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Revivals of Little Shop of Horrors Open Across America

What explains the sudden resurgence of the campy sci-fi musical?

Composer Alan Menken climbs out of the Audrey II puppet from the 2003 Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors.
(© Joseph Marzullo / Retna Ltd.)

This week our readers were delighted to learn that Little Shop of Horrors, one of the most successful off-Broadway musicals ever, will be returning off-Broadway this September with a starry cast. A day later, another revival with an equally impressive cast was announced on the other side of the country, at Pasadena Playhouse. The day after that, yet another revival production went public: at Boston's Lyric Stage Company. Is this some strange reenactment of the show's finale, with killer plants taking hold in cities across America?

Story of the Week will take a close look at the upcoming productions, and explain the enduring affection for this oddball musical.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ellen Greene, and Eddie Cooper starred in the 2015 Encores! production of Little Shop of Horrors.
(© Joan Marcus)

What is Little Shop of Horrors?
Written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Little Shop tells the story of sad-sack flower shop assistant Seymour. He loves his coworker Audrey, but she's attached to a sadistic dentist. One day, Seymour mysteriously obtains a strange and interesting carnivorous plant that he dubs "Audrey II." The plant attracts new customers and media attention, but will Seymour's newfound fame be enough to impress Audrey? A trio of mystical Urchins called Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (all named after 1960s girl groups) narrate, infusing this sci-fi thriller with a classic American pop sound.

A big bear hug to B movies, Little Shop also manages to stealthily subvert that genre: As Amber Iman remarked to me during a press preview of last year's Kennedy Center revival, "It's a horror story in which all of the black characters survive."

The musical played for years at the Orpheum Theatre downtown, winning the 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical (it was the only off-Broadway musical to take that honor until the Public Theater run of Hamilton joined it in 2015). Little Shop finally made its Broadway debut in 2003 in a so-so production helmed by Jerry Zaks. Its spiritual home remains off-Broadway, where a clever director can re-create the atmosphere of a 42nd Street grind house — the kind that might have shown an outrageous sci-fi story like this on the big screen.

Following the success of Little Shop, Menken and Ashman went on to spark the Disney Renaissance with their scores to the animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. These three movies introduced a generation to musical theater and, I would argue, a specifically gay sensibility around it: It's hard to look at Ursula (inspired by the drag queen Divine) and not think that, in some way, Howard Ashman was taking the youth of America to camp. Few shows are campier than Little Shop.

Why do so many people love it?
It's a great show! My love affair with Little Shop began at age 3, when I would swipe a pair of my mother's pumps and dance around the living room like I was one of the Urchins as the 1986 film adaptation played off a well-loved VHS. I got to revisit Little Shop as a (sort of) adult when I directed the show in college (in that production Shaina Taub portrayed perhaps the most soulful Audrey ever). It made me love and appreciate this B-movie spin on Faust even more for its remarkable synthesis of timeless mythology and popular American forms.

Zach (center) poses with the Urchins in his college production of Little Shop of Horrors: Kim, Malorie, and Lauren.
(© Zachary Stewart)

While this current spate of professional productions might seem like a sudden resurgence, the truth is that Little Shop has never really gone away. It consistently makes the list of most-produced high school musicals, and it is a favorite of community theaters. Musical Theatre International, which handles the amateur rights for Little Shop, presently lists 236 upcoming productions — a number certain to grow as more licenses are granted. The best way to fall in love with a musical is to spend a month or two of your life rehearsing and performing it. When a professional production does come around, these one-time performers and crew members will be the first people in line for tickets. So appreciation of Little Shop becomes a virtual cycle.

This is something that other musicals should seek to replicate if they want to become similarly beloved: Composer Joe Iconis has written about his love of Little Shop, and I've made the argument that his soon-to-close Broadway debut, Be More Chill, could follow a similar trajectory. The widespread fan base is already there, and I can guarantee that there are hundreds of well-rehearsed renditions of "Michael in the Bathroom" waiting to come out of the bathroom and onto the stage.

George Salazar currently stars in Be More Chill, and will headline the Pasadena Playhouse production of Little Shop of Horrors this fall.
(© Maria Baranova)

What should I know about the upcoming revivals?
Be More Chill fans will be interested to know that the Pasadena Playhouse production (playing September 17-October 20) stars BMC cast member George Salazar as Seymour. Mj Rodriguez (who plays Blanca, mother of House Evangelista, on the FX series Pose) takes the role of Audrey, and Amber Riley (Glee) will play the voice of Audrey II (a role usually played by a man). All indications are that this revival helmed by Mike Donahue will offer a revolutionary (and hopefully revelatory) take on an old show, with producing artistic director Danny Feldman promising that it "will give our audiences the opportunity to see a show they know and love in a way they never have before." Fans of the radical Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, take note.

The off-Broadway revival features a Broadway-caliber cast (Jonathan Groff as Seymour, Tammy Blanchard as Audrey, and Christian Borle as Orin the Dentist) directed by Michael Mayer (Head Over Heels). It begins previews on September 17, and while tickets are currently on sale through November 24 only, I suspect that if this initial block sells out it will be extended. The show is set to play the Westside Theatre, conveniently located a block west of the major cluster of Broadway houses and one block up from the wildly successful Yiddish-language revival of Fiddler on the Roof. This is the same theater where I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change played for over 5,000 performances, and I can easily see a well-received revival of Little Shop settling in for an open run.

Katrina Z. Pavao and Dan Prior star in the Lyric Stage Company production of Little Shop of Horrors.
(© Nile Scott Hawver/Nile Scott Studios)

While the dueling bicoastal productions of Little Shop both begin performances on September 17, Boston's Lyric Stage Company will have its production up and running on August 30. Rachel Bertone directs this limited run, which ends October 6. The promotional images suggest a fun (if traditional) take on the show.

Honestly, I'll never pass up an opportunity to see Little Shop, and you shouldn't either. I'll see you on Skid Row!