Thursday, November 10, 2016

Little Shop of Horrors: The People-Eating Plant Musical

Rick Moranis in one of his best roles.
It is undoubtedly the funniest musical ever made about a soul-singing, people-eating, six-foot plant from outer space. Never mind that it's the only movie that fits into that one-of-a-kind genre, 1986's Little Shop of Horrors ranks alongside the underrated sleeper Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) as one of the best musicals of the 1980s.

Whereas Pennies offered upbeat production numbers against a depressing background, Little Shop takes a lighter, sassier approach toward its grisly subject matter. For example, Steve Martin's sadistic dentist is so repulsive that one wonders how the plant could stomach him (literally).

The plot, borrowed from Roger Corman's 1960 nonmusical, has nerdish floral assistant Seymour saving a flower shop from bankruptcy by discovering a new plant species. Seymour's flower, dubbed the Audrey II after the fellow employee he secretly loves, grows and grows. And so does business.

Yet, only Seymour knows what makes his plant thrive--blood, lots of it. And after draining himself to a dangerously low level, Seymour becomes convinced (by the plant) to look elsewhere for plant food. 

Moranis and the marvelous Ellen Greene.
Four marvelous performances make this a comedy to cherish. Rick Moranis is perfectly cast as the bumbling, lovable Seymour. He is ideally matched with then-newcomer Ellen Greene, whose Audrey is a delightful homage to both the sexy blonde heroines and the "perfect" television mothers of the 1950s (her Donna Reed fantasy sequence is a gem). As Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend, Steve Martin flashes his comic brilliance. His exaggerated mannerisms have never been put to better use and his timing is impeccable (Patient: "But that drill's rusty!" Dentist: "It's an antique.").

The Audrey II.
But even Martin is upstaged by the film's true star: The Audrey II. A special effects masterpiece with a voice provided by the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs, this big plant is rude, nasty, and one heck of a singer. Its duet with Moranis (and all the baby Audrey II's) is a rocking, soulful, dynamic production number. 

Amazingly, there's not a throwaway song in the entire Howard Ashman and Alan Menken score. From the opening dance tune "Skid Row" (where depression is status quo) to Green's emotional rendering of the ballad "Suddenly Seymour," the songs wittily accent the far-out story.

Steve Martin as a painful dentist.
Little Shop of Horrors originated as an Off-Broadway musical in 1982. It earned Ashman and Menken numerous honors, including the 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. The songwriting duo added two new songs for the film, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Song for "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."

Following Little Shop, Ashman and Menken almost singlehandedly revived animated musicals with their delightful Disney classic The Little Mermaid. They followed it with the even better Beauty and the Beast in 1991, which became the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Tragically, Ashman died that same year at age 40 from complications due to AIDS.

His legacy includes some of the most buoyant, entertaining musicals ever to grace the silver screen. It's impossible to watch Little Shop of Horrors without feeling a little giddy with delight as the end credits roll. Just be wary of singing, people-eating plants!


  1. I recently was at a performance by Faith Prince. She sang a song from Little Shop and told the story of her being cast as Audrey off-Broadway. Prince was working for IBM and the company wouldn't release her from their contract for the new show. So the part went to Ellen Greene! I loved your review! Ashman went to IUB!

    1. Great story, Terry! I could see Faith Prince in the role back then...but Ellen Greene was sublime (loved her in the later PUSHING DAISIES, too). As for fellow IU alumnus Howard Ashman, his lyrics are still some of the wittiest world plays in show music.

  2. I too am a big fan of Ellen Greene though I admit I didn't know her name was Ellen Greene. I've just always loved her in whatever role I happened to catch her in. There is kind of a sublime sweetness about her that is not at all cloying of overly done. At any rate, I do remember LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS - at the same time that I enjoyed it, it did make me a little bit uneasy. Like 'why was I enjoying this SO much'? What the hell, it is a prickly lark. :)

  3. Big fan of "Little Shop"! As Yvette noted it is filled with uncomfortable fun. Nobody wants to go to a dentist like Steve Martin's character but we love his witty repartee! And Seymour saves his shop but at what expense? I cannot say enough how much I miss the brilliance of Howard Ashman. Great film and excellent post, Rick!