‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at 40: The Plant That Conquered the World

“Little Shop of Horrors” was Alan Menken’s last shot.

It was the winter of 1979 when Menken, a young composer, and Howard Ashman, the lyricist, playwright and director, were coming off a disappointing Off Broadway run of a musical version of the Kurt Vonnegut novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.”

So, when Ashman called with the idea to develop a low-budget musical comedy about a murderous plant, based on Roger Corman’s semi-obscure 1960 black comedy film, Menken made a deal with himself: He would give musical theater one more shot. If it didn’t work, he would commit to writing advertising jingles full time.

Of course, the off-the-wall, low-budget musical would go on to become an improbable success, selling out houses at the 98-seat WPA Theater in the Flatiron district before transferring to the 347-seat Orpheum Theater, where it would run for a little over five years. In the decades since, it’s reached cult classic status and become one of the most produced shows at high schools across the country.

On the 40th anniversary of the original Off Off Broadway production, which opened on May 20, 1982, at the WPA Theater, members of the original cast and creative team, as well as some from the current Off Broadway revival and family members of Ashman, who died in 1991 from AIDS, at 40, reflected on how it came together, its improbable success and why it still resonates. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Howard Ashman directing Ellen Greene, who played Audrey. “He just loved me, and when a director just adores your creativity, your creativity blooms,” she said.Credit… Estate of Howard Ashman

The seed that would become “Little Shop of Horrors” had been planted in Ashman’s head for a few decades, ever since he saw Corman’s black-and-white horror spoof of the same name when he was around 14. But revisiting it proved a bit tricky.

SARAH ASHMAN GILLESPIE (sister of Howard Ashman) My husband and I were the only people Howard knew who had the Betamax, and we rented “Little Shop” — the movie — for us all to watch. Except for Howard, we were appalled. We didn’t think it would be a good idea at all to do the show. Of course, he ignored us entirely. That was Howard’s way; when he had a vision for something, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

And Ashman had the perfect partner in mind: The composer Alan Menken, with whom he’d just collaborated on “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.”

BILL LAUCH (Ashman’s partner) Howard had the idea that “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” had an Off Broadway sensibility, but it was just too expensive. He resolved that the next musical he was going to do is going to have a very small cast — under 10 characters. And it was going to have some kind of element at the heart of it that would be so unusual that it would just demand attention.

ALAN MENKEN (composer) I hadn’t seen the film, but a few weeks after he told me he wanted to make a musical, it showed up on cable TV. My God, there were so many fun elements!

40 Years of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

The off-the-wall musical comedy about a murderous plant, which debuted in 1982 Off Off Broadway, continues to resonate.

 Revisiting a Classic: The comedy becomes a morality tale for the age of universal celebrity in Michael Mayer’s revival, which opened in 2019. Looking Back: On the 40th anniversary of “Little Shop of Horrors,” members of the casts and creative teams behind the original and the revival discussed the musical’s legacy.Leading Man: Conrad Ricamora just ended his run in the revival as Seymour, the show’s nebbishy hero.Inhabiting Seymour: The actor Jonathan Groff took on the iconic role in 2019. From the Archives: In 1982, our critic described “Little Shop of Horrors” as a show “for horticulturists, horror-cultists, sci-fi fans and anyone with a taste for the outrageous.”

The production at the WPA had to come together quickly, cheaply and without the reassurance of big names in the cast.

MENKEN The theater was run by Howard and Kyle Renick, and they used to joke that WPA stands for “We’ll Produce Anything.” Howard and I paid for Marty Robinson to be able to construct the first Audrey II, and I played [the piano in] the show myself.

FRANC LUZ (Orin Scrivello, Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend in “Little Shop”) They sent me the script, and I turned the audition down. I was like, “How did this get at the highly regarded WPA with lines like, ‘Oh, Seymour’?” It wasn’t until I heard the demo cassette tape Howard and Alan had made that it made sense. I thought, “Jesus, this is really special.”

LEE WILKOF (Seymour) I originally auditioned for the dentist. But Alan Menken, who I had known from a revue I did some years earlier, was giggling at me in the toupee — I’d been bald since I was 18 — so I took it off. And Howard Ashman said, “You’re a Seymour!” It came down to me and Nathan Lane for the part, and Connie Grappo, who was Ashman’s assistant director, told Howard to cast me. That’s why I married her! [Laughs]

Christian Borle, left, as the dentist and Jonathan Groff as Seymour in the Off Broadway revival that opened in October 2019.Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Next was his most important piece of casting: The person who would design, build and perform the murderous plant, Audrey II.

MARTIN P. ROBINSON (puppeteer) Howard told me later that when he presented the challenges of the script — the need for a plant that would start small and get bigger in increments, as well as talk, sing and take over the stage, then the world — most people he talked to said, “Well, you’re going to have to give up this.” I was the only guy who said, “Yeah, sure, you can do all that.”

Rehearsals began in earnest, with Menken and Ashman continuing to prune their project as the actors settled into their roles.

