Tuesday, December 19, 2006

 

Does this look inanimate to you?


On the 19th day in the month of December in a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a very entertaining treat to its very existence. This hysterically funny joy came, as such joys often do, in the local movie theater…


By Edward Copeland
Twenty years ago today, one of the most enjoyable films of my moviegoing life was released and while movie musicals have seen somewhat of a resurgence of late, for me, none hold a candle to Frank Oz's great film version of Little Shop of Horrors.


Chicago was fun. Moulin Rouge was designed for viewers with the attention spans of gnats. The Phantom of the Opera was a bore. I could never bring myself to see Rent, because I loved the stage version too much and could see that Chris Columbus was going to blow its transfer to the screen. Dreamgirls had good performances but turned out to be an overlong botch and Nine — that sounded like a terrible idea for turning from a musical to a movie when I first heard about it and then the film managed to be even worse than my low expectations. The two best attempts at stage adaptations were undermined by bad casting — Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd and John Travolta's horrid drag performance in the film version of the musical Hairspray. Really, of the three best recent attempts at movie musicals one was animated — 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut — and the other two barely got seen — 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and 2003's Camp.

However, re-watching Little Shop of Horrors , the movie still holds up as one of the best movie musicals to come out in the post-death-of-movie-musicals era. To think that a Roger Corman 1960 quickie filmed in a little more than two days could decades later inspire such a winning musical still astounds me. Granted, my exposure to Little Shop of Horrors came during my formative years in high school, I was pleased to see how much I still enjoyed the film when I sat down to watch it again for the first time in years, though it did produce a bit of sadness in me that Howard Ashman isn't here anymore to keep producing work such as this. His great book and lyrics teamed with Alan Menken's music are infectious and launched the team's work on the resurgence of Disney animation with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before Ashman's death from AIDS during the production of Aladdin, when Tim Rice was brought in and future Disney animated scores lost all of Ashman's wit and subversive qualities and became Disneyfied, saccharine and hackneyed. Still, we should be grateful for the Ashman lyrics we did manage to hear, especially his infectious score for Little Shop of Horrors, often sung through the Greek chorus of Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell.


One thing that really struck me upon re-visiting the movie is how great that set is to behold. It simultaneously seems like a stage show transferred to the big screen while opening up with its wonderfully artificial yet three-dimensional rendering of Skid Row thanks to the imaginative and magnificent production design by Roy Walker (who served the same role on Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining) aided by art director Stephen Spence and set decorator Tessa Davies. Putting some of the finishing touches on the film's canvas are the spot-on costumes designed by Marit Allen, John Jympson's editing and Robert Paynter's cinematography. Director Frank Oz (the Muppeteer best known as the voice of Yoda and Miss Piggy) never directed a movie better than this and Little Shop shows an astounding display of cinematic gifts on his part that he's unfortunately never come close to matching. Of course, what really makes this movie soar are the many great performances, led by Rick Moranis as Seymour Krelborn who discovers the mysterious plant with a hidden agenda.

Moranis' lovesick nebbish is a delight (and his singing isn't half bad either) as he longs for the delightfully daffy Audrey (Ellen Greene, repeating her stage triumph) and finds that his way to her heart could involve murder and world domination at the behest of a plant from outer space. Seymour even goes so far as to name the plant Audrey II after his unrequited love interest, who unfortunately is embroiled in an abusive relationship with one Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin in one of his greatest performances). Greene gets some of the show's best numbers such as "Somewhere That's Green," where she longs for a domestic life similar to those that look so perfect on TV, and "Suddenly Seymour," her duet with Moranis where they declare their feelings for one another once Scrivello is no longer in the picture, though of course a bigger villain stands in the way of their happiness. We still get to see Greene from time to time. IMDb list her most recent credit as a role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless, but it's a shame that she wasn't able to turn this star turn into bigger and better things either in theater or the movies.


Martin's Scrivello manages to be funny and scary. His scenes turn out so superbly they almost threaten to take over the entire movie. His set pieces within Orin's dental office (Did I forget to mention that he's a dentist? Relax! Want some nitrous oxide? Suit yourself.) are priceless. His sadistic dentist could prove just a one-note joke (with one great song) if it weren't for the scenes here, most especially when he encounters the world's most masochistic patient in Bill Murray, playing the role that a young Jack Nicholson had in the original 1960 nonmusical version. It's not often that you can say that someone plays a part better than Jack did, but Murray pulls it off here. Then again, has anyone else ever tried to play a Nicholson part on film after he's put his stamp on it other than Murray? (Of course, since I originally wrote this piece five years ago, we had the late Heath Ledger take on The Joker and win a posthumous Oscar for it.) This brilliant comic duet — where the sadist finds a masochist offensive — remains laugh-out-loud funny to this very day.

