Tasha: Genevieve’s Keynote dug into Little Shop Of Horrors’ origins, and our Thursday essay will dig into the film’s alternate ending. With the film’s start and finish fully covered, that leaves me stuck in the middle with you, Nathan. But I think there’s plenty going on in the meat of the film, starting with its shape as a big, cartoony, yet heartfelt version of the Great American Success Story. In all iterations of Little Shop, plant-store owner Mr. Mushnik is a heavily accented Jewish parody, a struggling immigrant-type trying to salvage a struggling business in a hungry New York City. In the Frank Oz version, his nebbishy employee Seymour Krelborn is a depressed orphan who owes his boss a lifelong debt. Mr. Mushnik’s other employee, Audrey, had an absentee dad, a working-class mom, and a history of compromise down “in The Guttah,” a nightspot where selling out her morals and wearing “cheap and tasteless outfits” didn’t earn her the money that would let her graduate to a better neighborhood, or a less abusive class of boyfriend. But they all have their dreams of striking it rich somehow, of finding that magical “way outta Skid Row,” and off to “somewhere that’s green.”
So what happens when they get a taste of success, in the form of a man-eating plant? They all go a little nuts. Seymour consciously swallows his morals (though not his squeamishness) and gives into the plant’s demand for human blood. Mr. Mushnik catches Seymour at his gory work, and instead of calling the cops, tries to blackmail Seymour into skipping town and abandoning his rights to the profitable plant. Audrey is sweeter and less compromised, but no less driven when it comes to her goals, as we see when she shows up at the flower store in full bridal regalia, ready to instantly marry the first guy who was actually nice to her. These are intensely desperate people, offered what looks like a shot at the brass ring they’ve always coveted—and they all lunge for it with minimal hesitation. That opening number, “Skid Row,” is a prototypical Broadway “I Want” song, and what they all want is to get out of poverty and find nice futures for themselves. What’s significant about Little Shop is that the traditional, supposedly guaranteed avenues to the American Dream have failed them. Starting an honest business and working hard didn’t save them. Being nice people with big dreams didn’t get them anywhere. They only start to make life progress when they sell out to a man-eating alien monster. That, more than anything, makes Little Shop an acidic black comedy, a cynical, satirical joke about exactly how much blood it takes to get ahead in America.
I’ve always been sad that Oz’s film cuts short the musical number “The Meek Shall Inherit.” The full version he shot gets both goofy and a bit too literal with its dream-imagery (check out Seymour as a giant celery stalk!), but the song spells out the theme more clearly: Seymour looks at all the standard-rich-and-famous contracts the gardening industry is offering him, and realizes signing them would mean he’s “willing to keep on doing bloody, awful, evil things.” Briefly, he mans up and heads off to destroy his plant, but then he wonders whether Audrey will still love him when he’s poor… and his resolve drops away. Losing the second half of that song (which Oz’s final theatrical cut does, abruptly and awkwardly) erases a lot of his brief moral weakness, which makes it less impressive when he bounces back at the end. It makes him a more hapless and static character, who doesn’t make enough clear choices, and tends to have things just happen to him. Or am I selling him short? How do you see Little Shop taking on the American Dream, Nathan?
Nathan: I see Little Shop Of Horrors as cynical to the point of nihilism. “Skid Row” is one of my favorite songs ever, because it’s about the fundamental hopelessness of existence, and how only desperate striving for a better life makes it even the least bit bearable. And then there’s my favorite character, one of the nastiest figures in musical theater: dentist Orin Scrivello, whom Steve Martin plays with demented relish. It’s a testament to how little Oz and the people behind the musical (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who went on to work for Disney, oddly or appropriately enough) think of upward mobility that the story’s most conventionally successful character is an unrepentant sadist who becomes apoplectic when he encounters a patient (Bill Murray) who enjoys being in pain as much as Orin enjoys inflicting it. Martin’s character only really enjoys hurting the unwilling, and yet they keep coming back, either out of ignorance or plain need.
That’s Little Shop Of Horrors’ conception of business relationships: a horrible man who loves to dole out pain, and his shocked victims. The relationship between Orin and most of his patients echoes that of Stanley and Audrey II, which is similarly wrapped up in one party needing to inflict pain, and the other reluctantly willing to endure it for professional gain.
