Thursday, May 07, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors (movie review)

Since Encores! Off-Center is presenting Little Shop of Horrors in July, I thought it would be an interesting time to revisit the movie and see how it holds up.

It holds up very well.

Ellen Greene
[many spoilers to come]

What luck that various stars said no, and the lead role of Audrey, the sweet and ditsy floral arranger, was given to Ellen Greene. Greene originated it Off-Broadway and owns the part. (It will be interesting to see her at Encores!, years too old for the character yet likely to be wonderful.) I wish that Lee Wilkof, the original Seymour, had also been cast, but Rick Moranis acquits himself nicely as the good-hearted, murdering nebbish whose life improves drastically when he starts taking care of the "odd and exotic" plant he names Audrey II. The rest of the cast is pretty wonderful: Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Levi Stubbs, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, John Candy, Bill Murray, and Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell as CrystalRonette, and Chiffon, the Skid Row Greek chorus girl group.

What is most important about the movie of Little Shop is that Frank Oz, the director, gets the show and doesn't try to turn it into something it isn't. The "I want" song, "(Skid Row) Downtown," is brilliantly staged, managing to find the genuine fear, desire, and heart that drive the show. Without "Skid Row) Downtown," Little Shop is a cartoon. With it, it's an alternate universe, just to the left of our world, with real people we can truly care about.

Of course some songs had to be cut, due to the simple fact that movies have different needs than shows do. I particularly miss "Now (It's Just the Gas)," which includes some of my favorite of Howard Ashman's lyrics. (Seymour is about to murder Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin to feed to Audrey II. Orin is addicted to laughing gas and has built himself a special mask attached to canisters of gas, which get stuck. Seymour doesn't know what to do.)
What we have here is an ethical dilemma 
'Less I help him get the mask removed,
He doesn't have a prayer
True the gun as never fired,
But the way events transpired,
I could finish him with simple laissez faire
It's interesting in both the show and movie that the choice is made to have Seymour kill Orin passively rather than actively. Little Shop doesn't want to show our hero flat-out cold-bloodedly murdering someone. (The Hunger Games takes a similar approach, making sure that Katniss never has to make a measured decision to kill someone. Instead, she is always acting to defend herself or others.) Seymour does later murder his boss, Mr. Mushnik, but by then his back is against the wall of disgrace, prison, and losing Audrey.

And then there is the ending. Or ending(s), since the movie had two. With the first version, in which the plant wins and similar plants take over the world, only 13% of preview audiences said that they would recommend the film. With the second version--the one that was released--preview audiences were way more enthusiastic. Frank Oz has said that he thinks that theatre audiences can handle the deaths of main characters because they get to see the actors take bows, while with movies, when they're dead, they're dead. (For a nice featurette on this topic, see here.)

I think Oz is wrong, in a number of ways. First of all, I think that theatre audiences may just have different tastes than movie audiences, on a whole, but it's also true that many movie musicals with dead protagonists have been very successful (eg, The King and I, West Side Story). But secondly, and more importantly, I think Oz and co-creators got the original ending wrong. 

The ending in the Off-Broadway show is both delightful and scary. The characters become part of the plant and their faces appear as its flowers as all sing "Don't Feed the Plants." And the plant continues to grow until its tendrils/roots drop from the ceiling to attack the audience (one of my all-time favorite theatre moments).

In the movie, on the other hand, Audrey and Seymour are just gone, and the film ends with an extended rampage as the plants take over New York. The special effects are fabulous. An entire elevated train drives into the maw of a well-situated behemoth; another plant uses the Brooklyn Bridge as a swing; still others take over the Statue of Liberty. But these are the special effects of a completely different movie! Little Shop is not a horror film; it's a love story. Speaking in very generalized terms, they tacked a boy ending on a girl movie. 

Would an ending more like the show's have been more accepted by preview audiences? There's no way to tell. And I think that the compromise of having Seymour and Audrey loving their suburban home, unaware of the baby Audrey II in the their garden, works pretty well. 

I'd give the happy-ending version of the movie a B+, and even though I appreciate the artistry, I would give the rampage-ending version a B-.


Cameron Kelsall said...

Are you one of the lucky ones who snagged a ticket?

Wendy Caster said...

Months and months ago...