However, of all the great cast members, none prove more important that one who only appears as a voice — the great Levi Stubbs of Four Tops fame (who, alas, left us since I originally wrote this) giving voice to Audrey II. From the moment Audrey II begins to speak in Stubbs' great baritone, seducing Seymour with his plead to "Feed Me," to his climactic showstopper "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" (the coolest Oscar-nominated song until "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut usurped the title), Stubbs owns this movie. I'd also be neglectful not to mention the great work of the late Vincent Gardenia as the owner of the flower shop where Seymour and Audrey work and cameos by the likes of the late John Candy, Christopher Guest and Joe Flaherty. Of course, I know purists of the stage show will regret that test audiences made Oz and the studio relent and nix the more pessimistic ending where Audrey II wins and everyone ends up as plant food, but the movie entertains so thoroughly, I'm prepared to forgive it. So here's to those integral to the film who have left us in the past quarter-century since its release: Levi Stubbs, Howard Ashman, Vincent Gardenia, John Candy, producer Denis Holt, associate producer David Orton, composer Miles Goodman, director of photography Robert Paynter, film editor Jim Jympson, set decorator Tessa Davies, costume designer Marit Allen and any other members of the cast and crew who might have left us that I missed and to the ones still with us on the 20th25th anniversary of this underrated gem. Here's hoping you all are or will be somewhere that's green.


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Comments:
Great tribute. I have a personal tie to the show because I got to play Seymour in two different (obviously non-professional) productions back when I was young (and just a bad little kid...). Yes, people actually paid to hear me sing. For that, one sin was absolved for them. But only a little one.

I would love to see the original ending of the movie. I found the ending they used to be rather terrible, to be honest. It made me think of Mervyn Le Roy's absolutely absurd and horrible ending to The Bad Seed which, like LSOH, the studio (Warners in both cases) made them alter from the stage version.

I saw the off-Broadway show twice, and the Broadway version once. It's the only musical I've seen more than once on stage.

And Levi made a wonderful Audrey II.
 
I saw the film version first, so my response to the ending is different. I didn't see Little Shop on stage for several years until after I'd seen the Oz film, and I was dissapointed with the way things were brought to a close(given, it was a cruddy high school production, but my opinion remained unchanged when I saw a Broadway revival featuring Hunter Foster and Kerry Butler in 2004).

The stage ending seems like too much of a downer given how much fun everything that's come beforehand has been. Sometimes a happy ending can feel like a cop-out, but in Little Shop's case, it feels in keeping with the spirit of things. Seymour and Audrey are underdogs you can't help rooting for - do we really need to see them devoured by a plant? It's a comedy, not a tragedy!
 
Seymour and Audrey are underdogs you can't help rooting for - do we really need to see them devoured by a plant? It's a comedy, not a tragedy!

My castmates and I had this same argument.

To answer the first question: YES. Audrey sacrifices herself to the plant so Seymour can be a success (with all due respect to feminists, it's the Sixties!) and it ties in with the very ironic "Somewhere that's Green." Audrey gets her wish--she winds up there.

Seymour is a murderer--he is complicit in two deaths--so he has to go too, if only to teach him a lesson about making deals with the devil.

It's a comedy AND a tragedy, very tongue in cheek. On stage, the deaths are easier to deal with, I think, because we know the actors will be back to take their bows. In a movie, however, you're dead forever, so that's probably why they changed it for Oz's movie.
 
I saw LITTLE SHOP at the theatre, with a bunch of hicks (and my teenage bud Mike Brown) in Sullivan, MO twenty years ago. It was clear that the rest of audience not only did not get it, but that They were expecting a horror film. How or why this was, I do not know.

But I do know I left the theatre on Cloud Nine while everyone else was pissed off. Good for them. I hope they headed straight for the video store and rented a copy of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE. I beelined for the nearest WAL-MART and picked up the LITTLE SHOP soundtrack on cassette and listened to it 'til the tape wore out.

(Despite all my theatre experience, I never managed to do the play. Damn you, Odie...)
 
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