In 1986, four years after its modest off-Broadway opening, Little Shop of Horrors -- a campy, '60s pop-inspired creepshow of a musical based on schlock filmmaker Roger Corman's ultracheap film of the same name -- was again transformed into a popular, expensive, and extraordinarily well-made bit of musical cinema starring such known commodities as Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Vincent Gardenia.
Set in a hopelessly broken urban landscape where "the hopheads flop in the snow," the film flirted hard with the play's original themes: addiction, sadistic relationships, greed, and mankind's eminent corruptibility. But Hollywood wasn't ready to bank on a zany comedy where all the characters are ultimately devoured by a flesh-eating plant bent on world conquest, so the ending was altered. In typical comic-book fashion, the boy got the girl, the monster got blown up, and all of the baddies got what was coming to them. And so the play's greatest irony was rendered impotent.
Little Shop's chorus, three cool black chicks more Motown than Greek, provide the framework for this candy-coated, but politically savvy, morality tale. In an often-reprised number, they sing about "the meek," who, according to the often-quoted (and perhaps misinterpreted) Bible verse, will someday inherit the earth:
They say the meek shall inherit -- You know the book doesn't lie
It's not a question of merit; it's not demand and supply
You know the meek are gonna get what's coming to them by and by.
In the stage version of Little Shop, the meekest characters are used, abused, and ultimately eaten as they feed any number of beasts: the market, the media, the status quo, and eventually Audrey II, a blood-sucking, limb-chomping plant discovered by supergeek Seymour Krelbourn, a mild-mannered skid-row florist with a slim-to-no chance of ever pulling himself out of the gutter. Grim metaphors are piled up like syrup-drenched pancakes -- an exhilarating, relatively low-budget antidote to the coked-up, trickle-down '80s, an era famous for glorifying corporate ruthlessness and rampant consumerism.
From the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Little Shop was produced frequently by regional theaters across the country and at least five times in Memphis. A recent Broadway revival, criticized by some for its lack of intimacy, has pumped new life into a production well on its way to becoming an old warhorse. It has done so at a time when the conditions that made the play so prescient in the 1980s have returned, and in force.
The Broadway tour of Little Shop of Horrors opened at The Orpheum February 15th and runs through February 20th.