Content Warning: Domestic abuse.
When things were scary when I was younger, I was often tempted to comfort myself with thought patterns like “things will get better – they usually do,” saturated with a vain hope that people in power will magically cease to be motivated by greed. I have grown out of my rose-tinted glasses and let go of this way of looking at the world because that’s what happens when you start to understand things more clearly. The false sense of improvement comes from ignoring reality – forgetting these atrocities when the media stops reporting them and they are removed from the social consciousness of those who are not directly impacted. Earlier this month it felt yet again like the world was imploding: Hurricane Ida flooding and displacing people from NOLA to NYC, the truly horrifying Texas abortion ban that turns reproductive health into a witch hunt, wildfires tearing across the West, the end of the federal eviction moratorium, the desperation that unfolded as hundreds of thousands tried to escape Afghanistan as the Taliban regained control – all during the continuing crisis of Covid-19. It feels so outrageously bad that I feel like I’m gazing warily toward the horizon asking, “Okay universe, what unimaginable terror is coming next?”
Little Shop of Horrors (1986, Dir: Frank Oz) is a story that feels almost as absurd as our present situation. If NPR reported tomorrow that there were flesh-eating alien flytraps invading Earth, my response would probably be to pop by the nearest nursery to pick up some industrial-strength weed killer. With the year and a half (and counting) we’ve had, nothing feels out of the question. Little Shop also happens to be one of my all-time favorite musicals, so I figure if I want a chance to write about this delightful movie, I’d better take it now before flesh-eating alien flytraps actually do invade Earth and it becomes gauche to praise it.
At the start of the pandemic, I recall people watching Contagion and Outbreak – I can’t do that shit. When the real news is so absurd it seems fake (see: New Texas Abortion Law Offers $10,000 To Private Citizens For Names Of Anyone They Heard Was A Slut; Why Satanists may be the last hope to take down Texas’s abortion bill), I reach for media that is a shade off of the real thing. For something that I know is fake and almost certainly won’t happen to level me back out. Little Shop of Horrors is the perfect fit, with greed and survival as central themes. The story centers around Seymour, a pathetic but sweet loser who works at a failing florist shop in New York City whose luck changes drastically when a “new breed of flytrap hitherto unknown on this planet” falls into his care. The plant promises Seymour will get everything he wants in life – money, the girl, popularity–if he just does this one thing: feed it human flesh. Seymour reluctantly obliges, and things—obviously—get out of hand.
The 1986 movie musical is adapted from the 1982 stage musical, which was based on the original film from 1960, which is not a musical, directed by Roger Corman of B-movie fame. Of the two films, I much prefer the Oz-directed version, though I love the original, darker ending in others. The stage play is equally as enjoyable. Seeing the Broadway revival in high school kicked off my low-level obsession and more recently I delighted in a version performed by EPIC Players NYC, a neuro-inclusive theater company in NYC. I regret not being fiscally irresponsible enough to buy a ticket to LA to see a version starring MJ Rodriguez as Audrey in 2019. There are rumors that another remake may be on the way (though possibly squelched by Covid), and I have high hopes that if this picture gets made it will address some of the criticisms further down this page.
These days, this story gives me a half dose of satisfying escapism and half sobering fear for the future of the planet. Why wouldn’t conniving, bloodthirsty plants come to New York to terrorize us and take over the world? Why the hell not? While this is not distinctly a climate disaster, I would categorize sentient plants with a plot for world domination as some sort of natural emergency. And whether it is carnivorous plants, fire, or flood, it is looking bleak unless corporations and governments take enormous, immediate action. (Have you called your senators lately?)
On this most recent rewatching, I loved this movie as much as ever but found myself taking pause over a few themes in the story. But first, some praise for this campy classic.
(This movie came out 35 years ago, but spoilers ahead!)
The cast is out of this world. Ellen Greene, who originated the role on Broadway, is sheer perfection as Audrey. She sings “Somewhere That’s Green” in a way that makes the saccharine and materialistic suburban hellhole of Audrey’s dreams seem soothing, even for a longtime city-dweller like me. If you like her in this (You will. We don’t deserve her.), check her out in Pushing Daisies, a fantastically dark tv show that was tragically canceled after two seasons, but checks a lot of the same boxes that give Little Shop its charm. Rick Moranis, who couldn’t possibly fit the description “meek” better if he tried, is a textbook Seymour.
