“Tell me this feeling lasts till forever
Tell me the bad times are clean washed away
Please understand that it’s still strange and frightening
For losers like I’ve been it’s so hard to say.”
There’s so much to love about “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Two thirds into it, these two outcasts – a nebbish store clerk and a low-self esteemed and abused young woman – find out their true feelings for one another – and it makes them feel invincible and gives them something to sing about. “I know things were bad, but now they’re ok,” he reassures her. They are in an abandoned lot in Skid Row – surrounded by what looks like ruins – or a war ravaged city. They start to serenade each other while going up the fire escape staircase of an adjacent building. They find themselves at the top, and as they hit the final note the camera pivots around them to show a bright and hopeful shot of the sun.
The movie feels very prescient with its tale of a bloodthirsty and needy plant whose voracious appetite threatens to take over the entire planet – becoming ultimately a cautionary tale about humanity being overtaken by capitalist greed and hunger for power. It warns against losing moral values and how the drive for personal gain can be dehumanizing. It is based on the 1960 comedy horror film by the same name directed by the ‘Pope of Pop Cinema’ – Roger Corman. In 1982, the musical adaptation was produced off-Broadway, and it became the breakthrough for composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. There’s no underestimating the impact these two have had in our film and pop culture for they went on to work for Disney on “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” For “Little Shop of Horrors” they celebrate and synthesize the sound of 60s pop music, rock n roll, doo-wop and Motown into quirky, clever, and charming songs – including “Suddenly Seymour” and “Skid Row (Downtown).” It also celebrates 50s monster movies and horror films like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
The story follows nerdy, poor, and orphaned Seymour – who raises a strange plant he discovers following a total eclipse of the sun. He works for “Mushnik’s” a struggling flower shop on Skid Row and is secretly in love with his co-worker – Audrey. Because of their precarious financial situation, Mushnik recommends closing, but Audrey suggests displaying the unusual plant on their window to attract business. When business starts to grow, the plant starts to wither. After accidentally pricking his finger, Seymour discovers that the plant likes blood and begins this Faustian pact of feeding it human flesh. He starts with Audrey’s abusive and sadistic boyfriend who is a dentist. “Do you want some Nitrous oxide?” he asks Seymour. Moving the story along and commenting on the action are a trio of street urchins, a form of Greek Chorus. As a salute to the girl groups of the 60s, they’re named Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal.
It all sounds campy and outrageous, and it is. It also has this sweetness and unpretentiousness about it – an innocence up its sleeve – that makes it all quite disarming, and before you know it you’re rooting for Seymour and Audrey. Director Frank Oz started his career as a puppeteer and worked on the voices of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and others in The Muppets and was Yoda in several “Star Wars”-related works. He’s helmed some terrific comedic films including “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), “What About Bob?” (1991) and “In and Out” (1997). He’s quite at ease handling the main character of the plant – Audrey II – in “Little Shop of Horrors” which is basically one big 15-foot talking puppet –voiced by Levi Stubbs from the Four Tops. One of the best moments in the film is when Steve Martin sings “Dentist!” – and part of it is shot from inside an animated patient’s mouth.
Bill Murray does an unforgettable cameo as a masochist who visits the dentist chair for “a long, slow root canal.” Steve Martin as a sadistic dentist who is ‘the leader of the plaque’ nearly steals the movie. “I find a little giggle gas increases my pleasure enormously,” he says. Ellen Greene who created the role of Audrey in the theatre is so affecting as the dippy bruised-up broad with low self-esteem but a very big heart. I love Rick Moranis in this. Not only does he sing well, but makes for a winning leading man. Geeks rule the world.
“Little Shop of Horrors” brings a much needed message of optimism to these difficult times.
