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Richard Jordan: Little Shop of Horrors offers an important lesson for producing musical revivals

Vicky Vox in Little Shop of Horrors at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Vicky Vox in Little Shop of Horrors at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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There is much pleasure to be had in rediscovering a show, an experience I recently had at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s revival of Little Shop of Horrors. That production renewed my respect for the musical.

When Little Shop of Horrors opened Off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater in July 1982, few could have imagined the legacy this adaptation of a little-known B-movie would achieve – or that it would set a precedent for film-to-musical adaptations.

Its success and longevity may be because it did not go down the movie-to-stage route – with many seeming almost pre-packaged to do so – which is so common today. This concept did not really exist back then, so composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman were uninhibited by the process of what they wanted to create.

Little Shop of Horrors’ role in propelling musical theatre forward is undervalued: it acted as a bridge for the art form between old and new. It’s one of the best examples of a show that respects traditional musical techniques of a book-and-song format, synonymous with Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe. Then it layered on the 1980s’ new musical forms, emerging at the time through shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, which constantly drove the narrative forward. While the show is indebted to musical theatre, Menken brought in a musical style that was heavily influenced by Motown and rock’n’roll.

The show premiered a few years after the underground success of The Rocky Horror Show, which showed there was a place – and audience – for cult, off-the-wall musicals that did not rely on playing the West End or Broadway to become a hit.

The domination of a singing killer plant is Little Shop of Horrors’ defining memory but that overshadows the sophistication of its score. The lyrical talent of the late Ashman does not get the recognition it deserves, and he should be considered among the most influential musical theatre lyricists of the 20th century. Ashman, who also wrote the book and directed the original production, pioneered the skill of the movie-to-musical adaptation.

A great example of Menken and Ashman’s musical theatre craft can be found in Skid Row (Downtown) in Act I. A musical must have an early song that introduces the key characters. It’s the “here I am” number and Skid Row is one of the greatest examples to be found in musical theatre.

In the number, location, character, emotion and circumstance are all effortlessly fused through the brilliance of Menken’s score, and the light-footedness of Ashman’s clever and complex lyrics that use a comedy musical frame for a dark narrative. The additional skill of this song is that it doesn’t need visuals – everything is told through the words and music, together with Menken’s clever orchestral gear changes. By the end of the number, the audience has been given a complete and perfect understanding of the characters, their intent, and the journey that has led to the moment we first meet them.

From there, the pace of the musical is impressive. Like the plant itself, it grabs the audience by the throat and does not let go, moving swiftly from number to number while propelling the plot forward using some terrific underscore and orchestrations.

The story is not afraid to travel to some pretty difficult places, not least the domestic abuse of Audrey, the female lead. All the characters find themselves victims of their circumstance and fantasise about escaping the hellish reality they’re in. To us, their ambitions may seem ordinary and easily attainable, but to the characters, they’re heartbreakingly out of reach, which is why the audience is so emotionally invested in them.

The movie-to-musical path that Ashman created continues today, although many that have followed have felt altogether more saccharine and deliberate. That’s not to say Little Shop of Horrors doesn’t have issues. I have always felt it would play much better without an interval, which is one of the reasons why Frank Oz’s 1986 movie version of the musical works well. The show is somewhat unbalanced: if done badly, Act II can feel like little more than a countdown of characters being killed off.

However, Little Shop of Horrors provides a really important producing lesson about popular revivals. It’s a recognisable title, which instantly makes it a strong commercial prospect. But it’s an intimate musical, and placing it in too bigger a theatre can kill it even quicker than its killer plant protagonist.

The original production became a five-year hit, arguably because it stayed Off-Broadway, during which time Ashman refused the opportunity to transfer it to Broadway insisting that this was where it belonged. Today the Off-Broadway economy is different, with many theatres closed or viewed as try-out venues before Broadway.

If Little Shop of Horrors opened as a new work today, could it achieve the same global success and longevity? Not every successful musical has to play on Broadway. Yet, there’s been a significant and troubling change in how Off-Broadway is viewed and valued, much of this even coming from the theatre industry itself. This worrying change neglects how vital these  performance platforms once were for so many groundbreaking and alternative new works from Little Shop of Horrors and The Fantasticks to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. They were all able to simply sit down and play, which afforded them – and the art form itself – a demonstrable progression, profile and established longevity.

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