What he lacks in singing prowess (he ain’t bad, but he pales in comparison to the rest of the cast) he more than makes up for by being lovably pitiful. Orin Scrivello, DDS, Audrey’s loosely Elvis-inspired, sadistic dentist boyfriend (more on that later), is performed by Steve Martin, whose peals of laughter while huffing nitrous oxide are alarming and infectious. He also dons a brunette wig in the film, which is jarring.
An omnipresent chorus reminiscent of the Supremes and performed by Michelle Weeks, Tisha Campbell, and Tichina Arnold guides the viewer through the story in a series of irresistibly catchy 1960s-style doo-wop tunes. If you’re wondering why the music is positively toe-tapping, it was composed by the same team who brought you Disney classics from the ‘90s, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. (Fun fact: Apparently “Somewhere That’s Green” served as the blueprint for “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, both of which are on heavy shower singalong rotation for me.)
I need a whole new paragraph to write about this friggin’ plant. Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops, provided the voice of Audrey II. The vocals are incredibly expressive. His epic range, skillful vocal runs, and playful intonation in each lyric build a full character that’ll make you think, “this flytrap is a fucking asshole but damn has it got pipes.” This depth of vocal presence is key for a character performed by a team of puppeteers. The folks who built and performed the Audrey II puppets are some of the same who worked with director Frank Oz and Jim Henson on The Labyrinth and Muppets productions, having mastered some of the most advanced animatronic puppeteering techniques of the time. The not-at-all-CGI puppet’s lips move with mind-blowing accuracy, achieved by recording sequences of Audrey II speaking at lower frame rates and ramping back up to full speed for viewing, a tidbit the film-nerd puppet-fanatic in me can’t help but share. This clip of a huge team of puppeteers performing the plant is overwhelming, and a little funny too (Cue to 19:47).
The movie also features a slate of top-notch cameos. We get Bill Murray as a masochistic dental patient – a rare treat from before every single one of his cameos was “as himself”. We get John Candy as a zany radio announcer. We get Christopher Guest as a robotically pleasant customer. We get Jim Belushi as a pushy businessman. Truly devoted Muppet nerds will also catch Heather Henson (daughter of Jim) as an agonized dental patient.
I can’t say enough how much I love this movie, but I am painfully aware that there is room for improvement. When you love something, you want it to be the best it can be, right? So let’s get into a few problem areas.
There are a lot of less-than-responsible racial stereotypes in this movie. For instance, the proprietor of Chang’s Exotic Plants, who sells Audrey II to Seymour, wears a Fu Manchu mustache, a western-created cultural phenomenon associated with criminality. The majority of the story takes place in Skid Row, which is a neighborhood in downtown LA that has historically had a high population of unhoused people and services to support them, but here is probably intended to refer to someplace in lower Manhattan. While the poor population of Skid Row is depicted as a variety of races, it is very noticeable that there aren’t any middle or upper-class characters of color in the story, and the characters of color are highly stereotyped and underdeveloped, particularly the omnipresent chorus (who Mr. Mushnick refers to as “urchins” in one scene) and whose sole purpose is to move forward the storylines of the white characters. There is also a bit of Mel Brooksian tongue-in-cheek humor – the Shiva family constantly ordering funeral arrangements from the shop – that falls into the category of not-very-clever-and-in-poor-taste, but not overtly racist.
In an excessively ridiculous musical comedy, there is an expectation that the viewer interprets these types of language plays and visual humor lightly, but most of these choices wouldn’t fly today and shouldn’t have flown then. I’m all for cheap and gimmicky humor (in fact, I love it), but the racist depictions are completely superfluous to the story, adding nothing and detracting from the movie’s overall brilliance. This story deals enormously with class, and there could be an opportunity to address that with nuance in a way that would add welcome societal critique and depth, instead of just lazy, offensive jokes.
