by Sara Wong
Nominated by Aram Mrjoian for COMPLIT 141: Great Performances
In its robust confrontation of genre tropes and character agency in "Little Shop of Horrors," Sara's essay offers not only a compelling critique of problematic narrative patterns, but also addresses how capitalistic ideals are promoted or challenged in popular culture. Certainly, Sara excels at developing a clear argument with well-curated research, but it is Sara's attention to detail on the line level, a flood of vibrant syntax and precise diction, that makes the essay a true standout.
- Aram Mrjoian
Little Shop of Horrors and the Consequence of Choice
An alarming number of American stories flaunt that if you’re a good enough person and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” you can make anything happen—think Cinderella, Annie, or even Hamilton, stories where poor, hardworking protagonists achieve what they deserve as a result of their perseverance and moral character. The cult classic Little Shop of Horrors, however, ends with the maniacal laughter of a villainous plant that eats every hardworking protagonist, and it’s as equally refreshing as it is harrowing. Little Shop of Horrors, first premiered in 1982, is a horror comedy show inspired by a 1960 film of the same name. The musical, with a score by Alan Menken and accompanying lyrics by Howard Ashman (Spaeth 39), was later given a popular film adaption in 1986, and while both versions of the musical share the same fundamental story beats as the original film, the musical’s changes quickly derail the foundation into a completely different story. Both the 1982 and 1986 Little Shop of Horrors musicals expand upon their source material by turning a narrative of situational circumstance into one of active choice through added character motivations for both the protagonists and villains revealed through song, and this restructuring of the same basic story allows the musical to present its social commentary on the interactions between class struggle, the inescapability of poverty under capitalism, and the issues of racial segregation prominent during the original film’s era of conception to ultimately assert that meritocracy is a myth.
Well-crafted musicals cannot operate without character choice and autonomy, but a simpler, purely comedic narrative like that of the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors can not only get away with having passive characters, but use their passivity to the advantage of humor. There are only a few relevant, key players to the film: Seymour, a dorky florist on Skid Row who accidentally cultivates a man-eating plant, Mushnik, Seymour’s boss, and Audrey, Seymour’s coworker and the object of his affection. The film opens with Mushnik firing Seymour for messing up a floral order, and in protest, Seymour brings an exotic plant to the flower shop in hopes of attracting business. Mushnik ridicules the idea because the plant is feeble and dying, but after Seymour accidentally pricks his finger and feeds the plant his blood, the plant begins to grow outrageously and draws in new, happily paying customers. Seymour grows increasingly anemic as the flower shop begins to succeed financially as a result of the plant’s mysterious growth, so after a day of work, he takes out his anger by throwing a rock into the distance. In classic, unrealistic black-and-white movie gag fashion, the rock hurtles into the head of a drunk man and he collapses onto railroad tracks with an oncoming train. Horrified by his unintentional manslaughter, Seymour hurriedly disposes of the body by means of feeding Audrey Jr. once more. Two more accidental, circumstantial murders follow, marking the passivity of this iteration of Seymour. The truth of the original Little Shop of Horrors film is that none of the characters really do anything. It’s like watching puppets. Movie Seymour just happens to be unlucky and has no real motivations, Movie Mushnik learns of his murdering spree and stays silent about it for the money, Movie Audrey, hardly a character at all, is simply there to fill an obligatory love interest quota, and Audrey Jr. is merely a carnivorous plant with only enough complexity to say “feed me.” There are themes viewers can extrapolate from the film, namely how greed can be all-consuming, but there’s never an attempt for larger commentary on skid row or poverty. Humor was the only goal.
In contrast, the 1982 musical flips all of the aforementioned character scripts through the power of song. Passivity is no longer an option. The same core characters return to the musical fully developed and more complex, and the music of the show marks their growth. Aside from directing the music of Little Shop of Horrors, Alan Menken is most well known for composing the magic into the Disney Renaissance era with films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules (Spaeth 39). Aside from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney Renaissance musicals rely heavily on happy endings to promote the “anything is possible” messaging mentioned previously. Each of these film’s protagonists gets what they want by the end, and the audience is formulaically told what they want through a heartfelt song commonly referred to as, rather fittingly, the “I want” song. For example, Ariel from The Little Mermaid sings the line “I want to be where the people are” in “Part of Your World” and Belle from Beauty and the Beast sings “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” in the musical’s opening number. It’s not important that “I want” songs are always this blunt, as these numbers in Little Shop of Horrors function just the same with more subtlety, but the presence of an “I want” song highlights a protagonist’s desires. Desires, then, spur the characters into action. “I want” songs are unique to the musical structure. When viewing a story on stage, the audience has a suspension of disbelief and accepts that narratively, no one is actually breaking out in song and dance, but instead, characters sing when their feelings are too great or heavy to be spoken. This concept allowed the musical freedom to explore each character with greater complexity than the film. In short, the characters actually care about their surrounding environment. They want things, so they act. They move. The plot moves with them, now armed with vehicles to add social commentary to a previously shallow narrative, and this is where the largest distinction between the musical and its source material begins.
