Unexpectedly, the opening of the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors hits a lot harder in spring 2020 than it did before. In the prologue, green writing scrolls up the screen, informing us that at a point in the not-too-distant past, “the human race encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.” Obviously the threat in question is of the alien-plant variety (spoiler alert: the plant is an alien) and not of the pandemic variety, but it’s still a little much. Rewatching the film, I found myself surprised and a little pulled out of the macabre delight. These Remote Rewinds are supposed to focus on escapist entertainment in a time when escape is hard to come by. Meanwhile, Little Shop of Horrors is over here like, “Okay, I hear you, but what if you seriously contemplated mortal peril?” Is Little Shop basically Contagion but with songs and horticulture? Maybe so. Quite a shock. Should I have watched The Music Man instead? Perhaps, but when Harold Hill starts singing about trouble with a capital T, my mind would probably snap back to current events anyway. Best to fight for the future with Seymour (Rick Moranis!), Audrey (Ellen Greene!), and the other residents of Skid Row.
If you want to get technical about it, there are arguably three openings to Little Shop: the newly-ominous prologue, the title song, and minutes later, “Downtown.” I’ve always liked this about Little Shop, firstly because Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s songs are so great. Secondly, because by starting and then starting and then starting a third time, the viewer gets introduced to multiple ways of experiencing the film. On the outside, it’s a campy horror story. But then the Doo-Wop girls show up as a Greek chorus and frame the film as a musical morality tale. And finally, in “Downtown,” we meet the down-on-their-luck central characters who are pining for a way out in the grand tradition of musical theater heroines and heroes since the beginning of time, which we date to the birth of Ethel Merman. Little Shop doesn’t limit itself to one stylistic lane, but rather inhabits all three to varying degrees at once. It’s like a musical theater turducken: a Broadway show inside of a Greek tragedy inside of Roger Corman’s original B-movie shocker.
With that in mind, I pushed aside the too-on-the-nose connections between the headlines and skipped right to the next layer of the turducken: the Greek chorus. Whomst among us would not want to be followed around by a sequins-clad 1960s girl group? The Doo-Wop girls have always been Little Shop‘s most ingenious component and in the Frank Oz-directed film they nearly steal the show. Played by Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell, and Michelle Weeks, the Doo-Wop chorus is wise and wise-cracking, all-knowing and arch. In their interpretation, the worst decisions and the basest human instincts are, if not palatable, at least harmonious. By placing the burden of delivering the inevitable—good, bad, and indeterminate—on the girl group, Little Shop shears off the cynicism of its story. It doesn’t excuse any of the events of the film—y’know, murders and such—but it shifts them into a new context.
Frankly, I could use a similar shift right now. While watching, I wondered if Twitter was a modern equivalent of a Greek chorus. I’ve decided that idea is malarkey. Twitter is many things: constant information, constant cancelation, the worst possible takes, many dogs, and front-facing-camera comedy. But it is not an all-seeing, omniscient body, telling the truth with a Stax Records beat. One of the most frustrating and terrifying aspects of this moment is that we want someone who actually knows what’s going on and what’s going to happen and can communicate it effectively. Ideally this someone would be a trio of black women, as the Doo-Wop girls are traditionally cast.
Alas, life is not a turducken and there is no chorus. When my high school did Little Shop, the director made the choice to increase the number of Doo-Wop girls from three to seven because she needed to fill more roles. It worked out fine, I guess, but the sight of a small army of young women invading the stage and belting out dire warnings about the future remains hilarious to me. Bertolt Brecht was like, “Yikes! This is intense!” Me, I didn’t appear onstage at all. I wasn’t going to bring it up, but since you asked I was cast as Audrey II, the plant, after a competitive audition process. A villain edit! I was only the voice of the plant; a strapping soccer player was responsible for the onstage puppetry. It’s well-established that I don’t do my own stunts.
In high school, we did the original ending of the stage musical, which sees Audrey fed to the plant and Seymour lose his climactic battle with Audrey II, thus getting gobbled up as well. (Yes, you could say I was the star of the show.) The 1986 film originally ended this way as well. Audrey II eats Seymour and Audrey and goes on to take over the world. But audiences weren’t sold and that footage was scrapped in favor of a happy ending which finds Audrey snatched from the literal jaws of death, Seymour electrocuting the plant, and the two Skid Row residents escaping to a cute Hooverville to live happily ever after. The film closes with the Doo-Wop girls strutting across the lawn as the camera pans down to a baby Audrey II growing in the garden.
It makes sense that an audience would like the theatrical ending better. No matter the moral questions or mortal peril in the story, one tends to want to leave a musical with a sense of wellbeing. While there’s a fiendish flourish to giving the Doo-Wop girls and their all-seeing eyes the last laugh, it doesn’t come across as ominous. It reaffirms that the chorus isn’t there to judge, per se, but simply to remark. It’s a reminder that, for better or worse, we humans are responsible for writing, or rewriting, the end of the story.