ELLEN GREENE (Audrey) Howard lived on Greenwich Avenue right around the corner from the Pink Tea Cup, and Alan would be sitting at the piano, and Howard would pace up and down shouting. He was a very strong director — very bright, with a dry sense of humor and tremendous heart. Alan wanted to please Howard, and it was like a dance between the two of them. It was glorious to watch.

LUZ Ashman had that kind of intellect that goes at 100 miles faster than everybody else. He would remember lyrics, and he knew every bit of music from the ’60s and ’70s.

MENKEN Howard could be impatient about music because it was the one thing he couldn’t directly do himself! [Laughs]

For the score, Menken opted for a blend of pop, rock and Latin music.

MENKEN It’s the dark side of “Grease,” but there are also elements winking at the late ’50s and early ’60s — beach blanket horror movies with people dancing on the beach while some monster came in from the water to terrorize people — as well as Phil Spector rock, which is apocalyptic in tone. And then our narrators were a girl group derived from the Ronettes and the Shirelles. It was a real cocktail of really dark themes and fun spoof elements.

Thanks to his father, Menken had an idea for the stage musical that would become iconic.

MENKEN My dad, who was a dentist, was actually president of the New York chapter of the American Analgesia Society, which is a society of dentists who promote the use of nitrous oxide as safe. So I had the idea that Orin was obsessed with nitrous oxide and put the mask on himself to enjoy the sadomasochistic joy of drilling teeth and then get the mask stuck. Howard thought it was hilarious. My dad actually provided the slides for the “Look, Seymour, this could happen to you” part!

Ashman was an intense, demanding director, but his dry wit captured the hearts of the cast.

LUZ Even if we fought about something — “You know, I don’t think this character would do that” — he’d say, “Oh, he would, he would.” Eventually, you just learned that he was always right.

GREENE Howard and I had a respect and a free-flowing love between the two of us. We just got each other. He just loved me, and when a director just adores your creativity, your creativity blooms.

MENKEN He was brilliant, and I don’t say that lightly.

Meanwhile, the enormous, man-eating Audrey II puppet was taking shape in Robinson’s apartment.

ROBINSON I started with the imagery in the Corman film, but I made the shape a little more sophisticated, with curved sharp teeth hidden on the inside that you didn’t see until she started talking. It’s carpeted inside, with a red, hairy interior. It was a workout moving those arms, but I was 28 and I was jacked. I see pictures of myself back then and say, “Oh, my God.”

LUZ Marty started the show as this tall, skinny guy with this big Afro, and by the end of it, he had a swimmer’s body. He was like Adonis.

Finally, after two weeks of previews, opening night arrived on May 20, 1982.

WILKOF We blew the roof off the first night.

MENKEN People just went absolutely crazy.

WILKOF We were all just floating during that performance. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my career.

“Little Shop of Horrors” was a smashing success — and quickly became the hottest ticket in town.

WILKOF I was going around the week before opening night handing out fliers, and casting directors would go, “What the hell is this?” And two weeks later, they were calling and asking — no, begging — me for tickets.

Rick Moranis as Seymour in the 1986 film.Credit…Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS, via Alamy

After a month of performances at the WPA, “Little Shop” transferred Off Broadway to the Orpheum. When it closed on Nov. 1, 1987, it was the third-longest-running musical and the highest-grossing production in Off Broadway history.

MICHAEL MAYER (director of the current Off Broadway revival) The buzz around it was incredible. It walked to the razor’s edge of being a satire of a kind of B movie, and yet it had so much true heart.

The musical went on to receive Los Angeles and West End productions in 1983 before being turned into a film in 1986, which starred Greene as Audrey and Rick Moranis as Seymour. More than two decades after its original opening night, it finally debuted on Broadway in 2003. Ashman, who had declined a Broadway transfer, believing a smaller house was needed to preserve the impression of the plant’s massive size, never got to see it.

LUZ It’s still a shock and a shame that we lost him so young.

In October 2019, the current Off Broadway revival opened at the Westside Theater, starring Jonathan Groff as Seymour, opposite Christian Borle as the dentist.

MAYER I never saw the film, so I tried to be true to my memory of what Howard did as director.

CHRISTIAN BORLE (Orin Scrivello in the current Off Broadway revival) Obviously it has to be funny, but the abuse stuff is so ugly, especially in this day and age, that I felt compelled to play that stuff as straight and dark and awful as possible. Ultimately, he has to be worthy of being fed to the plant.

Though the original cast and creative team have gone on to other careers, including Menken’s award-winning run with Disney’s animated musicals, they all agree: They’ve never come across another project like “Little Shop.”

ROBINSON When you’re 28, you think, “Oh, this happens all the time.” But that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

MENKEN Howard and I jokingly called “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid” “Somewhere That’s Wet.” “Little Shop” is the DNA of everything that ended up exploding at Disney, in a funny way.

MAYER It resonates more than ever right now — the idea of the Faustian bargain you make for fame and success in a world where people are making a living being TikTok performers and Instagram influencers, and people are famous for being famous more than at any other time in history. It examines the dark side of the American dream, and because it’s so funny and entertaining and moving, it isn’t going to bum you out so much.