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Friday, August 23, 2013

AN APPRECIATION OF LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (THE MUSICAL): An analysis from a playwriting perspective, Part I

Cast of "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Center Theatre.  Perhaps my proudest moment as director and actor.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I admire a great number of musicals, but, the one I have the most special place for in my heart is Little Shop of Horrors, a musical with a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken.  Ashman and Menken would also collaborate on a musical version of Kurt Vonngegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and perhaps become most famous for their work on such Disney films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  Sadly, Mr. Ashman is no longer with us, but his work with Little Shop continues to live on through countless community theatre and school productions every year.  A few years back, it had its Broadway debut (it originally was an Off-Broadway smash, and Ashman was happy to keep it as an Off-Broadway show in his lifetime), and, of course, their is the movie version starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin, which has achieved a cult status.

Of course, Little Shop of Horrors the musical was based on a cheesy 1960 B-movie of the same name, directed by B-movie master Roger Corman, and featuring a young, unknown actor named Jack Nicholson in the role of a masochist who tastes of the sadistic dentist's talents. 

The story is basically a Faustian one:  poor insignificant fellow (in this case, Seymour, an employee of a flower shop on Skid Row) meets a shady character (in this case, a giant Venus Flytrap-like plant called Audrey Two) who starts to make all of his dreams come true--- success, love with his Helen of Troy (in this case, a sad and abused fellow flower shop employee named Audrey), and plenty of money.  Unfortunately, all of this comes as a price, and our poor hero loses everything because of the blood on his hands. 

All this in a musical comedy.

I was fortunate enough to direct and star in a production of this musical a few years back, and I can safely say it is the work I am most proud of as a director (and, perhaps, even as an actor--- forget perhaps, it definitely is).  I was lucky to have a wonderful and hard-working cast, fun and interesting puppets, and just great stage chemistry all around.  Perhaps one day, I will write a blog post about this wonderful experience, but tonight, I'm going to talk about Little Shop of Horrors from a playwriting perspective.

Howard Ashman presents Little Shop of Horrors as a musical comedy (albeit, a dark one), but, at the same time, he adheres to Aristotle's theories of tragedy.  In fact, this musical is a perfect, entertaining lesson of Aristotle's thoughts on rising action, climax, catharsis, as well as his notes on a tragic hero.  (I am discussing the stage version of the musical, not the movie, which changed the stage ending for a more upbeat one). 

The very first thing we hear in the stage production is an announcer's voice introducing us to the world of the show.  A prologue, if you will.  Next, we meet the Ronnettes, three young ladies on Skid Row, who serve as the musical Greek Chorus of the show.  Oh, what wonderful imagery in the very song, even!  What clever lyrics!  Do a 1950s sounding number, we have lyrics such as "Shang a lang, feel the sturm and drang in the air"... such a brilliant way to set up the dual aesthetics of the show!

I don't want to ruin the show for anyone, so if you are not familiar with it, please stop reading this post, as it is almost impossible to analyze it without giving away any major plot points.

We learn quickly that our tragic hero, Seymour Krelborn, is a bit of a nerdy putz, working at Skid Row florists (a dying business) for the formidable Mr. Mushnik, who took Seymour in when he was just a kid.  Seymour nurses a crush on the sweet, but terribly abused Audrey, who often shows up to work with black eyes or a cast on her arm. 

Seymour discovered a strange new kind of Flytrap after a total eclipse of the sun, which he has named Audrey II, in tribute of the woman he's in love with.  After showing it to Mushnik at Audrey's insistence, and displaying it in the shop window, business takes off.  Unfortunately, the only way for Seymour to keep Audrey II healthy is to feed it his own blood.  Suddenly, Skid Row Florists is a huge success, and Seymour is becoming a bit of a celebrity.  The shop is renovated, Mushnik is happy, but, alas, Audrey is still with her abusive boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, a sadistic, nitric oxide huffing dentist.  Yikes!

Of course, what Seymour doesn't know, is that Audrey reciprocates the crush, and dreams of living in a sweet matchbox home with the "sweet little guy". 

After being adopted by Mushnik (as Mushnik is afraid Seymour might leave the shop with Audrey II, thereby ruining his new thriving business), Seymour discovers that Audrey II can talk.  And it is HUNGRY.  Too hungry for Seymour to feed with his own bandaged fingers anymore.  Audrey II suggests that if Seymour kills someone so it can feed, Seymour will get everything he desires... even that "one particular girl", Audrey.  Seymour is horrified at the thought of killing anyone, saying that no one deserves to die and be chopped up and fed to a plant.  However, Seymour changes his mind after witnessing Orin hurting Audrey, and he decides to kill Orin.

Unfortunately, Seymour can't do it.  He goes to Orin's practice with every intention of shooting him, but his conscience won't let him.  Fortunately, he doesn't have to.  Orin overdoses on nitric oxide, and dies.  Act I closes with Seymour feeding his chopped up body to Audrey II. 

All up to this point is a brilliant example of rising action.  Unlike many musicals, Ashman's lyrics always advance the plot or advance character development.  Nothing seems wasted.  And the songs are so clever, seamlessly weaving character development and exposition, as well as forward-moving action all into one. 

One could do worse in learning to set up a play in classic Aristotle Tragedy form than studying the first act of Little Shop of Horrors.

In my next post, I will discuss Act II of my favorite musical, and how Ashman follows the rules of climax, falling action, catharsis, and denouement. 

UPDATE:  To read Part 2, CLICK HERE

Until then, thanks for reading, and remember:  Musicals are pretty awesome, and theater is a sport!

As always, if you have any thoughts or comments, feel free to comment below, or e-mail me at

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