Audrey: “Far from Skid Row, I dream we’ll go…somewhere that’s green.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, HBO NOW, Syfy, plutoTV and DIRECTV. Available to rent on iTunes, Microsoft, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon, FandangoNOW, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Howard Ashman
Based on the musical play “Little Shop of Horrors” by Howard Ashman
Based on the film by Roger Corman and the 1960 screenplay by Charles B. Griffith
Directed by Frank Oz
Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, James Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest and Bill Murra
Director Frank Oz on Bringing “Little Shop of Horrors” to the Screen
“Initially, I was asked by [producer] David Geffen to do it and I read the script, and I went to the Off-Broadway theater. I said no, I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t really have a way in — a cinematic way in. And then a few weeks later, when I was working in Toronto on something, I had an idea that got me kind of into the cinematic aspect of it. So when I saw that, I said yes. The script was there already but was rather stage-bound, so I took about a month, a month and a half and rewrote it — not rewriting any main dialogue, just restructuring it. Taking some songs out and putting some in. Then David and Howard [Ashman] liked it and wanted to go with what I did, and that’s when I started studying the Off-Broadway show. I did a lot of research on how Howard’s show was constructed, and then I had to reconstruct it for film.” (ew.com)
Composer Alan Menken and Frank Oz on Casting “Little Shop of Horrors”
Menken: “There was a group of A-list actors for Seymour that were discussed. Including, as I remember, Tom Cruise. He was interested. I wasn’t personally there, but he loved it, was interested in doing it, and put on some glasses to become the nerdy Seymour. [Note: a representative for Cruise denies the actor was interested.] But, Rick was the prototypical Seymour. Seymour’s heartfelt and sincere, not too bright, and lovestruck. That’s what allows him to be both funny and touching at the same time. In casting, there were wonderful actors who were physically perfect, but they exuded a certain kind of intelligence even through the character that cut against the humor. There was that sense of cluelessness in the performance that Rick brought that was perfect.”
Oz: “For Audrey, there were three or four big stars who David wanted and they wanted to do it, and I [told David Geffen] I just don’t see anybody else doing it but Ellen Greene. She had the heart and soul of it. So I asked David to at least screen test her, and I screen tested her with Rick, and that’s when he said, okay, you can have her. When I picked Levi Stubbs to voice the plant, I really wanted him down and dirty, and I thought he’d be funnier that… he had that grit that I wanted. As we were doing it, somebody in Geffen’s office was secretly trying to change his voice to Rodney Dangerfield. I get it, because they felt it had to be a big comedy, but then it would’ve betrayed the entire story.” (ew.com)
Rick Moranis on the Making of “Little Shop of Horrors”
The man-eating alien in the 1986 film was not CGI, Moranis says. And the bigger it got, the more people were needed to make it work. “It took 55 puppeteers all working simultaneously to work the final iteration of the plant,” Moranis says. “The only way to accomplish it was to slow down the music by a third. When I was on camera with the plant, I also had to slow down my lip syncing and movement by a third.” The scenes were shot at 16 frames per second and played back at regular speed…” (hollywoodreporter.com)
About Playwright, Lyricist and Co-Writer, Howard Ashman
A Native of Baltimore, Howard was Born in 1950. He found his passion early on, joining Baltimore’s Children’s Theater Association while in grade school, and never wavering from his first love. In 1974, after graduating from Goddard College in Vermont and receiving his MFA from Indiana University, Ashman moved to New York. In 1976, his play, “The Confirmation,” was produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theater and the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia. Howard was a founder and Artistic Director of the iconic off Broadway Theater, the WPA, where he conceived, wrote and directed a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” with music by Alan Menken. After its WPA production, the show moved for a short run to the Intermedia Theater. In 1982 Howard conceived, wrote and directed “Little Shop of Horrors,” again with music by Mr. Menken. The musical, based upon Roger Corman’s 1960s-era horror flick was immediately successful. Indeed, it soon became a New York “must see,” playing for five years off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater in lower Manhattan. The show played LA and London’s West End, Japan, Scandinavia, and Europe, and continues to be produced to great acclaim around the world. In 2003, “Little Shop” was revived on Broadway, and in 2007 it was revived on London’s West End. It is currently one of the most-produced shows in American high schools. In 1986, Howard wrote and directed the Broadway musical, “Smile,” which featured music by Marvin Hamlisch. Little appreciated at the time, Smile is now considered a lost gem of musical theater and is performed by high schools and amateur groups around the US. Turning his talents toward film, Ashman was pivotal in the renaissance of Disney animated musicals and in the development of “The Little Mermaid” (Producer and Lyrics), “Beauty and the Beast” (Executive Producer and Lyrics) and “Aladdin” (Lyrics), all with music by Alan Menken. During production of “The Little Mermaid,” Howard discovered he was infected with HIV. Despite his illness, he continued to work, helping to give life to “Beauty and the Beast,” a film that defined the childhood of generations. Ashman’s contributions to the revival of classic Disney animated musicals have been acknowledged by many but were perhaps best expressed by his colleagues, who dedicated the film “Beauty and the Beast” to his memory: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul. He will be forever missed.” Howard died of AIDS in 1991, shortly before the release of “Beauty and the Beast.” Janet Maslin, reviewing the animated film Beauty and the Beast in the New York Times, quoting from “Be Our Guest,” wrote: “‘Soup du jour, hot hors d’ouevres, Why, we only live to serve, Try the gray stuff, it’s delicious, Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!” This demonstrates Mr. Ashman’s gifts as an outstandingly nimble lyricist. His death from AIDS in March at age 40 cut short a brilliant career, but the jubilant energy of his work will long live on.” Ashman’s numerous awards include two Oscars, two Golden Globes, four Grammys, a Drama Desk and a London Evening Standard. (howardashman.com)
About Director Frank Oz
