanks in large part to Oz and Henson. (Henson’s son Brian worked as a puppeteer on the film.) Audrey II represents an apex of that innovation. But none of it could have been accomplished live on a stage. In addition to the various cuts and visual trickery needed to conceal the people operating the Audreys—which numbered as high as 60 individuals during the climax where the monstrous plant takes down Mushnik’s—the fluidity with which the foam-rubber creations move was achieved through a simple but brilliant bit of movie magic, where the scenes of Audrey II moving were filmed at 12 to 16 frames per second, then sped up. (This approach proved particularly difficult in the scenes where Audrey II sings with Moranis, who had to lip-sync to a molasses-slow backing track) And the famously excised original ending, where an Audrey II army demolishes first Skid Row, then the entire city, then the world, is a marvel of old-school model-making, representing six months of wasted effort by model supervisor Richard Conway. The pre-CGI use of practical effects, the Audrey II puppets in particular, ties the 1986 Little Shop directly to its two forebears, and grounds the production in real, tactile-looking effects that counteract the larger-than-life story and performances. Any modern remake of Little Shop—which has been threatened, thankfully fruitlessly, for years—would undoubtedly give into the temptation of a computer-generated Audrey II, and subsequently lose the element that gives Oz’s production its heart and soul.
There’s plenty of smart filmmaking happening in Little Shop Of Horrors—the way Oz’s camera moves to complement the music, the inventive transitions, the deployment of close-ups to achieve emotional connection amid the heightened performances—but it’s unmistakably evoking old-fashioned stagecraft as well, particularly in its sets and props, but also in its musical and performance conventions. It’s a film both of its time and of the past, using the height of 1980s filmmaking innovation to evoke the cheap B-movie conventions of a quarter-century prior. (Oz’s original ending is even more overt in its cinematic homages, with both Godzilla and Patton figuring heavily into the proceedings.) It’s similarly a film both of the screen and of the stage, straddling the two media in a manner that blurs the differences between them while simultaneously drawing on their individual strengths. It brings the screen to the stage and then brings the stage back to the screen, merging the two into the platonic ideal of a movie musical.
Over in the Forum, Nathan Rabin and Tasha Robinson dig into the musical’s individual songs, its cynical dismissal of the American Dream, and its weird 1990s Saturday-morning-cartoon spin-off. And on Thursday, Darryn King takes up the story of Oz’s long-lost original ending, in which alien plants giddily, gladly devour the world.