One of the smartest things Oz did was cast Rick Moranis as Seymour, because Moranis’ likability and relatability keeps him sympathetic even when he’s doing horrible, hateful things. When I interviewed Frank Oz many years back, he said that was actually part of the problem; audiences liked the characters so much, they rejected a much darker ending, and wanted the characters to grab their little slice of happiness amid all that despair.
Tasha: Here’s the thing, though. Normally, I get apoplectic myself about studio-enforced happy endings, which never really seem to emerge naturally from the storyline, or feel remotely authentic. And this one is no exception: Seymour and Audrey run away to the white-picket-fenced home of her fantasies, having somehow ended up with the money they were promised for Audrey II, even though the plant has been destroyed. Did they steal the cash and run off under the adopted names Bonnie and Clyde? How are they supposed to support themselves with the one thing that made them distinctive gone? I don’t think Oz bothers to justify it, because I don’t think he’s invested in this ending. There’s a lackadaisical “Screw it, they live happily ever after, are you satisfied now?” rush to the sequence, a sense that by making it so arbitrary and unsupported, Oz is rolling his eyes at the people who demanded it. (Also, after he spent $5 million on the original ending, there really wasn’t a budget for an elaborate wrap-up sequence.) And yet this finale works fine for me, because I really do want Seymour and Audrey to live happily ever after. This is a hugely heightened fantasy story, after all. The despair and longing of “Skid Row” has to pay off somehow that isn’t just grim punishment for everyone but the chorus girls.
Nathan: For me, “Skid Row” gains an additional power considering the original 1960 film Little Shop was based on was a product of Roger Corman, who reigned as the king of skid-row film production, and prided himself on making movies as cheaply and quickly as possible. Yet for something thrown together seemingly haphazardly, Little Shop Of Horrors has stood the test of time as a low-budget cinematic dark comedy, an Off-Broadway musical, and a film musical. What about this story makes it so enduring and resonant? Why are we still talking about this bizarre tale of sad, hopeless schemers?
Tasha: Not just those three versions, either! Did you know that in 1991, there was a one-season Saturday-morning cartoon called Little Shop, about a 13-year-old Seymour Krelborn, his crush object Audrey, his boss Mr. Mushnik, and his rapping giant plant buddy Junior? This is some trippy, cheaply animated, highly stylized stuff.
Based on the cartoon—which is more good-natured than the stage and film versions, with Junior mostly ordering pizzas and, um, telekinetically manipulating meat products into his mouth rather than demanding Seymour’s blood, I think you can make some broad statements about how this story appeals to people as a weird, quirky comic daydream. It’s essentially, “What if you had a guardian angel who could give you anything you wanted… but it was evil?”
But that’s just the beginning of an answer. Really, I think the Corman version appealed to people because it was so appealingly offbeat and weird, and the Oz version appeals because it’s offbeat, weird, cute, funny, and crammed with ultra-catchy sing-along songs. All other considerations aside, Ashman and Menken’s Little Shop Of Horrors soundtrack is a collection of well-crafted, funny, emotionally seductive hits. You’ve covered your love for “Skid Row,” but do you have other favorites on the soundtrack?
Nathan: Since my Mutations column covers weird, semi-off-brand versions of popular film characters, I was aware of the cartoon. As far as the film goes, though, I’m blown away by Ellen Greene’s performance of “Somewhere That’s Green.” On paper, it’s a wickedly satirical number about a dreamer from the gutter whose life is so devoid of happiness that she can’t fantasize about anything grander than watching I Love Lucy on a “big, enormous 12-inch screen” as she serves her family TV dinners straight out of the oven. But Greene invests such naked yearning into her performance that she almost convinces viewers to share her pathetic dream of uber-consumerism, rather than laugh at it or judge her.
That, I think, gets to the core of why Little Shop Of Horrors holds up so well, generation after generation and medium after medium. It has the strange, seemingly paradoxical quality of being simultaneously a dark satire of the American dream, where even nice guys must bleed and suffer to get out of the gutter, and an unexpectedly poignant, moving exploration of the aspirations of a pair of small-time likeable losers.
My other favorite is “Dentist.” I bought the original soundtrack version of the Off-Broadway musical but I prefer Steve Martin’s version. On the stage soundtrack, it’s sung almost in an emotionless monotone, but Martin goes the full Elvis on it, deriving every last demented bit of humor out of its warped, morbid lyrics.