While Seymour doesn’t have his own dedicated “I want” song, his solo feature in the big opening number, “Skid Row (Downtown),” fills this purpose. He sings of how he’s always been poor, gives exposition of how Mushnik took him in and employed him as an orphan, and tells the audience what he wants most: to get out of Skid Row. The lyrics “Show me how and I will, I'll get outta here / I’ll start climbing up hill and get outta here,” along with “I'd move heaven and hell to get outta skid / I'll do I dunno what to get outta skid / But a hell of a lot to get outta skid” highlight his willingness to go to any lengths to pull himself out of poverty. The Seymour from the original 1960’s film never directly expresses his desperation or anguish, and as a result, is not motivated by such a strong internal desire in the way the musical Seymour is. This desire is what leads Seymour to choose, again and again, to take the lives of others in exchange for the love, financial security, and success promised by Audrey II. It should be noted that musical Seymour’s dream of a better life is not based on greed and later evolves into the dream of building a better life with Audrey, whom he is hopelessly in love with. His dorky demeanor, relatable dreams of upward mobility, and his pure affections for Audrey shape Seymour into a remarkably “normal” and sympathetic protagonist, which benefits the musical’s messaging in a distinct “disidentification” strategy discussed by Christen Mandracchia in “‘Don’t feed the plants!’: Monstrous normativity and disidentification in Little Shop of Horrors.” Mandracchia described disidentification as “the way that Little Shop operates as a satire: taking something or someone associated with dominant ideology and exposing the darkness that lies underneath. It does not identify with dominant ideology nor counter-identify with it” (Mandracchia 312). It is a strategy of juxtaposition to reveal a truth—if funny, loving, All-American, Seymour can quickly evolve into a brutal murderer for the sake of upward mobility, there’s clearly a key factor other bootstrap ideology stories are forgetting to take into account.
Audrey has what is perhaps the most famous and clearest example of an “I want” song in Little Shop of Horrors with “Somewhere That’s Green.” After a scene reveals that Audrey’s boyfriend, Orin the Dentist, physically and verbally abuses her, she sits down and sings about a place she and someone kinder, like Seymour, could be together at last. In the middle of the song, she says the following: “Oh no. It's just a daydream of mine…Just a little street in a little suburb, far far from urban Skid Row. The sweetest, greenest place -- where everybody has the same little lawn out front and the same little flagstone patio out back. All the houses are so neat and pretty... 'cause they all look just alike.” While Audrey never specifically mentions race or gender, she describes a dream of homogeneity reminiscent of white exodus, or the extensive migration of white people from urban areas to mass-produced suburbs. Amidst the Civil Rights Movement, suburbia represented an alternate reality of white, middle class “purity” virtually unattainable to people of color due to systemic economic factors and discriminatory housing practices, and causal estimates suggest that from 1950 to 1960, each Black arrival drove approximately 2.7 white people out of the cities (Boustan 417). This aligns with the “disidentification” of Seymour as a flawed protagonist; Audrey's character, too, goes against the dominant ideology by revealing the unconsciously racist beliefs of the white women of her time deemed the moral standard. “Somewhere That’s Green” contains a multitude of references to 50’s gadgets and icons as Audrey dreams of having her own chain link fence, a washer and dryer, a huge twelve-inch TV to watch I Love Lucy on, and more. For being a song in response to her miserable, abusive relationship, Audrey only mentions a potential partnership with someone like Seymour once, and the majority of the song instead focuses on material possessions. Scholars like Traci J. Cohen have noted that Little Shop of Horrors uses Audrey to warn against commodity fetishism, or how the human labor required to produce material goods is forgotten once commodities are assigned price tags and social value. In an essay analyzing the movie-musical adaptation of “Somewhere That’s Green,” Cohen writes “By obsessing on material possessions, one may not be able to actually realize their dreams of gaining these possessions…So, in the end humans will continually search for a connection with their fellow man, even if they destroyed this connection to gain class status” (Cohen 102, 103), which reflects the real reason Audrey stays with Orin—he makes good money, and Seymour’s just a skid row florist. This signifies Audrey’s core desire as the financial security of a suburban life, and this desire translates into the choice to sacrifice her body to Audrey II near the climax of the musical. Her dying words to Seymour, after narrowly escaping an attack by Audrey II, are a request to feed her to the plant so Audrey II will survive for Seymour’s upcoming television deals and advertisements. Audrey’s motivations lead her to prioritize the financial success of a man she only loved briefly over respect for her own life and body. She represents the ideal woman of the 50’s: meek, demure, committed, and complacent to the patriarchy, but the narrative of Little Shop of Horrors immediately breaks down this ideal following her on-stage death. After all, her sacrifice was for nothing. Audrey II overpowers everyone, and the musical ends with the inevitability of misery. And because Audrey II manipulates the rest of the characters into giving it what it wants, Audrey II triumphs as both the villain and the representation of the musical’s strongest theme with a different kind of song—not “I want,” but instead “I am.”