Born Richard Frank Oznowicz on May 25, 1944 in Hereford, England, Oz was raised by his father, Isidore, and his mother, Frances, both of whom were puppeteers; in fact, his father once was president of the Puppeteers of America. As Holocaust refugees following their escape from the Nazis during World War II, his parents first landed in England, before relocating to Belgium when Oz was just six months old. When he was five, the family moved to the United States and lived in Montana before finally settling in Oakland, CA. By the age of 12, he was performing with his family at a local amusement park, though he later stated his ambition at the time was to become a journalist, not to follow in his parents’ footsteps. After graduating from Oakland Technical High School, Oz went to Oakland City College, where he studied journalism only to soon be pulled back into puppetry when he encountered Jim Henson in the early 1960s. The pair began their long, storied collaboration after meeting at a Puppeteers of America convention in California – Oz was blown away by Henson’s creations, the Muppets – then unknown – and so began working for his company, Muppets, Inc., when he was just 19 years old. As a puppeteer and performer, Oz had plenty of work with Henson, though in the beginning he was dressing up in costumes for milk and toilet paper commercials. He hated the work, but soldiered on out of his love for Henson. While paying the bills doing commercials for products like Purina Dog Food and LaChoy Chinese foods, they made guest appearances on “The Jimmy Dean Show” (ABC, 1963-69) as Rowlf the Dog, who was the host’s regular sidekick while becoming the first Muppet to rise to national prominence. It was on “The Jimmy Dean Show” that Oz acquired his stage name when the host was unable to pronounce his full given name during a live broadcast. Meanwhile, Oz assisted Henson in the creation of some of his most memorable characters for the educational series, “Sesame Street” (PBS, 1969- ), including Cookie Monster, Grover and Bert, as well as countless minor characters. He worked on the series from its inception all the way into the 21st century, including the countless “Sesame Street” special programs and feature films, including the feature “Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird” (1985), “The Adventures of Super Grover” (1987), and the charming all-star TV special “Put Down The Duckie: A Sesame Street Special” (1988). In 1979, Oz shared a Daytime Emmy Award with Henson and other Muppet performers for his efforts. Oz, Henson and the rest of the Muppet crew enjoyed a brief stint on “Saturday Night Live” (NBC, 1975- ) during its debut season, with Oz voicing The Mighty Favog, a grouchy stone idol that took its name from the clock in the green room at “The Ed Sullivan Show” (CBS, 1948-1971). The Henson puppeteers gave the clock that name as a playful way of praying that the show did not run too long and deny them airtime. The Not-Ready-for-Primetime-Players, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Chevy Chase, made no bones about the Muppets taking away from their sketch comedy time, though producer Lorne Michaels fired the puppets after learning that viewers were less enthralled with the puppets and more interested in his stock players’ cutting edge sketches. Soon, the puppets were fired from 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
In 1976, Oz joined Henson as one of the principal performers on “The Muppet Show” (syndicated, 1976-1981), where he created another set of enduring characters like Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Animal, Sam the Eagle and the Swedish Chef, who was performed with Oz’s real hands exposed. Miss Piggy was initially a supporting character, but the show’s writers and producers soon discovered her “star” potential and she soon became the second most popular Muppet behind Henson’s Kermit the Frog. Oz originally performed the character with regular puppeteer Richard Hunt, but took over the duties himself during the show’s second season. Oz handled his characters in all of the subsequent Muppet film and television projects, including the highly successful “The Muppet Movie” (1979), “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981), “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) and “Muppets in Space” (1999). He also provided voices and puppet work in many non-“Muppet,” Henson-produced projects, including “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” (1977) and “The Dark Crystal” (1982), Henson’s ambitious theatrical fantasy film. For their efforts on “The Muppet Show,” Oz and the rest of the Henson team was nominated five times for an Emmy, taking home the trophy for Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Music Program in 1978. In a turn of fortune, George Lucas approached Henson in 1979 to create a puppet character for the much anticipated sequel to “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back.” But Henson was too busy with “The Muppet Show” and preparations for “The Dark Crystal” that Oz was instead tapped to give voice a wizened creature named Yoda, who trains Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to become a Jedi on the murky planet of Dagobah. Oz had a great deal of involvement in the character’s development, including his signature backwards speech patterns, and watched as his creation became one of the breakout stars of the film. In fact, Lucas loved his performance so much that he lobbied for Oz to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oz reprised his role operating and voicing Yoda in “Return of the Jedi” (1983). It was during this period that Oz began branching out into other areas, namely appearing onscreen as himself in several John Landis films while taking several turns in the director’s chair himself. He made his first feature appearance as a corrections officer who returns personal items to Jake Blues (John Belushi), including “One unused prophylactic, one soiled,” in “The Blues Brothers” (1980). After performing his more famous characters for “The Great Muppet Caper,” Oz voiced Miss Piggy for Landis’ horror comedy, “An American Werewolf in London” (1981). Meanwhile, his directorial career was launched when Henson asked him to help direct “The Dark Crystal” (1982), a Tolkienesque children’s fantasy about two Geflings trying to heal the mysterious Dark Crystal in order to save the world. He found the experience to be so positive that he was game to helm the third Muppet film, “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), which he also rewrote. Following appearances as a corrupt cop in Landis’ “Trading Places” (1983) and a test monitor in the goofy “Spies Like Us” (1985), Oz directed the feature version of the popular Broadway musical, “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986), which marked his first film project outside the Henson camp and inevitably led to other offers for live action projects. Oz followed with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), a crime comedy starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as con men who target wealthy women gullible enough to fall into their good graces. Once again, Oz generated a hit film that further amplified demand for his directing services.
