"On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too much unlike our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places."
-- Opening narration from the song "Prologue/Little Shop of Horrors," heard in both the musical and movie versions of "Little Shop of Horrors"
Throughout the 1950s, director and producer Roger Corman made a succession of low-budget horror movies featuring teenagers and young adults as the main characters, exhibited to audiences consisting mainly of horny teenagers.
In 1960, Corman made his cheapest movie yet, "The Little Shop of Horrors." Principal photography (actually, all the photography) lasted only about 36 hours: two days and one night. In glorious (cheap) black and white film, "The Little Shop of Horrors" takes place on Skid Row in Los Angeles and centers around Seymour Krelboyne, a nerd with a low-paying job at Mushnick's Flower Shop, who attempts to impress the beautiful Audrey by creating a new type of plant that he hopes will make him rich and famous.
He manages to create a kind of mutated Venus flytrap which he names Audrey Junior. It turns out Audrey Junior can talk, and it first demands blood, and then human flesh ("Feed me, Seymour!"), and eventually, flowers bloom showing the faces of its victims.
The framing device of the film is a parody of "Dragnet," with two deadpan police detectives investigating the various killings of Skid Row (the work of Seymour, trying to comply with the ever-growing Audrey Junior's ever-growing demands). Really, though, "The Little Shop of Horrors" is Corman parodying himself more than anything else.
One final note: in a small role as a masochistic dental patient was a newcomer named Jack Nicholson. Since he later became a big deal actor, latter-day videotapes, DVDs, and television showings of "The Little Shop of Horrors" tend to call him the star of the movie. Don't be fooled; he only has a bit part.
Major cast list
Like many of Roger Corman's films, "The Little Shop of Horrors" was sold (cheap) into television syndication in the early 1960s, and it ran during Saturday afternoon horror movie shows and Friday night "Creature Features" for years.
In the early 1980s, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken collaborated to turn the movie into a musical. It premiered off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater on July 27, 1982, with Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in the lead roles of Seymour and Audrey, plus a plant operated through the magic of puppetry. It became a surprise hit, eventually running for 2,209 performances.
As written by Ashman, the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" (no "the" in the title anymore) kept the time period of the 1960s and the basic plot of a nerd, his love interest, his boss at the flower shop, and his carnivorous plant, but many of the other elements from the movie were changed, even including some character names and spellings (Krelboyne became Krelborn, Mushnick became Mushnik, Audrey Junior became Audrey II, Dr. Phoebus Farb became Dr. Orin Scrivello). The detectives were gone completely, and various folks visiting the flower shop for various reasons were replaced by different folks visiting the flower shop for various different reasons.
The most notable addition to the cast was a Greek chorus, three girls named Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronette after three girl groups of the 1960s. They provided backup vocals for many of the songs, which ran the gamut of musical styles of the late 1950s/early-to-mid-1960s, from doo-wop to pop vocal to rock 'n' roll.
Also, a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia was added to the mix with a new origin story for the plant: instead of being Seymour's creation, it merely appears during a mysterious solar eclipse.
The Movie of the Musical
With a budget at least 100 times greater than the budget of Roger Corman's original movie, the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" was made into a movie in 1986, adapted by Menken and Ashman. Directed by Frank Oz, who knew a little something about puppets, it stayed fairly faithful to the stage version. A couple of new scenes were added (most notably, Seymour appearing on a radio show with disc jockey Wink Wilkinson to promote his plant), and a couple of songs were taken out, replaced with new ones (most notably "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space").
Ellen Greene reprised her stage role as Audrey, and much of the rest of the cast was made up of the "Saturday Night Live"/"SCTV" group of comedians: Rick Moranis co-starring as Seymour, plus appearances by Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, John Candy, and even Christopher Guest in a bit part as a customer of the flower shop.
In the stage musical, the closing song, "Don't Feed the Plants," was sung by Audrey II's victims, appearing as living flowers (a throwback to the original movie). For the movie, "Don't Feed the Plants" was to have played over scenes of Audrey II and its cohorts taking over the world, a sequence involving very elaborate miniatures and reportedly costing $5 million. Test audiences didn't like it, though, so the whole thing was scrapped and a shorter happy ending was filmed and tacked on instead for the actual release version. "Don't Feed the Plants" instead played over the closing credits.
In late January 1998, Warner Bros. released "Little Shop of Horrors" as a DVD special edition with the usual extras, including audio commentary by the director, some bloopers, and an alternate ending -- in fact, the original closing sequence. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. apparently didn't actually have permission from producer David Geffen to put the sequence on the DVD.
In early February 1998, Warner Bros. was forced to recall the DVD. Two years later, the DVD was finally re-released, this time without the alternate ending. Copies of the original version now sell for over $100 on eBay.
Major cast list
The Saturday Morning Cartoon
During the 1991-92 TV season, Fox aired an animated show produced by Saban that was essentially a combination of both movies, drastically toned down for the purposes of children's television. Called "Little Shop," it imagined Seymour and Audrey as teenagers, changed the dentist into a similarly aged character, a bully named Paine, and made Mr. Mushnick into Audrey's father. Also, Audrey Junior was still a talking plant, but had exchanged being carnivorous for the ability to lay down some phat beats (for food, it ate inanimate objects instead of humans). The plots were the standard teenage cartoon plots ripped off from Archie comic books, but the characters would occasionally burst into song. I am not making this up.
The Broadway Musical
"Little Shop of Horrors" had been scheduled to make its Broadway debut in July 2003, with the original off-Broadway Seymour, Lee Wilkof, now in the role of Mr. Mushnik. However, in June, while the production was in its shakedown in Coral Gables, Florida, the producers revamped the show, replacing much of the cast as well as the director. The new version opened at the Virginia Theatre on October 2, 2003, starring Broadway veterans Hunter Foster as Seymour and Kerry Butler as Audrey.
- The ever-popular Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and All-Movie Guide (allmovie.com)
- Information on the cartoon from yesterdayland.com
- Information on the Broadway musical from playbill.com and littleshopofhorrors.com
- I saw the musical on stage in London in the summer of 1984; I was just under 10 years old at the time, and it scarred me for life--in a good way, of course.