Rewatching the film, I was struck by how creepy and even frightening it is for a catchy PG-13 musical. It’s easy to forget that Little Shop Of Horrors isn’t just a musical comedy, it’s a horror musical comedy, and a disturbing one at that. What do you think of the film as a horror movie, and what would you say is its most unsettling moment?
Tasha: Oh, “Suppertime,” without question. Which doubles as my favorite song in the musical, after “Skid Row.” The one number where Seymour actually becomes complicit in making a live man into a dead man (as opposed to just trying with Orin, and being too meek to seal the deal, except in the most passive way possible) doubles as a seduction, with Levi Stubbs as Audrey II crooning promises about how great things will be if Seymour just murders his boss. Audrey II’s persuasion in this scene is a fantasy—if the plant was actually singing, Mr. Mushnik would notice—and that’s part of what makes it unsettling, because we don’t know whether we’re hearing something meant solely for our ears, or we’re hearing Seymour’s changing inner voice, telling him that just one murder to get what he wants isn’t necessarily so bad. This is also the number that brings sex into an otherwise pretty squeaky-clean musical (a little naughty implication of dentist-related S&M aside). The chorus girls in their tight, spangly dresses, wiggling their hips and slinking around in near darkness, faces in shadow, purring “Come on, come on” in that beautiful minor-key harmony, with that throbbing low bass under them—the whole musical is about illicit temptations, but this is the one that really insinuates something serious going on, instead of playing comic with the whole business. Mushnik’s actual death goes comic again, and the moment breaks, but for a moment, “Suppertime” is a fever-dream horror scenario about the deliciousness, simplicity, and outright pleasure of murder, in the middle of a bright candy-colored campfest.
Any scene where Stubbs is singing to Seymour as Audrey II brings up another issue we should cover, and another reason I think this film has endured: The practical special effects are amazing. The lip-sync is impressive, for what was, at times, a one-ton rubber puppet that took 60 people to operate and had to be repainted after every day of shooting. From what I’ve read, the shoot wound up being complicated: Audrey II never quite looked convincing, until Oz’s team realized they could underclock the camera, shooting at 12 frames per minute, then speeding playback up to the standard 24—which meant whenever a human actor is sharing space with a talking Audrey II, the actor is moving and singing at half speed, keeping pace with slowed-down playback. It’s a surprisingly seamless illusion, even when I try to go back and catch them at it. I suspect Stubbs’ ultra-expressive voice and all those moving, twining tentacles by the end (all hand-operated by puppeteers, without stop-motion) help distract from any flaws. Little Shop earned two Oscar nominations—one for Stubbs’ closing number, “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” (the soundtrack’s only song that was original to the film), and one for Best Visual Effects. I understand why the film lost out to Aliens, but it certainly earned its nomination, in terms of creating believable yet difficult-to-manage effects that involved a lot of creativity and talent, yet end up looking convincing onscreen.
Nathan: I strongly disagree that Little Shop Of Horrors is a squeaky-clean musical and there’s way more than a “little naughty implication of dentist-related S&M.” Despite sung words to the contrary, the dentist is more than just a semi-sadist. He’s the real thing, and there are moments throughout that aren’t necessarily scary or related to horror, but are deeply unsettling, like the glee with which Bill Murray’s character approaches the prospect of agony, and how much it enrages Orin to provide pleasure, even if it comes in the form of pain. And I’m not even bringing up Martin’s death by laughing gas, which reminded me a little of another wholesome family film: Blue Velvet.
The filmmakers took one of Roger Corman’s sickest premises and made it borderline-cute by employing as director the second-in-command over at The Muppet Show, and the Disney-bound Ashman/Menken team. Winding down, I think that’s another reason the film endures in so many forms: It’s cute and deeply disconcerting at the same time, which is a rare combination. Just think of all the tiny little progeny of Audrey II in their little Maxwell House coffee-tin homes: They look adorable, even vaguely human, but if given their druthers, they literally will destroy the world. That’s part of what makes Oz such an impressive filmmaker: In Little Shop Of Horrors, he manages to make the apocalypse seem fun and cute.
Don’t miss Genevieve’s Keynote on how Little Shop navigated the journey from screen to stage and back again. 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.