One of the better films of 2020 was the documentary Howard, about the role that one-time Beacon resident Howard Ashman played in helping save Disney animation in the late 80s and early 90s. Though Ashman only worked for Disney for a few years before his untimely passing in 1991, he, along with his songwriting partner Alan Menken, were instrumental in the success of three of Disney’s most beloved animated films: The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, and Aladdin. My main quibble with the documentary was that, because it was primarily concerned with his relationship with Disney, it didn’t give much attention to what I think is actually the best, or at least most representative, of Howard’s projects, his musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors.
Little Shop of Horrors, the 1986 film, is based on the off-off Broadway musical that Howard Ashman co-wrote, directed, and produced at the theater he co-founded. The stage production is itself a musical adaptation of the 1960 Roger Corman B-movie of the same name. Until very recently, all I had known of the Corman film was that (1) it was filmed notoriously cheaply and quickly, with the two days of principal filming all taking place on leftover sets from Corman’s previous film, in a brief window before they were to be torn down. (2) It boasts a brief and unusual appearance by a very young Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient. And (3) since Corman didn’t anticipate much long-term value to the film, he didn’t bother with copywriting it, so its public domain status has led to its omnipresence in discount DVD bins for years. My biggest discovery on finally watching the original film was that it’s actually really good. Not ironically good, or good despite its limitations, but a genuinely engaging and funny horror-comedy that holds up so well that it’s easy to see what inspired Ashman to want to adapt it.
The basic story of Little Shop of Horrors is pretty much the same in both the original film and in the stage adaptation. Seymour Krelborn works at a Skid Row flower shop called Mushnik’s, where a strange and unusual plant with a taste for human blood happens to come into his possession, and tragedy ensues.
The musical does a bit more than the original to establish Skid Row as a place of desperate and hopeless lives on the margins. In the song, “Skid Row”, The whole ensemble sings:
Gee, it sure would be swell to get outta here
Bid the gutter farewell and get outta here
I'd move heaven and hell to get outa Skid
I'd do I-dunno-what to get outta Skid,
But a hell of a lot to get outta Skid,
People tell me there's not a way outta Skid
But believe me I gotta get outta Skid Row!
This quickly establishes not only that Skid Row is a place that people might be willing to do anything to escape, but that they might also be justified in what they have to do to escape and survive since no just society ought to have a place like Skid Row in the first place.
When Seymour discovers that his small sickly plant needs blood to survive, he makes a fateful decision that may be the one truly selfless choice he makes: he pricks his fingers and feeds the plant drops of his own blood. The plant does thrive, and as it grows, it begins to have a transformative effect on the flower shop. Its strangeness begins to draw customers into the store to get a closer look at it, which dramatically boosts store sales. Seymour’s role in the growing success of the store raises his esteem in the eyes of his boss, Mr. Mushnik, and in the eyes of the co-worker he likes, Audrey.
Over time, the plant grows so large that Seymour can’t sustain it on his own blood alone any longer. The loss of the plant would be a pretty significant blow because of how much his life has already been improved by it, but he doesn’t know what to do. It’s at this point that the plant reveals that it can speak. In the musical, not only can the plant speak, but it can bargain. The plant takes credit for the turnaround in Seymour’s life and tells him that it’s just the start. If Seymour can keep tracking down blood to keep the plant fed and growing, the plant will make all of Seymour’s dreams come true.
This is the moral turning point of the story. In the musical, Ashman wrote the song “Feed Me”, where the plant offers its Faustian bargain to Seymour:
How'd ya like to be a big wheel?
Dining out, for every meal
I'm the plant can make it all real
You're gonna get it
Your mileage may vary, but I also get a kick about the amount of overlap between this song and one of the songs Howard wrote for Aladdin, “Friend Like Me”, where another supernatural creature offers to make all of the protagonist’s dreams come true. Though, in Seymour’s case here, the offer comes with truly terrible strings attached.
Seymour is resistant to the plant’s entreaties. He knows it’s wrong. He’s briefly tempted in the abstract, but he knows he couldn’t murder anyone. In both the original film and Howard’s adaptation, a body count nevertheless begins to accumulate. They differ importantly in the how, though. In the original it’s largely happenstance that leads people to die. Seymour accidentally causes a man to be hit by a train; he accidentally kills a sadistic dentist; he murders a prostitute, but only after being hypnotized by the plant; and he ultimately loses his own life trying to kill the plant.
