Why 'Little Shop of Horrors' still blossoms off Broadway
The cast, creative team, and famous fans of the award-winning musical revival share why it took root in their hearts — and the hearts of audiences, too.
Composer Alan Menken remembers the night his musical Little Shop of Horrors took root. It was 1982 in the East Village. He and bookwriter/lyricist Howard Ashman, known for their collaborations on Disney films, were premiering something much different: an adaptation of the 1960 B-movie about an awkward flower shop worker who turns to murder to satisfy an aggressive, flesh-eating plant. It was out there for sure. A risk. A less-than-safe-bet. But then...
"The first preview, the first time we realized the effect it had on audiences, it was just mind-blowing," Menken said.
That night remains among his favorite memories of the show, even though he said he's accumulated so many more in the 40-plus years since. From off Broadway to Broadway to countless national and international venues, Little Shop of Horrors captured audiences with its blend of comedy and horror, doo-wop infused tunes, and of course, the scene-stealing talking plant.
In 2019, Little Shop of Horrors returned to its roots with an Off-Broadway revival that's still running at the intimate Westside Theatre. With critical acclaim and multiple awards to its name, the production proves Little Shop hasn't lost any of its magic since that very first night. Everyone — audiences and actors alike — still want to go somewhere that's green.
On the night of the production's 1,000th performance, New York Theatre Guide spoke with Little Shop cast members past and present, the creative team, and celebrity fans about what makes this production, and Little Shop of Horrors as a whole, so bloody wonderful.
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Little Shop defied the odds to happen at all.
The original Little Shop of Horrors movie premiered with little fanfare. The director didn't even bother to copyright it! That didn't make the film a clear choice for a musical adaptation that would enjoy decades-long success. But stranger things have happened.
Sarah Ashman Gillespie (sister of Howard Ashman): When Howard first told us in 1981 he wanted to write a musical based on Little Shop of Horrors, we all tried to talk him out of it. We didn't want him to get hurt. And I was so glad he was stubborn and he did what he wanted to do.
This revival stays true to Little Shop's roots.
Howard Ashman, who wrote the musical's book and lyrics, also directed its now-iconic premiere production at the Orpheum Theatre in 1982. His version was a small, Off-Broadway affair that practically thrust audiences into the flower shop — much like the Westside production.
Alan Menken (composer): I just marvel at all the years that have gone by. I look at the effect Howard Ashman had on our entire culture, a whole generation. He would be so proud and so pleased [with this production].
Bill Lauch (partner of Howard Ashman): Something happens at the very end of this show that hasn't really happened since the original production at the Orpheum, and it comes out of nowhere. At the Orpheum, there were boxes on the ceiling, and vines would drop on the audience at the very last moment of the show. And when I saw what happens at this new production, it made me very happy.
Brad Oscar (Mushnik): That original production was so iconic because it was downtown in a very small theatre — even smaller than the theatre that we are in. It's one of the great American musicals, so to see a show like that in a space like that, that immediacy, which we have been able to translate [...] it's a joy.
Sutton Lee Seymour (drag queen): It is so driven to continue to be an Off-Broadway production, which is what Howard Ashman and Alan Menken originally wanted. I love that we have a hit Off-Broadway musical that's still thriving for 1,000 performances. When it was down in the East Village, Howard Ashman didn't want it to go to Broadway, and I love that they're keeping that tradition of maintaining true, gritty, fun, campy, Off-Broadway theatre.
Michael Mayer (director): My mission was to honor Howard Ashman as a director. We know it's a perfectly written thing, but I really thought he was also a brilliant director. The fact that we could present the show as it was originally conceived, off Broadway in an intimate setting — I tried to capture so much of the quality that Howard brought to it, and the tone and the pace and the vibe.
Robert Ahrens (lead producer) One of my favorite memories of Little Shop was the very first rehearsal, where Michael said his vision was "to not mess this up" — he used an expletive.
Audiences grow along with Little Shop.
Little Shop of Horrors is a popular choice for community and school theatre productions, and the movie is going on 40. In other words, it's a gateway musical — a show that introduces them to the art form and, like Audrey II, leaves them hungry for more.
Corbin Bleu (Seymour): I've always been a lover of the weird: Tim Burton movies, horror-based theatre. So I remember seeing Little Shop of Horrors as a kid, the movie, and being obsessed with it right from the get-go. I watch it every year since then. I'd seen a couple other productions as well [...] The fact that I get to be part of it myself is amazing.
Constance Wu (Audrey): I've wanted to play Audrey since I was a kid and I saw a community theatre production of Little Shop. I love her music, first of all, and I love that she has humble beginnings like myself, and she's scrappy, like myself. [...] I remember hearing her do "Somewhere That's Green" and remembering, "That vibrato is perfect." I emulated my own vibrato after hers!
Seymour: My first memory of Little Shop of Horrors was the movie with Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, and I grew up loving that movie. Of course, you could imagine my surprise when I saw a stage production and everybody died in the end.
Andrew Barth Feldman (Broadway actor): I've seen this production so many times, but also, I did crew for a community theatre production and got to be in the plant. That's the dream.
Certain moments are simply iconic.