Protagonists receive “I want” songs to develop their characters and relay their relatability, but in turn, antagonists are often the stars of “I am” songs, powerful numbers that assert that place in the narrative as unstoppable forces. “Feed Me (Git It),” the number in which Audrey II convinces Seymour to commit his first murder, features Audrey II belting multiple examples of these “I am” lines, such as “I'm the plant who can make it all real,” and “Hey I’m your genie / I’m your friend / I’m your willin’ slave.” It’s abundantly clear Audrey II is a manipulator and a representation of a capitalist system—Audrey II promises Seymour everything he wants, but it can only do so in exchange for the blood of other people. The carnivorous plant in the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors, dubbed Audrey Junior, does not have much of a personality, but the musical’s songs give Audrey II its own musical style, voice, extra dialogue, volition, and an end goal. The essay "‛Feed Me!’: Power Struggles and the Portrayal of Race in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’” notes that Audrey II even makes its own choices in the musical adaptations with its diet, preferring to consume those who have violated what is socially accepted before tackling its end goal of world domination. The musical presents these early deaths as punishment in a sense, with Audrey II devouring Orin for his cruelty toward Audrey and Mushnik for his greed (Jensen 63). It may seem that Audrey II works in Seymour’s favor, only targeting the socially transgressive, but it soon targets the love of his life. Seymour can do all that he can to pull himself up by his bootstraps, but in the end, nothing can save him from the plant, or the capitalist system that knows no humanity, only consumption.
The 1982 musical ends with the death of the entire cast and news that Audrey II’s have been sold across the nation, thrived in their blood lust, and taken over the world. The tragic fate of these characters is simply reflective of capitalism’s devastating effects on individuals regardless of what conscious choices they make to better themselves. In short, it’s foolish to think upward mobility is as simple as motivation, and the 1982 Little Shop of Horrors depicts this in a perfect lens of satire. The 1986 movie-musical is widely controversial for having a different ending in which Seymour slays Audrey II and moves into the suburbs with Audrey, showing how their happiness is only guaranteed if the oppressive system, or Audrey II, is destroyed, but even the movie itself is aware of how unrealistic this future is, as the ending shot zooms in on mini Audrey II plants sprouting in their backyard. American success is built on taking advantage of others, and if we want to do anything to free ourselves from this system, we cannot buy into the myth of meritocracy. If we’re given the freedom of choice, it shouldn’t take a musical to see the truth. The system never has our best interest in mind, so why should we keep feeding it?
Boustan, Leah Platt. “Was Postwar Suburbanization ‘White Flight’? Evidence from the Black Migration.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 125, no. 1, February 2012, pp. 417-443. EBSCOhost, 10.1162/qjec.2010.125.1.417
Cohen, Traci J. “Somewhere That’s Green.” Marxism and the movies : critical essays on class struggle in the cinema, edited by Leigh, Mary K., Durand, Kevin K.J. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013, pp. 97-103
Jensen, Marc. "‛Feed Me!’: Power Struggles and the Portrayal of Race in "Little Shop of Horrors." Cinema Journal, vol. 48, no. 1, Fall 2008, pp. 51-67. JSTOR, 10.1353/cj.0.0064
Mandracchia, Christen. “‘Don’t feed the plants!’: Monstrous normativity and disidentification in Little Shop of Horrors.” Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 13, no. 3, December 2019, pp. 309-316. EBSCOhost, 10.1386/smt_00009_1
Spaeth, Jane. “Alan Menken on Music’s Many Forms.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 84, no. 3, November 1997, pp. 39-48. SAGE, 10.2307/3399055