The key point of departure between the original and the adaptation is that Howard greatly streamlined the deaths in the story to highlight that Seymour, whatever his initial intentions, is responsible for how things get out of hand. The sadistic dentist in the Corman film is just a customer of the flower shop. In Howard’s adaptation, the dentist is Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, which makes him more palatable for the audience as plant food. After the song “Feed Me”, Seymour goes to see the dentist, armed with a pistol and with every intention of killing him:
If you want a rationale
It isn't very hard to see
No, No, No...
Stop and think it over, pal
The guy sure looks like plant food to me!
The guy sure looks like plant food to me!
The guy sure looks like plant food to me...!
He's so nasty treatin' her rough!
Smackin' her around, and always talkin' so tough!
You need blood and he's got more than enough!
I need blood and he's got more than enough!
But the dentist accidentally kills himself before Seymour gets a chance to act. Seymour has ample opportunity to intervene, but chooses to let the dentist die.
Seymour is briefly rewarded for his crime. With the dentist out of the way, Audrey and Seymour declare their affections for one another in the song “Suddenly, Seymour”, but Seymour discovers shortly after that Mushnick saw him chopping up the dentist’s body at the flower shop. Mushnick attempts to blackmail Seymour. If Seymour leaves town, and lets Mushnick keep the plant, he won’t be turned into the police. Seymour could leave town, or he could let himself be arrested for the crime he did commit, but he opts instead to coax Mushnick to get close enough to the plant that he gets eaten.
It’s at this point that we get the critical point of departure between the original 1960 film, Howard’s stage adaptation, and the version of the 1986 film that was released. Frank Oz was chosen to direct the 1986 film adaptation of Howard’s stage show, from a screenplay that Howard wrote. Oz was a perfect match in a lot of ways. Coming from an already long career working with Jim Henson, having recently taken the leap to co-direct The Dark Crystal with Jim, before directing his first solo film in The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984. Oz was perfectly suited to handle the puppeteering involved in Little Shop of Horrors, along with the set design required, navigating the complicated tone of the story, and dealing with the challenges of weaving songs into a narrative. Most importantly, Oz was in agreement about what the story was trying to say, right down to the bleak ending where Seymour loses Audrey to the plant before himself being eaten, and then building upon that ending by adding what would have been an impossible to stage sequence where we get to see the plants start to take over the world.
That ending was written and filmed, with the final plant rampage sequence costing $5 million of the film's total budget of $25 million. Oz and Howard fought to keep the ending in the film, but, despite how well it had always played on stage, test screenings of the film with the original ending went so poorly that if a new happier ending weren’t shot, the film was never going to be released.
I don’t begrudge the film it’s happy ending, because that’s the film I fell in love with, and for a long time that was the only version I had ever known. Also, the happy ending does play better despite its structural shortcomings. Seymour pulls Audrey out of the plant’s mouth in time for her to survive. Seymour now electrocutes and destroys the plant with a live electrical wire - though it’s never been clear to me how he managed to do this without electrocuting himself, too. And then Audrey and Seymour escape to marry and settle down in a quaint tract home, though one which we discover has a tiny baby plant smiling in the front yard right before the credits roll.
It’s an emotionally satisfying ending because we’ve so bonded with Audrey and Seymour that we do want to see them live happily ever after and can talk ourselves into believing they deserve it because of the adversity they’ve had to overcome in their lives on Skid Row. That said, I’m glad we have the original ending, too. Seymour is complicit in the death of two people, and it’s weird that he gets to live happily ever after. Also, the scenes of the plant rampage are noteworthy because they’re not happening on Skid Row. It’s the cityfolk and suburbanites that stand by and allow the misery Skid Row to exist in the first place that are under attack.
It’s this total package, even including the two endings, that makes Little Shop of Horrors my favorite project Howard Ashman was associated with. His lyrics are always extraordinary, the very idea of adapting the original Little Shop of Horrors as a musical is such a big swing of an idea that it’s a marvel that it works at all, the fact that he can take such a silly premise and still have so much worthwhile to say with it is that much more impressive still. You can keep your Little Mermaid, your Beauty & the Beast, and your Aladdin; Little Shop of Horrors is better than them all and the one that I’m most looking forward to sharing with my kids one day.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.