Every song, line, and visual detail in Little Shop of Horrors helped the show grow into the classic it is. But a few moments repeatedly emerge as fan favorites among artists and audiences.
Oscar: When Audrey II first really comes to life, it's thrilling, and to see it up close in our space, too. "Suddenly Seymour," which is an iconic song, always gets a reaction.
Mayer: My favorite memory from the original, when I first saw it down at the Orpheum Theatre, was when the plant talked for the first time. I didn't know anything about the show. [...] I remember having this (jumps) feeling of, "Oh my god!" The plant had so much character and personality, and it hadn't even uttered one word yet. Every time I watch it, I still marvel at the ability of these writers to make that work so brilliantly.
Alyah Chanelle Scott (screen actor and producer): Every single time I see it, I just love "Suddenly Seymour." I love the moment that Audrey gets her confidence to belt. It's a release, a big turning point for her character and her story.
Even Little Shop has its little flops.
Things don't always go as expected on stage — that's the thrill of any live production. Some hilarious mishaps and modifications rank among people's favorite memories of the show.
Mayer: My favorite memory of this production is the first performance when Jonathan [Groff, as Seymour,] went to pull out a machete to kill the plant, and he couldn't find it, so he pulled out the watering can.
Aaron Arnell Harrington (The Voice of Audrey II): I don't know if I can share which Audrey it may have been, but Audrey's wig came off when it was time for her to be fed [to the plant], and it was probably one of the funniest things I've ever seen in live theatre.
Zakiya Baptiste (swing): The first time I ever went on for Audrey II, I wasn't supposed to be going on that night. I was in the middle of rehearsal that day, and I got the call: "Alright, we're going to change up some rehearsals, we're going to start putting you in some of these practices tonight, so happy debut day!"
Tatiana Lofton (former swing): Whoever's on that day when it comes to the Urchins, that stoop, when we sit there, is some of the funniest things I've ever heard in my life I've also had to be quiet for. When someone makes a joke and you have to swallow it... I have had some of the best belly laughs when I'm supposed to be quiet.
Audrey II steals the show.
The plant may be the villain, but there's a reason it's the face (er, maw) of the show art. Plus, Audrey II paved the way for puppetry in mainstream theatre.
Teddy Yudain (Audrey II puppeteer): One of my favorite memories of Little Shop was having original company members from the original production come to see it. There have been a few of them, but getting to meet Lynn Hippen, who was the original puppeteer [...] to be part of that history and feel that sense of connection with the show was really, really special.
Wu: Having the Audrey II be a puppet rather than an animatronic is the right move. There's just a charm about it.
Seymour: [Little Shop] taught me that, beyond the Muppets, you could really do some cool things with puppetry. Aside from doing drag, I work with puppets!
Little Shop of Horrors always changes.
A revolving door of star-studded casts have come through the flower shop since 2019. That means more fresh meat for Audrey II, and more new interpretations of the time-honored text for audiences to chew on.
Menken: It's always kept fresh with the new casts every time, and it just rocks. Each one has its own characteristics. It's always like it's brand-new.
Bryce Pinkham (Orin Scrivello, D.D.S.): Anything a replacement actor is doing in a show is handed down from the person who originated it, so [Christian Borle, who played Orin from 2019-2022,] deserves a lot of credit. Andrew Call and Drew Gehling also played the dentist and put their own stamp on it, so we've all inherited something and made it our own for a time and passed it on. It's beautiful.
Bleu: There are really so many unique renditions of each character and how to portray it. Even me coming into it, I felt like I was given a lot of freedom to make Seymour more of who I wanted to make him. That's what's so special about this show is, no matter what, you can always come back, you really are always going to see a different show depending on who is in it.
Jonathan Groff (original 2019 Seymour): I had another job, which is why I left the show, but I didn't want to leave the show emotionally. I was gutted to leave. I remember thinking, the beauty of theatre is that these amazing roles are there to change us from the inside out, and we give them to the next person, and they then change the next person.
The musical leaves you with (plant) food for thought.
A flower shop worker doing a talking plant's bloody bidding is a pretty bizarre concept, and there's certainly no shortage of laughs. But deeper-rooted messages hide beneath the silliness, too.
Wu: I really like the direction that Michael, the director, put in this show for Audrey. It's not just camp — yes, we have the camp and we have the humor of it, but there's also a lot of gravity to her character, too. It's been fun to play with both the comedy and the depth, but trying not to water down either.
Lauch: It has a timeless relevance in terms of its message: the transformation that can occur when given the opportunity for fame and wealth, and what you end up bargaining in order to get that.
Little Shop of Horrors is perfect.
Don't take it from us — that's a quote from, well, everyone.
Groff: It's just continuing to make us as artists better, and it's continuing to lift up audiences because it's a perfect show. All boats rise when we come in contact with this show.
Feldman: It's a perfectly directed and performed production of a perfect musical.
Ahrens: It's a perfect show with a perfect creative team.
Seymour: It's a perfect musical, and you can't tell me otherwise.
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Excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Photo credit: Little Shop of Horrors off Broadway in October 2023. (Photos by Evan Zimmerman)
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