Maybe I’ve been living under a rock (probably), but it was news to me just a few years ago that Skid Row referred to a present-day neighborhood. Inspired, I asked an LA-based culture and arts writer that I have the pleasure of knowing, T. Bloom, if they had any suggestions for reputable organizations doing good work in the Skid Row area of LA. They recommended Drive-By Do-Gooders (yes, they do accept donations!), a single-person operated organization that provides needed resources to unhoused people on the outskirts of this area, where other services may not be as accessible. T also happens to be a keen media critic, and they offered some deeper insight on the topic when I mentioned I was writing about Little Shop, which I’m pleased to share here. If you’re intrigued and would like to read T. Bloom’s musings, you can follow their work here!
T noted that the musical’s portrayal of Skid Row as a place one never leaves is apt, noting that LA’s Skid Row is home to thousands of “permanent” residents – a mixture of folks who have ended up there involuntarily via the healthcare system, are on a waitlist for low-income housing, who have moved into the aforementioned housing which is more-or-less in the neighborhood, and some who never intend to leave.
They described that for many folks, the camaraderie and support of the Skid Row community is a powerful reason to stay and stronger than many folks might have living alone elsewhere. The song avoids any sense of this community feeling. Audrey and Seymour belt, “People tell me there’s not a way out of Skid, but believe me–I’ve gotta get out of Skid Row!” and in the choreography, most everyone is standing apart and looking away from one another. Certainly, this is an area for improvement, in which a more complex and holistic portrait of a community could be explored.
The story also showcases some very over-the-top gender stereotypes, my takes on which are neither hot nor novel. It is obvious and exaggerated.
We have opposites in Orin and Seymour. Orin is a mockery of traditional male dominance and aggression to the point of being a sadist. He thinks he’s hot shit and is obsessed with status: there is hell to pay whenever someone forgets to address him as “Doctor” or leaves “DDS” off of his name and he uses his position to abuse Audrey, his patients, and his staff.
Seymour, meanwhile, has no self-esteem whatsoever. He’s presented as weak, directionless, and harmless. He can’t even stand up to Mr. Mushnick, the shop’s owner, who is presented as an ineffectual and greedy father figure. This is what makes Seymour such an easy target for Audrey II’s plot. In a single song, with the same persuasive superpowers endowed upon uninformed content creators on TikTok, Audrey II convinces Seymour to murder his friends and neighbors to satiate its taste for blood. I’m tempted to call Seymour an antihero–he certainly is not a picture of morality–but, honestly, he may be too wishy-washy for that title (to scratch your antihero itch, check out this article by MMH writer Cody).
If we look at Audrey II as a masculine character (which is not hard to do with Stubbs’ voice behind it), it’s a similar picture of masculinity that we see in Orin: aggressively demanding and violent, looking out only for itself, and fixated on status (literally trying to take over the world). The plant is also crass as hell, uttering phrases like “I’m gonna bust your balls” and “tough titty”…though as a self-proclaimed potty mouth, I enjoy this aspect of the character quite a bit.
Audrey is a powerful example of a character stuck in an abusive relationship, which feels especially striking in a musical comedy. She believes she doesn’t deserve a “nice guy” and names the same qualities Orin might when equivocating why she doesn’t leave him—“he’s a rebel but he makes good money,” “he’s a professional,”—but also “he’s the only fella I got.” She’s presented as ditzy and concerned with appearances on the surface, but a surprising amount of depth is added to her character throughout the movie by alluding to her family background, her previous experiences in sex work, and her dreams for the future. The movie includes plenty of jokes that make light of domestic abuse, such as the lyric, “I know Seymour’s the greatest, but I’m dating a semi-sadist” and imagery that emphasizes her vanity in proximity to the abuse, like makeup to cover a black eye and a homemade fishnet sling that matches her outfit.
I feel conflicted about these jokes. They fall in line with a slew of other cheesy, cartoonishly campy gags that fit the comedic style of the movie that I love (e.g. Seymour going completely unnoticed dragging a corpse down from the elevated subway platform), but they make me cringe a little. I can appreciate hyperbolic jokes as a form of critique, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going on here. They are a little too blithe when all made at the same character’s expense.
