George Salazar and Mj Rodriguez on Their Gritty New Little Shop of Horrors
Precisely 2,788 miles away from the Westside Theatre, where a new off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors is sprouting to life, another Little Shop is taking root at the Pasadena Playhouse in California at the exact same time.
This West Coast version promises a much different rendering of the beloved Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical than we're used to seeing. Not only has director Mike Donahue populated his company with more artists of color than ever before, but his stars, Filipino-American George Salazar (Seymour) and Afro-Latinx trans actor Mj Rodriguez (Audrey), promise a grittier take on the story, which deepens the characters and darkens their lives on Skid Row.
But don't get scared. "The show is still the same," Rodriguez promises. As Salazar adds, "We're rooting it in as realistic world as we can make it…given that there's a talking plant in the show."
Were Seymour and Audrey dream roles for you?
George Salazar: Seymour is a dream role of mine. I first played him in high school, 17 years ago. Right after Be More Chill opened, I had dinner with Dori Berinstein [producer of The Prom], and she said, "Imagine Be More Chill runs for years. After that, what do you want to do?" and I said, "I want to play Seymour in a production of Little Shop of Horrors with either Lauren Marcus as Audrey, or a trans actress of color in that role." Lo and behold, it happened. Pretty crazy.
Mj Rodriguez: I always wanted to be one of the little urchins! When Mike Donahue and I had a meeting about this production, I thought he was gonna be like, "Hey, we're doing this workshop and I want you to come in for the plant." That's what my head was telling me. We sit down, and he says, "I would love to see if you were open to playing Audrey." My eyes were so wide with surprise and happiness, because I've always wanted to play her, too. I just didn't think I would ever be considered for a leading female role like that. So I was just like, "Yes. Yes. You had me at hello. Yes!" [laughs]
How does this production of Little Shop differ from the ones we're used to seeing?
Mj: It's very experimental and gritty. There are still aspects that you're going to laugh at. But for the most part, we're trying to bring a more realistic approach to what the characters have gone through.
George: Mike was interested in investigating the idea of "What if these people on Skid Row were real, sad people who were really suffering and desperately trying to scrape by, and then this alien plant comes from nowhere and flips their world upside down?" For Seymour, these are very intense and dire circumstances. He starts out as this really sweet and unassuming person, and by the end of the play, he's fed people to a plant and starts reaping these insane benefits. The idea for Audrey to have this dream of going off to the suburbs is so insane to these people. They're like, "that would never happen to you."
Mj: Audrey is a very hurt woman, simply because of the life she lives on Skid Row. She's battered by her boyfriend. "Daddy left early, mama was poor." A lot of people pass over that, because she's this blonde woman and everyone thinks every blonde woman is dumb, which is not true and very stereotypical. I see her as this woman who is sweet and daring and vulnerable and a little broken. I relate to her so much. I'm not broken, but I have dealt with the things that she has dealt with. We're diving a little deeper with this version. And George is such a good partner. We've created a wonderful rapport outside of the show, too, which makes it so much easier. I love working with him.
George: Mj's Audrey is so caring. She really cares about Seymour. There is this almost maternal thoughtfulness that she brings to Audrey. And then you've got Amber Riley as Audrey II, who is truly a flawless singer, but there's a sweetness to it that makes the seduction of Seymour even more interesting. With a male Audrey II voice, it can feel at times like Seymour is being bullied into something. With Amber, it's this really gentle approach. It sounds like the plant is rolling out a red carpet for Seymour to walk on. It's been really fun to approach Little Shop like it was just written and we're the inaugural production.
George, as a former high school Seymour, has any of your performance from 17 years ago worked its way into this version?
George: No, thank god. I've had to take everything I know about Little Shop and Seymour and toss it out the window. "Call Back in the Morning," which starts Act 2, is this crazy patter song where we answer phone calls and the music is pulsing all the time. When we first started staging it, I had PTSD about staging it in high school and remembering which phone I'm supposed to talk into. That's the only thing I've been thinking about in terms of the high school Seymour.
Mj, has it hit you yet that you're making theatrical history as the first trans woman of color to play Audrey?
Mj: Ooh, no! Not really. I know this is a cliché and so typical to say, but whether it's playing a character like Audrey or just playing a regular chick, I just really love what I do. I love everything about it. But this making history thing? That's a big shoe to fill. I don't think I'm qualified for that just yet!