Sunday, April 6, 2014

Little Shop of Horrors


I had to call off today's rehearsal for Aida on Ice as Rosita's Ice-A-Rama is hosting the quarter-finals of the midget hockey league playoffs. I tried offering the little ones cameos in the triumphal march scene in exchange for moving their game out onto Pico Boulevard but they weren't interested. One little eight year old was downright rude and had obviously not been reared as to show proper respect for a great and glamorous star such as myself. I had a brief meeting with the set and costume crews to make sure all was in order for the upcoming technical rehearsals and then returned home to Chateau Maine to enjoy a leisurely free afternoon. 

The weather in the Hollywood Hills was lovely and the yard was so peaceful, that I decided it would be the perfect time to do a little gardening and play in God's green earth. I changed into a divine little checked gingham number I keep for such occasions and phoned Reynaldo, my gardener, and told him to come right over. The next few hours were sheer bliss, wandering amongst the lantana and bougainvillea, snipping the occasional dead blossom while Reynaldo spaded, mowed and weeded in his little green running shorts with the white stripe up the side. Pretty soon, I was so hot, I had to sit on the veranda with a pitcher of Margarita's to keep from falling over in a dead faint. 

The afternoon heat drove me inside eventually so I collapsed in the home theater, searching for a suitable horticultural entertainment, when I ran across an old copy of Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz's 1986 film version of Ashman and Menken's off-Broadway stage success. Little Shop of Horrors is based on a low budget Roger Corman horror cheapie of the same title from 1960. In the early 80s, composer Alan Menken and book writer/lyricist Howard Ashman took the film and adapted it for the musical stage, using the girl group /doo-wop musical idiom that was popular at the time of the original film, as the basis for their score. 

Little Shop of Horrors is the story of a pathetic loser, Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), an orphan with no hope and no future who works as a janitorial go-fer for Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), a failing florist down on Skid Road. Seymour can't do anything right, and is doing very badly in his unrequited love for the beautiful, but tawdry Audrey (Ellen Greene), Mushnik's cashier. Audrey, who has dubious taste in men, is dating a sadistic and abusive dentist (Steve Martin) much to Seymour's dismay, and her physical detriment. One day, following some rather odd events, Seymour, who likes plants, discovers an unusual variation on a Venus Fly Trap. This strange and unusual plant soon makes its basic food requirement known, human blood. Pretty soon it's leaping around the shop (despite being pot bound), singing in a basso profundo voice (Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops) and making Seymour commit all sorts of nasty and violent acts. Comic mayhem ensues, along with a bevy of musical numbers, usually led by a Greek Chorus of black girls doing their best to be the Supremes. 

Oz, with his background as Jim Henson's partner in puppeteering, was a perfect director for the material. He was smart enough not to try and change the stage version too much and kept the campy good fun which made it such a kick in the theater. Most directors would have axed the singing trio which creates much of the music in the film, but Oz recognizes that the music was created for exactly this kind of group and, from the opening frames, he embraces the complete unreality of this unusual chorus and encourages the rest of his cast to reach for a campy, cartoonish style. When he does open the material up beyond the stage, such as in the number Downtown, he shows a sure hand at creating and building a mood. 

The cast boasts two indelible comic performances. The first is Ellen Greene as Audrey, recreating her stage role. Miss Greene is breathtakingly brilliant in her Marilyn Monroe meets Fredrick's of Hollywood costumes and peroxide bouffant and when she opens her pipes to sing, especially in Somewhere That's Green and Suddenly Seymour, she's brilliant. The second is Steve Martin's dentist, who gets one stand out number and a few bits that are priceless, especially a short scene with Bill Murray as a masochistic patient that's comic bliss. It's based on a scene from the original film that had a young Jack Nicholson as the patient and was the best moment in the original. Other familiar comics like Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest and John Candy also appear in brief cameos. 

The biggest problem, which nearly derails the film, is the ending. The original film and the stage musical both end with the plant (named Audrey II by the unimaginative Seymour), killing the principal cast and growing large enough to take over the city. This ending, along with an extended musical sequence entitled Don't Feed the Plants was shot and was intended as the film's finale. Test screenings, however, showed that audiences wanted a happy ending on the film with Seymour and Audrey living happily ever after so the sequence was cut and a new ending hastily tacked on. The current ending feels like a bad patch job. 

There was a DVD release of the film in the late 1990s that included the original ending, in unfinished form, as a bonus. David Geffen, the producer, however, claimed that he retained rights to that ending and had not given his permission for it to be released so the disc was recalled and is now quite difficult to find. 

The kicky sing-along score, the deft performances, and the comic grotesqueries make this a film well worth watching. You may, however, never look at your house plants in quite the same way again. 

Singing winos. Decrepit display case. Whacko John Candy. Old Chinese florist. Cat's eye sunglasses. Fishnet sling. Quickie funeral arrangement. Cartoon bird. Plant telephone dialing. 

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