(Sarah Bahr’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/19; via Pam Green; Photo: The cast and creative team of the original production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” In the front at center are Howard Ashman, left, wearing plaid, and Alan Menken, lying on the floor.Credit… Estate of Howard Ashman.)
Members of the cast and creative team from the original production, as well as the current Off Broadway revival, look back on how the show came together and discuss its enduring influence.
“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.
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!