On the sixth day of May of a year four decades before ours, the human race was faced with a small musical without big stars. This little musical Little Shop of Horrors, debuted in the most unlikely of places: a small loft at 138 Fifth Avenue in New York City, run by the WPA Theater. (Note: This was not a holdover from the New Deal, but rather part of the Players Art Foundation workshop.) The show had a female lead with green limbs, razor-sharp teeth, and a voice of bass, and it took off-off- Broadway by storm.
Today, 40 years later, it’s still going strong. After its stay on lower Fifth Avenue ended, it settled for commercial play at the Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village for five years. In addition to hundreds, if not thousands, of small theatrical productions around the world, small shop has since had a Broadway run and concert staging, starring Jake Gyllenhall and original cast member Ellen Greene, as part of the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center series in 2015. And a new off-Broadway production is currently in its third year at the Westside Theater in Hell’s Kitchen. (Sorry owners and promoters: for this show, it’s definitely Hell’s Kitchen, not Clinton.)
As a sign of what this show has come to mean for New York City, Mayor Eric Adams proclaimed May 6 to be “Little Shop of Horrors Day” in honor of the 40th anniversary of “this phenomenal musical and its incredible and positive impact on our theater and live entertainment sector.”
So where does his stamina come from? First and foremost, his book. The librettos are often the weak link in a musical, sometimes assembled on the fly in the service of songs that have been inserted into passes for a plot. But this small shop is a real improvement on its source material, the ultra-low-budget 1960 film directed by Roger Corman, a cult classic that features a young Jack Nicholson. In it, a nebbishy-loser (the worst type) makes a Faustian bargain (absolutely the worst type) with a man-eater – and woman-eater, he’s an equal-opportunity predator – climbing Venus flytrap socially from space (worst worst kind).
The songs are also special. Composer Alan Menken’s music owes less to Rodgers and Hammerstein than to do-wop and Motown, and Ashman’s lyrics are as smart and funny as anyone’s. Anyone attending should listen carefully to the lyrics. Hopefully the sound will be low enough for you to listen and savor the lyrics. And those who can’t attend should get a copy of a cast album and the script. The pun hasn’t aged a bit in 40 years.
Director Michael Mayer is enthusiastic about Ashman’s talent. He said: “Howard was, and is, the mother lode. There is not a lyricist I have worked with who does not freely acknowledge that he is following in Howard’s footsteps and feels blessed to do so. He understood how to use musical vocabularies and stylistic vocabularies, in a dramatic way that both conveyed history and also paid homage to a certain era and a certain sensibility. small shop, The beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid and Aladdin. A word from Howard Ashman just opens a deeper door.”
Menken and Ashman were a great team. Their previous equally offbeat musical God bless you, Mr. Rosewater has also become a cult classic. After small shop, the two went on to score some of the biggest animated hits of the 1980s and 1990s for Disney. Ashman’s death in 1991 from AIDS was an incalculable loss to the musical theater world.
small shop is probably best seen in smaller, grungier venues, which resemble its on-stage setting. The Flatiron District, where I saw the storefront on May 7, 1982, was a far cry from the fashionable neighborhood it later became, and the East Village could be downright scary. The setting was the perfect birthplace for this skid show.
At home on Skid Row
The creators of this production firmly believe that staying true to small shopits origins is the key to success. In the ’80s Ashman was reportedly asked to move it to Broadway and he declined. This decision served the show well. Producer Tom Kirdahy, who saw the original off-Broadway production, said Newsweek“My memories of the production at the Orpheum run so deep. It was an example of doing it right. And we were determined to go back to Howard and Alan’s vision, which was kind of a slightly grungy production in an intimate space.
Mayer, who also saw the original production, said: “When it originally aired in 1982, the show was offered a transfer to Broadway and Howard said ‘no way’. There are elements of that show who won’t feel comfortable in a big theatre.It’s part of the philosophy of this play, that it’s set in this intimate space.
Kirdahy first came to the show almost by chance. He said Newsweek“In 1982, I worked at NYU Medical Center, and I lived in the Weinstein dorm, which is right by Eighth Street and University Square. And I was walking from the medical center on Second ave to my dorm on the other side of St. Mark’s Square.. And I’ve always loved horror movies and I love musicals. I walked past the Orpheum Theater, and I saw the marquee of this musical, Little Shop of Horrors, which I knew nothing about. And that just intrigued me. I just thought: Oh, that looks really fun and up my alley. And I don’t want to say it changed my life, but it just attacked my nervous system in the most exciting way.
“I must have seen it at least five or six times. I just thought this stuff was wacky and brilliant and funny and beautiful and moving, and it found its way into my heart, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Fast forward just over 30 years. Kirdahy, the husband of the late great playwright Terrence McNally, had become a theater producer and the subject of a revival was mooted. He said Newsweek, “My partner Rob Ahrens called me one day and said, ‘I would like to discuss a project with you.’ And I said, ‘OK, but just so you know, my slate is full. I don’t have time. And he said, ‘OK. Well, at least let’s meet for lunch. ‘ We sat down, and he said, ‘It’s Little Shop of Horrors.’ And I said, ‘I’m in.'”
Honoring Ashman’s intent and the spirit of the show
Kirdahy continued, “Then I shared with him my story with small shop, and I said, “I’ll only do it if we do it in a way that honors the spirit in which it was written and Howard’s intention,” which was to keep it in an intimate space. And luckily, the estate felt the same way. Howard’s sister and her partner, Bill Loud, both felt the same way. And Alan also thought that the best way to do small shop was in an intimate space.
“So we all had a common vision of how to move forward. And we knew that Michael Mayer is a big fan of small shop and is a visionary director. He agreed with us and from day one the trip was really, really easy. People didn’t believe us when we said that even though it got rave reviews, we would never move it to Broadway. It’s going to stay off Broadway. And the next morning, when every review was glowing. We have proven the integrity of our intentions by refusing to give in to temptation and keeping it off Broadway.
“We didn’t go into this with the slightest greed or the idea of going overboard. I can honestly say that we produced this with integrity. We truly believed that small shop is such a big piece that if we serve art, commerce will follow. This is indeed what happened.
“I think it’s a perfect little musical, to be honest with you. It’s deceptive, because every time I see it – and I’ve seen it over a hundred times now – I get something more out of it. You know it’s survived the test of time and that’s saying something. People find what they need to hear or feel when they see it. But the laughs are endless, and it manages to really touch people’s souls in a very meaningful way.
There have been many Seymours since Lee Wilkov originated the role. In addition to Gylenhaal in concert, Jonathan Groff and Jeremy Jordan and Conrad Ricamora, played the role. Other Audreys besides Greene include Faith Prince, Annie Gulden and Tammy Blanchard. And there’s been plenty of Audrey Two after the marvelous, deep-voiced Ron Taylor, although that company has a woman studying the part, probably the first woman to do it in a major production.
After 40 years, this little show’s endurance roots run as deep as Audrey Two’s. With music and lyrics that are as clever as they are catchy, it will remain popular for a long time. And as long as there are nebbishy-nerds willing to make a deal with the devil in the person of a people-eating plant for a bit of fame and fortune and a pretty wife, it will be as relevant as the day when he made his debut.