Before they wrote the unforgettable songs for Disney animated classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken made their first big splash with a very un-Disney musical.
That was Little Shop of Horrors, a show based not on a timeless fairy tale, but on a quirky, low-budget 1960 sci-fi flick about a man-eating plant.
Ashman and Menken took that unlikely source material and grew it into an enduring camp musical hit with dark, witty lyrics, a joyous sixties-inspired pop score and a tendril-sprouting, blues-singing bad guy to rival any Disney villain.
André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Take a look inside the rehearsal hall with actor André Morin.
In contrast with the show’s dark themes, Menken’s music is a sparkling homage to rock and pop circa the early 1960s.
His irresistible score is filled with echoes of Motown, doo-wop, Latin and other genres of the era.
The plant – dubbed Audrey II by Seymour in honour of his inamorata – sings in the growling tones of Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf.
There’s even a little klezmer for Mr. Mushnik, the paternal Jewish shop owner.
The juxtaposition is set up right from the show’s bouncy opening number. As Menken described it in a 2015 Playbill interview: “Howard’s lyrics are saying, ‘Oh no!…horror, terror!’ And the music is saying, ‘This is going to be fun!’ ”
“I think it’s one of the greatest musicals written, I really do,” says Donna Feore, who has directed and choreographed this year’s Stratford Festival production. “It’s a little gem.”
Steve Ross (left) as Mr. Mushnik and André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Gabi Epstein as Audrey and André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Chris Young.
Little Shop tells the tale of Seymour Krelborn (played at Stratford by André Morin), the klutzy young clerk in a skid row flower shop, who finds his ticket out of poverty when he cultivates a spectacular exotic plant.
The only catch: the plant thrives on human blood. It also talks, and before long, it’s tempting Seymour into a Faustian bargain: keep feeding its insatiable appetite and, in return, it will not only make Seymour rich and famous, but also help him win the love of his life, fellow clerk Audrey (Gabi Epstein).
In the meantime, Audrey herself is struggling in an abusive relationship with Orin (Dan Chameroy), a sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist who preys on her low self-esteem.
Her funny-poignant ballad, Somewhere That’s Green, in which she describes escaping her miserable life for the kitschy suburbia of her dreams, is so wonderfully effective that Ashman and Menken later used it as the template for The Little Mermaid song Part of Your World.
From left: Dan Chameroy as Orin, the Dentist, Starr Domingue as Crystal, Vanessa Sears as Ronnette and Camille Eanga-Selenge as Chiffon in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
From left: Camille Eanga-Selenge as Chiffon, Vanessa Sears as Ronnette and Starr Domingue as Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The title song is sung by the show’s “Greek chorus” (a production’s collective commentators) – three young female singers who hang out on Mushnik’s stoop and are named after the great girl groups of the sixties: Chiffon (Camille Eanga-Selenge), Crystal (Starr Domingue) and Ronnette (Vanessa Sears).
Feore says she’s built up their roles to narrate and propel the production: “Now they’re the heartbeat of the show and they keep it moving.”
She also envisioned them as prototypes of today’s street dancers. “I choreographed their numbers as if they’d come up with the dance steps themselves.”
There’s plenty of choreography going on behind the scenes as well, with the series of Muppets-inspired puppets (based on the original designs by Sesame Street puppeteer Martin P. Robinson) that represent Audrey II.
It takes four actors to operate the largest and unruliest of the Audreys – one per tendril and two for the mouth. “We should be selling tickets to backstage on this show,” Feore jokes. “It’s really something to watch them. And they really have to work hard, especially when they eat people.”
Ahead of the production’s debut, Feore and her team of actors spent hours perfecting the motion and choreography of the headlining plant while it eats its prey.
Take a look inside the rehearsal hall with director-choreographer Donna Feore.
Matthew G. Brown, meanwhile, provides Audrey II’s distinctive voice – barking orders one minute, wheedling and pouting the next. “It’s this serial-killer plant that also behaves like a petulant three-year-old child,” Feore says, laughing.
The multi-talented puppetry team is central to the production and they are equally celebrated with the rest of the cast at the end of the show. Feore’s curtain calls are so spectacular that they feel like a bonus production number – and this show’s memorable closing has seen audiences dancing and singing their way out of the theatre.
More images below ...
There’s plenty of camp-musical influence from Stratford’s 2018 production of The Rocky Horror Show; however Little Shop stands apart with a dark edge including motorcycle-loving sadist and dentist Orin (Dan Chameroy). Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
André Morin (left) as Seymour Krelborn and Dan Chameroy as Orin, the Dentist, in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
André Morin as Seymour Krelborn and Gabi Epstein as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
From left: Starr Domingue as Crystal, Vanessa Sears as Ronnette and Camille Eanga-Selenge as Chiffon in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
It’s hard to ignore Audrey II, the stage-stealing plant; however, the high notes are delivered in song, including standout lyricism performed by shop clerk Seymour Krelborn (André Morin), pictured above with two members of the show’s “Greek chorus,” Starr Domingue and Vanessa Sears. Photography by Chris Young.
Gabi Epstein as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
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