Little Shop of Horrors didn’t seem like a great idea when book writer and lyricist Howard Ashman presented the campy, 1960 film about a florist and his man-eating plant as his next project to his sister, Sarah Ashman Gillespie.
“I was genuinely scared for Howard and wanted to protect him,” Gillespie recalls.
And with good reason: Ashman’s previous show God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater had been a hit Off-Off Broadway but failed when it transferred to a larger venue.
So, as Ashman said in an interview at the time, “I decided that the next thing I did [would have] a cast of not more than eight, and that it would have some sort of large gimmick so that people would have to notice.”
And so Little Shop was born, complete with a series of Venus fly trap-inspired puppets capable of devouring the show’s cast. Ashman transformed the quirky film into a musical with his most frequent collaborator, composer Alan Menken, preserving the film’s offbeat humor while adding a more dramaturgically-sound story and characters with loads more heart.
The show became a near-instant hit, but Ashman wisely demanded the show remain Off-Broadway.
In the years since, Little Shop of Horrors has become one of the biggest and most beloved musicals in the canon, with hundreds of productions around the world, a big-budget film adaptation, and a Broadway revival that featured a hydraulic plant capable of extending over the audience’s heads.
But Gillespie and Ashman’s life partner Bill Lauch, who together manage the late writer’s catalog, made sure that Little Shop’s next major production would return to its modest origins, which led to the new Off-Broadway revival taking root at the 270-seat Westside Theatre, directed by Tony winner Michael Mayer and starring Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard, and Christian Borle.
“We’ve been told so many times it’s impossible,” says Lauch. “Everyone we spoke to said Off-Broadway wasn’t workable. Then we sat down with [producer] Tom Kirdahy two-and-a-half years ago, and he said, ‘We’ll figure it out!’”
But why does Little Shop work best in a smaller space? Probably because the intimacy helps the show operate somewhere between outlandish comedy and earnestness. As Ashman put it, Little Shop is most enjoyable when it’s at its most honest.
“By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private ‘B’ movie—not because she’s ‘commenting’ to the audience on the silliness of her situation.”
According to Gillespie, Mayer gets this aesthetic in spades.
“They have made a Little Shop that gives the emotional frisson of the original while avoiding clichés,” she says, “and allowing a new generation to have the same sense of discovery we enjoyed over 30 years ago.”