But what should have been a sweet moment in time for a man often viewed as copilot to Henson throughout their long and affectionate partnership, became an incalculable loss when his business partner and friend died unexpectedly from pneumonia in 1990. Devastated by the loss of Henson, Oz and the rest of the Muppet world found themselves suddenly without their creative and spiritual leader. Recovering from the shocking death, Oz continued on by directing “What About Bob?” (1991), starring Bill Murray as a clawing mental patient who ingratiates himself into the life of his egotistical psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss). He next directed “HouseSitter” (1992) with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. Both comedies were moderate hits at the box office. Following his debut as an executive producer on “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992), directed by Henson’s son Brian, Oz fared less well with audiences with his inventive children’s fantasy “The Indian in the Cupboard” (1995), which focused on a young Brooklyn boy (Hal Scardino) who receives a mysterious wooden cabinet as a gift that brings all his toys to life. Moving back to television, he was both a performer and executive consultant on “Muppets Tonight” (ABC, 1996), a short-lived variety show centered around the goings-on of the fictitious television station, KMUP. Oz rebounded with the smart comedy “In and Out” (1997), which starred Kevin Kline as a high school English teacher who may or may not be gay and which earned an Oscar nomination for co-star Joan Cusack. After a cameo as a prison warden in John Landis’ misguided sequel, “Blues Brothers 2000” (1998), Oz directed “Bowfinger” (1999), an odd showbiz comedy that starred Steve Martin as a struggling director who manages to film his movie with a leading action star (Eddie Murphy) despite the star being unaware the cameras are rolling. Then after years of speculation and rumors, George Lucas made the first three episodes of his “Star Wars” franchise, starting with “The Phantom Menace” (1999). This time, however, Yoda appeared as a CGI creation, not a puppet. But Oz did reprise his vocal duties for the character, who with this series, had a much more prominent role in the story. He also voiced Yoda for the two hugely successful follow-ups, “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” (2002) and “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005). Oz continued to branch out into unchartered waters, directing his first heist thriller, “The Score” (2001), led by a powerhouse cast that included Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett. But the shoot was plagued by problems, due mainly to the notoriously difficult Brando and his unwillingness to be directed by Oz. Things were so bad, in fact that De Niro was forced to act as an intermediary between director and actor, who referred to deridingly to Oz as “Miss Piggy.” Despite reports of on-set tension, the film opened to positive reviews and a modest take at the box office. Following voiceover work as Fungus for “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), Oz directed the remake of “The Stepford Wives” (2004). Though full of snappy one-liners, the movie took a turn from the comic toward straightforward thriller territory, which left audiences and critics confused. Even worse, “Stepford Wives” flopped at the box office despite high-end talent like Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close onscreen. After voicing Robot for the live-action children’s fantasy “Zathura” (2005), Oz took a surprising turn to direct the British-made black comedy “Death at a Funeral” (2007), which focused on a dysfunctional family gathered for their patriarch’s funeral, only to be blackmailed by a gay dwarf (Peter Dinklage) claiming to be the dead man’s lover. The film was remade with a nearly all-black cast by director Neil LaBute in 2010. Meanwhile, Oz never lost touch with his Muppet beginnings, as he continued performing the beloved characters for “Muppet Show” specials and on the long-running “Sesame Street,” though he did turn down an opportunity to participate in the latest movie, “The Muppets” (2011), over issues with the script and his perception that the filmmakers did not respect the characters. (tcm.com)