Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Attack of the Monster Musical: “Little Shop of Horrors” Sings!

 In the beginning, there was (isn’t there always?) Roger Corman, who bet he could shoot a movie over a weekend, using sets left over from another production. The idea for a man-eating plant came from the warped brain of Charles B. Griffith, who cranked out the screenplay, helped with night-shooting at scruffy Downtown L.A. locations, and personally voiced Audrey Junior’s imperious demand that the hero “Feed Me!” Chuck’s partner in cinema crime was another Corman regular, portly Mel Welles, who was also featured on-screen as flower-shop owner Gravis Mushnik. Together the two pals scoured L.A.’s real Skid Row for cheap outdoor locations that could be rented for the price of a bottle of scotch. Others in the cast included Jonathan Haze as the nebbishy Seymour Krelboined, Jackie Joseph as the naïve and lovable Audrey, and a then-unknown Jack Nicholson as an excited masochist in a dentist’s chair. (“No Novocain—it dulls the senses.”)

 All this happened in 1960, producing a horror comedy that was not exactly Oscar bait.  Still, over the decades it accrued a loyal fan base, mostly comprised of young people who fell in love with this black & white cheapie on the Late Late Show. One of these people was Howard Ashman, who would grow up to be an  off-off-Broadway director and lyricist. A collaboration with budding composer Alan Menken led to a 1982 workshop production that turned into a five-year run at Off- Broadway’s Orpheum Theatre. This was an East Village locale so shabby that it made a perfect fit for a darkly comedic Skid Row saga.

 There’ve long been books dedicated to the 1960 Corman film. But in Attack of the Monster Musical, pop culture historian Adam Abraham devotes himself specifically to the musical version and how it grew. I met Adam on the telephone when he quizzed me, as a Corman chronicler, about the source material. Thanks to my research on Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, I was able to connect him with such Cormanites as Steve Barnett, who (following the runaway success of the musical), tracked down the missing elements that allowed Roger—at long last—to copyright a film that had been in public domain since its first release,. But Adam has clearly talked to EVERYONE who’s had anything to do with various productions of Little Shop: the actors, the understudies, the orchestrators, the stage managers, the Hollywood moguls who put together the 1986 film version. Abraham’s book is the essential source if you want to understand how the original 72-minute film evolved into a cut-rate extravaganza featuring man-eating muppets and a lively score based on doo-wop and early Motown. After reading his book, it’s easy to appreciate how successfully the creaky Corman opus was transformed, thanks to the addition of a sadistic dentist, a trio of Skid Row Supremes, and a jive-talking Audrey II.

 Theatre buff that he is, Abraham is shrewd about locating Little Shop among other low-rent Off-Broadway musicals (like Dames at Sea) that capture the spirit of the films of yesteryear. He also contemplates the appeal to Hollywood of the Ashman-Menken opus, at a time when Revenge of the Nerds was big box-office. But he’s quick to point out how the grandiose $25 million film directed by Frank Oz undermines the charm of the original stage production, relying on star cameos (like Bill Murray in the extraneous Jack Nicholson role) and never really growing into something special.  From what I hear, Hollywood’s planning to try again, with (perhaps) Billy Porter as the voice of Audrey II.  Maybe this time the plant will flower.





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