by Cameron Cox, dramaturg
An awkward florist, a budding relationship, a sociopathic dentist, a carnivorous plant with a craving for human flesh; these iconic characters bring one story to mind. Little Shop of Horrors has become one of the most popular musicals for high school and local community theatres. A lesser-known fact about this popular stage show was its source material, a 1961 dark comedy by the same name, directed by the “King of B Movies” Roger Corman. Beginning with this film and spanning 26 years, three notable adaptations were made, each with its own unique alterations to the material, offering insight to the cultural landscapes of the decade in which each was made. The story of Little Shop of Horrors has taken the form of a dark comedy horror film, an incredibly successful and lucrative Broadway musical at the beginning of the long careers of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and the popular cult classic film directed by Frank Oz starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene.
The original film had no aims of becoming the multiple medium cult classic brand it has become today. A 1961 Variety magazine movie review may have put it best: “Little Shop of Horrors is kind of one big sick joke, but it’s essentially harmless and good-natured.” This critical reception was not unexpected as audiences had anticipated that the film would border on being of poor taste. The director Roger Corman had embraced a provocateur image (think Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn). In writing the original Seymore, Corman described his resistance to the idea of “The Hero.”
I may personally rebel against the concept of the hero. It may be that I dislike the hero. And so I deliberately play up other people than the hero. I figure that if you’ve gone through school and the halfback is getting all the girls, and you get a chance to make films, and the format of the film is that the halfback gets the girl, you may deliberately undercut him. – Roger Corman
While the original film was a low budget horror comedy, as the text of Little Shop of Horrors was adapted to other media it began to gain hallmarks of other genres.
The transition from the screen to the stage has become very popular in recent years with feature films such as Legally Blonde, Shrek, Tuck Everlasting and an array of Disney movies all making the leap. However, when Little Shop of Horrors made its Broadway debut in 1981 this phenomenon did not have the popularity it has today. This adaptation focused less on directly translating the screen to the stage, but rather used the original as a story to be inspired by. As a result, there is a litany of changes, not the least of which occurs because the genre of “musical” is imposed on the text.
An early review remarked “Little Shop of Horrors, at the WPA Theater…is a Faustian musical about a timid clerk who sells his soul to a man-eating Cactus. Admittedly this is a rather rarefied idea for a musical comedy, but the evening is as entertaining as it is exotic. It is a show for horticulturists, horror-cultists, sci-fi fans and anyone with a taste for the outrageous” (New York Times, 1982). Already moving to the stage, the story began to be read more as a science fiction story than a horror film. In a post Star Wars: A New Hope world it appears that increased popularity and accessibility of science fiction influenced the creation and critical reception of the musical Little Shop of Horrors. The 1960’s setting/aesthetic of the musical to the era of the film aided in the incorporation of this new genre by playing upon contemporary nuclear fears.
The bulk of the variations from the original screenplay happened in its adaptation into a musical on stage; the transition from stage back to screen also differs subtly with a major exception at the conclusion. The science fiction and spectacular aspects adopted in the musical were maintained and enhanced due to the increased intimacy of film but at its heart remained as faithful to the stage history as possible: “Oz had decided from the beginning that he wanted to do the entire film as an interior stage piece. As for the film’s showcase effect – the man-eating plant Audrey II – Oz expresses his pride that ‘we worked very hard to make the plant a real, mechanical on-the-stage effect. There is no visual wizardry in the plant at all – no bluescreen, no animation, no stop-motion'” (Duncan). While the “special effects” may have influenced the reception and attitude towards genre five years earlier, the film adaptation seemed to think that to add to them with additional available technologies would compromise the integrity of the story. Further pushing the genre towards science fiction was the addition of the entirely new song, “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space,” drawing more emphasis to the other-worldly nature of Audrey II.
By far the most notable deviation from the musical and 1961 film is the fact that Frank Oz’s production ends happily. Oz explained,
Once the characters have all succumbed to Audrey II’s shark-like teeth the plant bursts from the flower shop and is the last scene strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge on its way to devour the world. These scenes were shot at great expense but were later cut from the film and replaced when, during a sneak preview, audiences, heretofore delighted with the film, grew visibly angry and upset by the ending. ‘They hated us when the main character dies’ Oz says. ‘In the play, they’re eaten by the puppet, but you know they’re coming out for a curtain call’ (McCarty 212).
This change was not entirely well-received: one critic remarked “… the 1986 film version, while remaining faithful to the original doesn’t have the courage of the stage work… Ashman’s screenplay softens the cataclysmic ending by having the nerd destroy the plant…But all the same there is something disturbing about the 1986 movie musical that needs to play it safe. Is a man-eating plant taking over the world too hot for Hollywood to handle? Evidently so” (Hischak 122). This alteration to the ending diminished the parabolic nature of the story and shifted the genre towards dark comedy rather than horror-comedy. Given that Oz’s adaptation was the most well-distributed due to the budgetary constraints of the first film and the lack of accessibility of live theatre, a result has been that many today do not realize the original genre of the work. Given the 1980’s sci-fi landscape in combination with what the country as a whole expected from the musical genre, the lack of a happy ending seemed out of place, making the most popular adaptation of the story disingenuous to its roots because of the year in which it was produced.
After a B-level horror film, a musical, a big-budget adaptation of said musical, and even a short-lived animated series entitled Little Shop, adaptations of Little Shop of Horrors span three decades of the 20th century. Additionally, countless performances of the musical occur every year. Little Shop of Horrors has cemented itself as a cult classic and staple of modern pop culture. To see its relevance further explored, be sure to check out BYU’s production running March 6th-21st in the Pardoe Theatre.