I’m grateful that there is a tonal change in some sections that address Orin’s abusive behavior. Many scenes that show Orin and Audrey together on-screen break from the absurd comedic horror that naturally accompanies a shit-talking plant and are instead heavy and frightening. The music slows or drops out completely, the dialogue and sound effects are prominent and startling, and the pacing changes to build palpable tension. Scenes in which Audrey is alone or speaking to other characters about her relationship are surprisingly tender and really capture how stuck her character feels (again, Ellen Greene is amazing). You can’t help but root for her when Seymour gruesomely feeds Orin to the plant, but if we view the storyline from Audrey’s perspective it’s all quite traumatic.
Oz deftly handles this range of emotions and serious topics amidst scenes of Rick Moranis singing duets with a bloodthirsty botanical. I would expect nothing less of the storyteller who brought Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear to life.
As mentioned previously, my musings on these stereotypical gender roles aren’t novel. What’s super bizarre to me is how rosy the love story in Little Shop of Horrors is portrayed. It’s fucked up.
Here’s the thing: Seymour is lovable, but he’s completely morally corrupt. I’m not even talking about gaining riches and glory through means as unsavory as murder-by-flora. I’m talking about being honest with his girlfriend – his recently-out-of-an-abusive-relationship-because-he-killed-the-guy girlfriend. First of all, he presses Audrey about what the police told her following Orin’s disappearance, and I don’t get the sense he’s doing so out of concern for her mental state. He then pursues her pretty unceasingly while she’s in a state of shock during “Suddenly Seymour.” “I know things were bad, but now they’re okay” –but they’re really not okay, Seymour. In one of the early scenes, he watches her get ready for a date through his little basement window (she lives across the street from the flower shop, where Seymour stays in the basement). It’s easy to overlook this stuff because Moranis’ performance of the lovable putz is so adorable and because we want to like the central character. But it’s creepy.
The audience is aware from the beginning that Audrey and Seymour are into each other. Audrey fantasizes about a life they might share during “Somewhere That’s Green” and eventually reveals she had feelings for him long before the plant made him wealthy and famous, ushering in a welcome message that being the antithesis of the standard depiction of domineering, forceful masculinity is perfectly acceptable and desirable.
However, the lyrics to the emotional ballad “Suddenly Seymour” leave something to be desired. Audrey’s praise of Seymour in this song describes some of the most basic expectations for healthy human relationships: “He don’t give me orders, he don’t condescend,” “is here to provide me sweet understanding,” “Seymour’s my friend”. It paints us a picture of a type of masculinity we don’t see enough and Seymour has these traits, sure, but good god the bar is low! It is important to note that Audrey doesn’t describe his fame or financial success as a reason for her feelings even once during this song.
Despite this, Seymour still believes Audrey only loves him because of the fortune the plant has raked in. In “The Meek Shall Inherit” he sings, “without my plant, she might not love me anymore.” So, he continues feeding Audrey II. He doesn’t resolve to kill the plant until after Audrey spells out for him that his newfound success and wealth aren’t the reason for her feelings. Worse, in the stage play, he doesn’t come clean to Audrey about murdering Orin and Mr. Mushnick until the plant blabs it to her and he has no choice but to be honest. In the movie version, he never does and she marries him without knowing his heinous crimes. What a piece of shit! In either case, Audrey chooses to be with Seymour through a veil of deceit. That should make us mad!
Of course, Seymour has been heavily and skillfully manipulated by Audrey II to behave in this way. But Audrey II is the villain and is supposed to be dastardly and evil, so that’s fine. However, every cinematic storytelling technique tells us to walk away praising Seymour for trying his very best, and it’s not the vibe. Seymour is corrupt AF and the Hollywood happy ending feels disingenuous to the natural direction of the story. There’s no way we can accept that this guy walks away scot-free with the girl after what he’s done. I much prefer the ending in the original stage musical in which the plants are successful in their plot for world domination. Oz preferred and shot this ending too, but it was nixed after test screening audiences reacted to it negatively. Much to my ecstasy, they recently released a director’s cut of the movie with the original ending, which includes some fantastic model and miniature work.
Amidst all this bad news rooted in fear and greed, we gotta ask ourselves where messages that dehumanize people and uplift jerks are being reinforced. And it might hurt when we find them in places we would prefer to ignore because we really like them (our favorite movie musical, perhaps), but that’s tough titty, kid.