Tony takes a cutting.
Fairy tales are our collective memory, and our collective wisdom. They show us human archetypes, and teach us lessons of behaviour. Perhaps it’s indicative of a dark strain of honesty in human beings then that quite a few of them involve the nominated ‘hero’ of the piece getting away with behaviour which the villain wouldn’t, simply by virtue of being ‘pure of heart.’
Take Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance. Not only is Jack dilettante in his duties while his mother starves to keep him fed, the boy brings back a handful of ‘magic beans’ in exchange for the last cow they have. What’s more, when the magic beans grow a magic beanstalk, he climbs it, and turns his thoughts to – what? Not diplomacy with the giant he finds up there. Not reverence. No – petty larceny, stealing golden eggs by the armful, and eventually trying to make off with the goose that lays them, without a please or thank you. Jack is a housebreaker, pure and simple, but we root for him because he aims to make life better for his mother.
When it comes to the re-invention of classic fairy tales, they don’t come much more wonderful than Little Shop of Horrors, released in 1986. Based on a stage musical, based on an earlier, much straighter movie, it takes the essential premise of Jack and the Beanstalk and weaves a story of desperate poverty in the American age of prosperity through it, with some kicky songs. It’s the story of people with nothing, aspiring to a tiny, snapshot version of the American Dream, and a malevolent plant that seems to hold the key to all their hopes, but exacts a terrible price for its assistance – in some way playing the fairy tale role of a fairy godplant or genie.
Thirty years on, it’s not hard to see why Little Shop of Horrors caught the public imagination. Released in 1986, in the middle of the Reagan-Thatcher ‘economic miracle’ that divided both nations into the absurdly rich and the comparatively poor, the story of Seymour Krelborn, the luckless florist’s assistant down in the Skid Row of the fifties, and his love for the sweet but much-abused Audrey had a Cinderella vibe that many could relate to. The story, like the earlier successful stage musical-turned-movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also paid strong tributes to what was by then an American cultural heritage unique to the nation – the sci-fi B-movies of the thirties, forties and fifties - and took its musical cues from the doo-wop, rock and roll and Motown traditions.
Rick Moranis was the man of the moment – an unusual fact, given that he’d made his name mostly playing geeks or people with complete charisma bypasses. But in Seymour, he gives us his Cinderella, his Jack, his everyguy of a type and generation, and he brings a trademark warmth to the role, despite what Seymour is encouraged to do throughout the course of the movie. Ellen Greene balances the sweetness at the heart of Audrey with an abusive past and present, as the kind of young woman who’s never been allowed to believe she deserves better than the likes of Steve Martin’s Orin Scrivello, a self-professed sadist who got into dentistry as a way to ‘make his natural tendencies pay.’ Slowly, the two find their way to each other, through the offices of the genie that is Audrey II – the most evil Muppet in history.
Oh yes, Audrey II. In the drab hopelessness of Skid Row, there is Audrey II. A combination of the genius of Frank Oz on directing duties and the utterly unstoppable, phenomenal power of Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of the Four Tops, Audrey II is everything Skid Row, and everything Seymour, are lacking – colour, power, vitality and charisma. Stubbs invests the well-realised and creepily seductive Devil-plant with more raunch, more life, more oomph than any other character in the insanely star-studded movie. It’s an anchoring performance, and, despite all the moral lessons and kicky songs, Little Shop of Horrors is a subversive musical because, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Stubbs makes the villain of the piece the most interesting thing in it, the most eminently watchable and fantastically funky reason for spinning the disc and watching it all the way through.
Audrey II fills a lot of roles in the movie besides the anchor of charisma that Stubbs’ voice brings. At first acting as Seymour’s ‘magic beans,’ the plant appeals to the amateur botanist because it looks so helpless, and it only begins to thrive when Seymour pricks himself on a thorn and bleeds on it. When it begins to grow, and speak, and sing, Audrey II becomes the Robin Williams genie of the piece, promising Seymour everything he’s ever dreamed of – including the love of the good woman he wants. But Audrey II has another crucial role, because unlike most genies or fairy godparents, the plant’s help comes with ‘messy, nasty strings.’ It needs feeding to work its charms, and that means killing people and feeding them to the plant. That’s the moral question at the core of Little Shop of Horrors – what would you do when presented with ‘the Devil,’ an avatar of temptation that can give you everything you want, but demands you cross the lines of morality you hold dear. How far would you go to get out of Skid Row?
It’s crucial, in fairy tale terms, that Seymour never actually kills anyone to feed Audrey II’s need for blood. He goes armed to kill Orin, but the dentist then dies from a self-administered nitrous oxide hit. But with the man dying in front of him, begging for help, Seymour does nothing, letting it happen because letting it happen gets him what he wants. Similarly when the plant needs more feeding, Seymour doesn’t actively kill Mr Mushnik, the florist who took him in as a boy. But he does cause Mushnik to back into Audrey II’s waiting, teeth-filled maw. The question of whether he actually transgresses his moral boundaries is settled in a great musical number – with offers coming in from all over to tour with Audrey II, to host network gardening shows, to get all the fame and fortune he could possibly want and more, Seymour sings out his dilemma. Taking the offers means more killing, more blood for the plant, an empire built on murder and deceit – but, like all people who’ve never had luck, and then get some, he worries that ‘without my plant, she might not love me any more.’ And he signs, committing himself to a future of murder, so he can lift Audrey out of Skid Row, and give her the life he believes she deserves. In a gorgeous moment, the chorus of offer-makers change their pitch the moment he signs, snapping straight from wheedling and tempting to dark and judgmental in the space of one chord-change, declaring ‘You know the meek are gonna get what’s coming to them, by and by.’
It's only when Audrey II reveals that the future is going to be darker, and noticeably shorter than anyone imagines that Seymour finally does the right thing. Having agreed to a life of murdering people one by one, when faced with the prospect of the plant taking over the world, its seedlings eating everyone, Seymour adopts the heroic mode and finds a way to defeat it.
At the end, of course, the two people who were fed to Audrey II are still dead. Audrey and Seymour are still in love and together, and have gained enough from the exposure the plant brought them to move out of Skid Row to the suburbs (their tiny, immaculate version of having made it big in the land of opportunity), so like Jack and his golden egg-laying goose, Seymour transgresses the moral codes of his environment, but is able to keep the rewards. His good heart, his eventual choosing of a side, and the ordinariness of his dreams allow him to still be our hero, and to keep the rewards of his flirtation with the dark side, despite the people left dead as a result.
It’s often been said that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is what happens when you write a musical with enough pacing problems that people start making up their own lines to fill the gaps. On that rationale, Little Shop of Horrors is what happens when you write a musical and get it right. Thirty years after the film was released, the songs are still singable, the fairy tale still appeals, and Levi Stubbs still brings more charisma to Audrey II than any other musical character in history, pushing even Tim Curry’s Frank N Furter into second place. Crack out your copy of Little Shop of Horrors today, and get funky to the apocalyptic beats of the mean, green mother from outer space one more time.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk