Friday, February 29, 2008

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE - A Most Ingenious Paradox!

February 29, 2008 is the 38th birthday of Frederic, the pirate apprentice from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance (1879). It's not a mondo musical, but it is one of my very favorites. Poor Fred was apprenticed to the Pirate King until his 21st birthday - not his 21st year - so although Frederic wanted to give up piracy and marry the daughter of the Modern Major General, duty dictated that he follow the letter of his contract - and that contract says he won't be 21 until 1940! See a clip from The Pirates of Penzance after the jump!
The Pirates of Penzance is one of Gilbert & Sullivan's "big three" most popular operettas that are frequently performed to this day - the other two being HMS Pinafore (1878) and The Mikado (1885).

Here's a clip from the 1983 film version of the stage show as produced by legendary New York producer Joseph Papp. It stars Rex Smith as Frederic, Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, and Angela Lansbury as Ruth. Although the instrumentations are lamentably 80s and synthesized, the sparkling humor of the piece shines through! This scene's absurdly literal legalese, and the knots the characters tie themselves into in order to follow etiquette, is a key feature of the delightfully funny G&S operettas.

So, happy birthday Frederic. You might be 152 in real time, but you're still a youthful 38 to me!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SHOCKHEADED PETER - Songs for Naughty Children

Der Struwwelpeter is a German children's book from 1845 featuring ten verse tales about naughty children and the dark, Germanic punishments they recieve. Struwwelpeter (Shaggy Peter, usually translated into English as "Shock-Headed Peter") tells of a boy who doesn't groom himself, and whose hair and nails grow to outlandish lengths (making him look rather like Edward Scissorhands). This story, and the other 9 in the book, became a fabulously weird cabaret-style show in 2005, using songs, puppets and pantomine. I saw it in New York and was blown away. After the jump, a YouTube video of highlights.

Read more about Struwwelpeter on wikipedia

UPDATE - Julian Bleach, here seen as the MC with the magnifying glass, is playing Davros, twisted, crippled creator of the Daleks, in the upcoming season finale of Doctor Who!

Friday, February 22, 2008

LITTLE SHOP - Sex and the Single Vegetable

Sexually speaking, there is something rich and strange going on in Little Shop of Horrors. Aside from the relentless oral fixation of the whole piece, frustration, abusiveness, and sexual mis-matching abound: Seymour loves Audrey, but in lieu of her attention, nurtures the plant he names in her honor. Audrey chastely loves Seymour, but is trapped with the overbearingly sexual Orin Scrivello, DDS. Orin is Seymour’s evil double – the cool, successful guy Seymour wishes he could be ("Gee, I’d like a Harley machine," he muses, "toolin’ around like I was James Dean!")

Even the hilarious interlude with the masochistic patient is a parody of clashing desires: the patient’s giddy pleasure completely undermines the dentist's sadistic dominance. And isn't it odd that the Dentist, who makes his living excavating and torturing others' mouths, meets his end in the toothy maw of a creature named for his abused girlfriend?

Read more about the weird world of sex in Little Shop after the jump.

The plant serves dual roles, both as Audrey’s twisted doppelganger, and as the embodiment of Seymour’s frustrated desires and pent-up aggression - his id made vegetable. When he’d like to be romancing, he is instead tending to the wilting little bud (which goes limp after Audrey regretfully turns down dinner, because she has a date). The Audrey II design is a masterstroke of ambiguity, both phallic and vaginal at the same time (much like Giger's Alien). Its upright stalk and veiny, bulbous head contrast with its gaping, hungry trap. With no eyes to serve as a character focus, the visual emphasis is on the mouth, with its sensuous lips, jagged teeth and labial, orchid-like interior. Though given a masculine voice and persona, the relentless orality of its behavior, coupled with the feminine name, give the plant disturbing vagina dentata associations. Cementing the link with evil femininity even further, the plant is abetted by a Medusa-like nest of sinuous vines.

Towards the beginning of the film, Seymour gazes through a window as Audrey applies makeup to her black eye, and channels his dissatisfaction into the romantic / comic ballad "Grow For Me." "Oh God, how I mist you! Oh pod, how you tease!" he moans, stroking the wilted, pouty flytrap (according to designer Richard Conway, this puppet’s pouty lips were modeled on Ellen Greene’s.) When he pricks his finger on a rose’s thorn, the answer to his dilemma appears. Sucking on the bleeding finger, he hears an answering sucking noise. Looking around, he is astonished to see the plant is growing erect, its trap making little sucking, kissing motions. In short order he discovers what the plant wants – when he tries to pet it, it snaps hungrily at his bleeding finger, but haughtily refuses to even look at the other hand. Figuring "a few drops" couldn’t hurt, he milks the blood out of his finger, which the plant eagerly laps up. Thus satisfied, it swells.

Next, Seymour is seen taking the now foot-tall plant on a radio show. While Seymour isn’t looking, the plant tries to bite the ass of a female secretary in a blood-red skirt – a liberty that shy Seymour would never attempt.

Soon afterwards, the chorus girls teasingly sing that "Seymour’s having some fun now" as we are treated to a montage of him feeding the growing plant his blood. In one particularly discomforting shot, an exhausted Seymour lets the plant greedily suck his finger, with the girls’ calypso-rock beat providing an ironic counterpoint. There is an eerie sexual ambiguity of Audrey’s vampire double suckling on Seymour’s body fluids while the real Audrey has her vitality sapped by the domineering dentist. As the audience knows, but Seymour is too self-conscious to realize, Audrey wants nothing more than for Seymour to rescue her from her situation – but he is too busy with his onanistic nocturnal bleedings to notice.

When the plant reaches five feet in height, it finally speaks, launching into the bluesy, "Rock Me Henry" style "Feed Me" number, promising fame, fortune and even Audrey’s love if he’ll only track down some unworthy soul for the plant’s consumption. The plant’s come-on is unmistakably sensual – it undulates suggestively, it strokes and tickles Seymour with its vines, and promises, "A little nookie’s gonna clean up those zits – and you’ll get it!" The plant even implies that it can hypnotize Audrey into falling for him, asking, "What’ll it be? Money, girls – one particular girl? How ‘bout that Audrey? Think it over!" Seymour is still unconvinced, so the plant goes for the hard sell, exclaiming, "A lotta folks deserve to die!" Right on cue, the greasy dentist rides up on his motorcycle, backhanding poor Audrey for some minor infraction. Duly convinced, Seymour makes his way to the dentist’s office with a gun. He cannot bring himself to shoot, but the Scrivello’s addiction to laughing-gas proves conveniently fatal. Thus, the plant gets its first taste of meat, Audrey’s desire for freedom is fulfilled, and Seymour’s romantic competition is removed.

Seymour is confused when Audrey’s reaction to the Orin’s "disappearance" isn’t one of immediate joy. She feels guilty rather than relieved: "If he met with foul play or some kind of terrible accident, then it’s partly my fault, you see, because...secretly, I wished it." She painfully tells Seymour that her poor treatment was no better than she deserved. "I’ve led a terrible life," she says, conflating her sexual activity with her personal worth. She met Orin at a nightclub called "The Gutter," where she used to moonlight in leaner days.

Seymour and Audrey reveal their feelings for one another in the splendid ballad "Suddenly, Seymour." For the first time, Audrey feels valued as a person rather than a sexual object. "You don’t need no makeup," Seymour sings to her, "Don’t have to pretend." It is the most heart-felt and emotionally real moment in the film, which makes the lovers’ downfall all the more tragic. Ironically, in the original version, Audrey’s transition from sexualized bombshell to innocent "real" girl (she even puts on a white dress) spells her doom, a total reversal from the usual tropes of pulp fiction.

Walking on air, Seymour confronts rude reality when Mushnik reveals that he saw Seymour dismembering the dentist’s body. He threatens to turn Seymour in to the police, and gives him the alternative of skipping town, but leaving behind the lucrative secret of the plant’s growth (having been fed, it is now eight feet high). As the chorus girls seductively croon "It’s suppertime," Seymour backs Mushnik into the plant’s reach, and he gets swallowed.

The punishing father figure thus disposed of, there is no one left in Seymour’s life but Audrey and her double - and one of them has to go. Like a closet homosexual, Seymour agonizes over how to live a "normal" life free from his shameful secret. Showered by offers of TV tie-ins and lecture tours, Seymour plans to elope with Audrey and leave the plant to wither. Like a jealous mistress, however, the plant is not to be abandoned so easily, and lures trusting Audrey into its clutches with a masher phone call. Caressing her suggestively, the plant pleads for water, but once in reach, it wraps its python-like vines around her and drags her towards its gaping trap. "Aw, relax, doll, and it'll be easier," it leers, like a rapist cajoling his victim.

In the released version, of course, Audrey is only shaken by the plant’s attack and lives to stand by her man. In the original ending, however, the fusion of Audrey and Audrey II is made explicit by the heroine’s dying request to be given to the plant. "If I’m in the plant, then I’m part of the plant, so in a way, we’ll always be together," she reasons. "You’ll wash my tender leaves," she sings, "You’ll smell my sweet perfume / You’ll water me and care for me / You’ll see me bud and bloom…" Seymour’s frustrated desires – his dirty little secrets – have taken over. The substitute has destroyed the original, completing the Mephistophelean, black magic bargain struck when Seymour offered the plant his blood and the name of his true love. Instead of a wedding night carrying Audrey over the threshold of their little house in the suburbs, he carries her through the back doors of the shop and into the waiting jaws of the hungry plant.

But Seymour must still confront his anima in the climactic rock number, "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space." By this point the plant is unabashedly malevolent, and unmistakably a monster female. (After eating Audrey, the plant’s mouth turns from purple to livid red, the color of passion, of blood, of fire.) The epithet "motherfucker" is shortened to just "mother;" the plant humiliates the nerd by pulling down his trousers, and even tries to geld him: "I’m gonna bust your balls!" it rages. The plant gives birth to tiny clones of itself and swallows poor, redundant Seymour, playing out every man’s (supposedly) worst fear: re-absorption into the all-devouring trap.

LITTLE SHOP - Green Like Me

There have been suggestions that Little Shop of Horrors is racist, and if the film were not such a blatant satire on every aspect of American life, then the criticism might stick (the white-bread world of Audrey’s suburban fantasy is hardly treated with reverence). The criticism arises from the fact that the only African-American characters are a few bums, the three chorus girls, and the villainous plant, with its pouty lips, bad attitude and unmistakably black (not African-American, but black, with all it implies) voice. A closer reading reveals that the film’s position vis-à-vis race is actually quite sly. Read all about it after the jump!

PhotobucketThe twin keys are the film’s time period and musical choices. Little Shop of Horrors is set in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was being born. In this period, African-Americans were a prominent part of everyday American life, yet they were banished to the basement of popular consciousness. The only arena in which they exerted an undeniable influence was in popular music – in jazz, the blues, and of course, rock & roll. Indeed, the only place many white kids could come in contact with blacks was on the radio: Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins broadcast lascivious innuendo over America’s lily-white airwaves, while girl-groups such as the Supremes offered a more slick, shimmering sensuality. Though many white broadcasters refused to play "race music," many more recognized that green is a more potent color than either black or white – which brings us back to Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop
plays off this cultural trend by creating the three chorus girls, Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon. Just as their namesake girl-groups were plucked from poverty and groomed for success by labels such as Motown, the Little Shop girls magically change from ragamuffin street clothes to glittering gowns whenever a song begins. Once, they even perform this feat without the benefit of a camera edit! Though the girls have no participation in the actual narrative – only twice do they even speak to the other characters - barely a scene goes where they are not present, either vocally or visually. Always, they watch the action from the background, commenting directly to the audience with meaningful looks and pointed lyrics. Like a tune you keep hearing on the radio, the girls are ubiquitous: they appear on fire escapes, on rooftops, outside windows; they seem to move through walls and are often invisible to the main characters. Moreover, the cultural cliché of black "authenticity" is invoked by the fact that the girls are the only ones who truly know what is going on. Like the Greek Chorus on which they are modeled, Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon are allied with implacable Fate. As the proceedings grow more sinister, they transmute into sleek sirens singing of impending doom – but the hapless white characters are heedless of their warnings.

It is the jive-talking, blues-singing, honky-eating plant which inspires the most racial discomfort for some spectators, and indeed, the plant’s perceived "blackness" becomes problematic with the changed ending. Again, the parallel with the music business is apt. Like a record executive exploiting his discovery's "talents," Seymour sees Audrey II only as a vehicle to material success, never recognizing the plant’s own will until it is far too late. Levi Stubbs, in a 1987 People interview, offers this insight to his portrayal of the plant: "He [Oz] said the plant starts out sorta sweet and kind, then gets sly and devious and mean....In the music business you have quite a few people like that, so I put those people in my mind." He also puts any hints of racism to bed, saying, "If I thought the part was derogatory to anyone, they couldn't have paid me enough to take it. Sure, a lot of black people have big lips, but this is a plant, for crying out loud! That attitude is stupid."

Little Shop turns on its head the familiar trope of the "magical Negro" (see The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Family Man, Hitch, Reign Over Me, The Green Mile and others - wherein a wise, even mystical black man is the catalyst for a white man's return to a more authentic, centered and soulful mode of existence. The cultural roots of this backhanded compliment of a plot device are outside the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that Audrey II performs exactly the opposite function for Seymour, under guise of "liberating" him. By encouraging Seymour's aggression, avarice and self-serving moral relativism, the plant traps him in a web of money, fame and self-deceit. "I’m yo' willin' slave," the plant wheedles. Seymour, of course, takes the vegetable’s servility for granted – only later does he realize that it is he who is the servant.

I prefer to read Little Shop of Horrors as a tale of the servants turning on the masters - not too far from what certain segments of the white population of the era might have perceived happening in real life. I don’t propose that the play or the film was intended as a racial parable, but the implications are there nonetheless. The anarchic finale could be seen as mirroring the Watts riots, a Freudian "return of the repressed" in its most literal and explosive terms. Of course, in the revisionist version of Little Shop of Horrors, that explosion never comes, blackness is repressed, and the lovers escape to the safety of a white suburb. But what’s that there in the shrubbery? You can’t keep a good monster down. Look out, white parents – here comes hip-hop!

LITTLE SHOP - The Root of All Evil

Money and possessions - or the lack thereof - play a crucial role in Little Shop of Horrors, and forms the basis of its central metaphor. Most of the characters are poor, downtrodden souls dreaming of a better life – one dangled in front of their faces by the movies and TV, but always tantalizingly out of reach. Though the film never kids itself - after all, who doesn't want money and a safe, secure life? - this desperation for "the good life" drives Seymour and Audrey to sacrifice their principles and self-respect, leaving them open to exploitation by the evil alien plant. After the jump, more about the cash-poor tragedy of life down on skid row and how changing the ending undercut this tale of upward mobility gone bad.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Seymour and Audrey are soulmates kept apart by circumstance. The aching divide between them is beautifully pictured at the start of the film. At the end of the "Downtown (Skid Row)" number, the pair sing the same lines, though separated in space. They both stop on a street corner, but on different sides of the same building - the corner of which neatly cuts the frame in two. Thus joined in song and spirit but divided by their material situation, they look to the sky and plead for a change in their dead-end lives. Wrapped up in their own miseries, they never even notice (too busy singing?) that the objects of their affections are, literally, right around the corner.


Drab reality keeps Audrey and Seymour from realizing that they are meant for one another. Seymour pines away for Audrey, and watches with jealous resentment as she leaves work early ("I got a date," she winces) and comes in late ("Not that we’ve had a customer," Mushnik sighs) to date the despicable dentist. When Mushnik criticizes her romantic choices, she replies, "He’s a rebel, Mr. Mushnik, but he makes good money. Besides, he’s the only fella I got." Seymour’s heart visibly breaks - we can see he’s just longing to shout out that no, she has him – but how can he compete with the flashy dentist, with his leather jacket and motorbike? Churchmouse-poor, what does he have to offer, other than his love? Little does he know that all he has to do is declare himself and Audrey would gladly ditch the greaser.

Seymour feels so inadequate that even when his plant brings success to the shop, he can’t conceive that a girl like Audrey could want him. Even though he sees the sweet girl beneath, he is so dazzled by her superficial glamour, he can't imagine she'd want a schlub like him. When she offers to help him pick out some new clothes, he gapes, "You’d be seen with me in a public place like a department store?" Bashfully, she agrees – but not tonight. She’s got a date.

In her heart Audrey knows that Seymour is the kind of guy she wants and needs, but her fear of the dentist and her innate insecurities stop her. "I don’t even deserve a sweet, considerate, suddenly successful guy like Seymour," she tells Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon. Then, in the privacy of her tiny flat, she opens up a Better Homes and Gardens magazine and imagines herself and Seymour living in suburban bliss between its pages. Sighing over the gleaming appliances and well-manicured lawns, she wistfully sings of life "Somewhere That’s Green." The song, and charming cartoon-like fantasy sequence that goes with it, is hilarious, skewering every dreadful cliché of tract-house living – Tupperware parties, TV dinners, and "plastic on the furniture to keep it neat and clean / In the Pine-Sol scented air somewhere that’s green."

The talent and wit of Ashman and Menken, Frank Oz, and especially Ellen Greene prevent this sequence from becoming a snide put-down of Audrey’s dreams. Though we chuckle at her fantasy home’s tacky décor we never feel superior to Audrey as a person. Despite her peroxide exterior, Ellen Greene's Audrey is a sweet, simple, fragile soul, and the performance is touchingly sincere for what could be a totally clichéd character. Faced with a grim life of cold-water flats, bums on the sidewalk, and a flashy, rich, but abusive boyfriend, who wouldn’t want to flee to the suburbs? In her fantasy, Seymour even sports an un-glamorous but reassuringly normal pot-belly.

The tragedy is that, like Seymour, Audrey defines happiness by what she’s seen on TV and read in magazines, and feels that someone from her poor circumstance and less than Ivory-pure background could never have something as simple as love. The fantasy is so much better than her reality, it drives her to date the awful dentist, who at least "makes good money" and practices in a gleaming deco office on 5th Avenue. A poor girl from the slums, Audrey feels lucky to have even this tenuous security, and takes the beatings as the trade-off. In "Suddenly Seymour" she hints at a life of desperation: "Nobody ever treated me kindly / Daddy left early, Mamma was poor / I’d meet a man and I’d follow him blindly / He’d snap his fingers, and me, I’d say ‘sure.’"

Into this void appears the Audrey II, with a slick line of patter and a talent for attracting a different kind of "green." Audrey II embodies the ever-hungry maw of capitalism, spreading its tendrils far and wide, and luring the unwary to their doom by appealing to every base instinct. Like a TV pitch man, it makes even the most repellent prospects seem attractive, and like a credit card company, it offers the world on a platter - but with interest paid in blood. Once Seymour realizes how much debt he's in, the very thing he worked so hard for - Audrey - is rudely repossessed.

Audrey II turns on the charm.

Audrey II's pernicious aura of greed and gluttony engulfs even those who know nothing of its true nature. Orin accidentally kills himself by overdosing on the laughing gas he sniffed for kicks. Mushnik meets his demise because he lets his mercantile instincts over-ride his moral sense: he saw Seymour chopping up the dentist’s body, and reasonably assumed that Seymour murdered him. Threatening to turn him in, he blackmails Seymour to learn the secret of the plant’s growth and hence, the fortune in publicity that comes with it. Too late, Mushnik learns Seymour's true secret and is swallowed whole.

With the situation rapidly spinning out of control, Seymour decides to elope with Audrey after one last TV appearance, after which they can take the money and run. The need to appease Audrey II for one more payday, rather than immediate flight, dooms the couple in the original version, but only provides a dramatic climax in the release prints. As seem by the American public in 1986, Audrey and Seymour escape skid row with Seymour's newly-inflated bank account, and never again troubled by the bloody sacrifices Seymour has made. Certainly a more palatable conclusion in the midst of the go-go 80's, but one seriously lacking in moral weight or dramatic unity.

Seymour contemplates signing his soul away for fame, fortune and love.

Instead, we are left to contemplate what might have been - how a man from "International Licensing and Marketing" sets the stage for the end of the world. The Audrey II is a potent symbol of greed, of hunger for anything and everything except true spiritual happiness. Like Romero's ravenous zombies, Audrey II is the ultimate "consumer," and inspires a compulsive avarice. In the deleted ending, thousands flock to buy their very own Audrey II, in a frenzied fad like hula-hoops or pet rocks. Mindless commercialism and corporate amorality (one can imagine the indigent population near Audrey II factories mysteriously dwindling) bring about the downfall of America – visualized by the climactic shot of a cackling plant smothering the Statue of Liberty in its vines. Innocent commodities have turned deadly; consumers have become the consumed, and America is engulfed in an apocalyptic bonfire of the vanities.


Thursday, February 21, 2008


One of Pete Townshend's most fervent disciples is composer Jim Steinman, who wrote all the songs for Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell (1977) and Bat Out of Hell II (1994), as well many other songs, most notably the mega-hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for Bonnie Tyler. He followed in the footsteps of "A Quick One While He's Away" with his epic tale of teenage lust and middle-aged loathing, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Read more, and see the video, after the jump!

Steinman has always striven for a Broadway career and has always been denied, but his rock career has not been too shabby. The Bat Out of Hell album was filled with songs from his stage show Neverland (a post-apocalyptic Peter Pan fable which I will examine at length in another post), making it his version of Who's Next. Also appearing on that classic record is Steinman's equivalent of "A Quick One While He's Away," namely, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

Like "A Quick One," "Paradise" is a humorous look at sex and relationships. Combining Chuck Berry with Gilbert & Sullivan, "Paradise" follows a teenage couple (Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley) through the stages of heavy-petting, ill-advised marriage and bitter disillusionment. Unlike "A Quick One," nobody is forgiven in this song, and the couple ends up bickering into the fade-out. "Paradise" is part of the vogue for 1950s and 60s nostalgia that infected pop culture as the Baby Boomers grew up (or got older, anyway) and got self-reflective. As such, it fits in comfortably with Grease and American Graffiti. Unlike many 50s-retro products, however, "Paradise" leavens the nostalgia with pungent 70s cynicism and a smidge of disco funk.

The tune was originally conceived a a 20-minute epic taking up an entire side of a record - but producer Todd Rundgren wielded his red pen and distilled the original concept to a manageable (but still massive by pop radio standards) eight-and-a-half minutes. The song is in three parts, "Paradise," "Let Me Sleep On It" and "Praying for the End of Time."

Though the song itself barely cracked the Top 40, Bat Out of Hell is one of rock's all-time best-sellers, and "Paradise" is a karaoke favorite to this day. Meat Loaf's concert performances of the song have gotten more and more elaborate over the years, with costumes and props galore.

So here's Jim Steinman's "mini-opera," performed by Meat Loaf and Karla DeVito (DeVito was the touring vocalist, but for the music video she lip-synchs to Ellen Foley's album track). Steinman is on the piano (though E Street Band member Roy Bittan plays on the track), while New York Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto's radio play-by-play takes "getting to first base" literally. Many theaters used to show this as an apt curtain-raiser for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A QUICK ONE - The First Rock Opera

The term "rock opera" was first coined by Pete Townshend, guitar player & primary composer for The Who. In 1966 The Who released a lengthy song titled "A Quick One While He's Away" from the album A Quick One, and it's this song that was termed "a mini-opera" or "a rock opera" by the songwriter. Though Townshend meant it tongue-in-cheek, the name stuck and came to define an entire genre of theatre. Read more, and see the song performed by The Who, after the jump!

This multi-part composition was a humorous tale of infidelity and forgiveness, about a girl whose man has been gone "for nigh on a year" and who finds herself in the arms of Ivor, an engine driver (that's a railroad engineer to us Yanks). The boyfriend returns, and, happily, he forgives her. The song is broken into six distinct sections - "Her Man's Been Gone," "Crying Town," "We Have A Remedy," "Ivor the Engine Driver," "Soon Be Home" and "You Are Forgiven." The bit where the band repeats "cello" over and over is a joke - record producer Kit Lambert vetoed the inclusion of string players because of cost.

Pete's first excursion into long-form song cycles (what would come to be known as "concept albums") was a project called Quads, a tale of a future society where parents can choose the sex of their children. The project was abandoned, but not before yielding the hit single "I'm A Boy" (1966). Of course, the real flourishing of Townshend's ambitions came with 1969's double album Tommy, which told the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball. After Tommy came Lifehouse (also abandoned, but many of the songs were used on 1971's Who's Next) and Quadrophenia (1973). I'll be looking at Tommy, and the vogue for rock opera concept records that followed in its wake, at a later date. In the meantime, enjoy "A Quick One While He's Away."

REPO! The Genetic Opera

Here's the trailer for a new rock-opera film that is set for release in April. It looks like a cross between Sweeney Todd and Blade Runner - and if that ain't mondo, I don't know what is!

The movie stars Paul Sorvino, an actor not usually known for his singing, but he got good reviews as the lead in Loesser's The Most Happy Fella at the New York City Opera in 2006. It also features Sarah Brightman (star of The Phantom of the Opera and the ex-Mrs. Lloyd-Webber), Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, and a very popular Frank N. Furter in the 90s), and 80s rocker Joan Jett (who played Columbia in Rocky Horror on Broadway). It also stars Paris Hilton, but we won't hold that against it.

Thanks to commenter anarchicq for tipping me off!


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

LITTLE SHOP - Weird & Exotic Cuttings

Here's a collection of some of the rarely seen Little Shop stills I have collected, including scenes from the deleted ending and storyboards which have never, to my knowledge, been published before. You might also like to see my collection of movie props and puppet pieces purchased from one of the film's puppeteers.  Also, here is a link to the original Little Shop press kit promoting the film.  Enjoy!

Concept model of Audrey II built by Lyle Conway. Notice the saliva bubbles on the tongue and vines.


This might have earned Little Shop an "R"!

Seymour wrestles with his conscience in the deleted dream sequence from "The Meek Shall Inherit."  A couple of brief clips from this scene appear in the bloopers & out-takes montage on the DVD.  There are more photos available that I have yet to scan, including images of Seymour turning into a plant!  The full song can be heard on the soundtrack album. Let's hope this shows up on DVD sometime!  (Topps trading cards scans courtesy of Morgan Leger.)

A dying Audrey sings the "Somewhere That's Green" reprise.

Seymour prepares to sacrifice Audrey. This is apparently a rehearsal shot, as the plant's trap is closed, whereas in the footage seen on the DVD, it is open at this point.


Audrey II says "bye bye" to poor Seymour.


The chorus girls foretell America's doom.

Audrey II stomps down Fifth Avenue. Notice the little Yellow Cab in the lower-right. In the sequence as seen on the DVD, the plant kicks this out of the way and it goes flying! You can just barely see a second Audrey II behind the first one.

The model sequences were filmed at high speed, so when projected normally they'd go more slowly and have a sense of weight and scale. This meant that the plant movements had to be very fast, with some scenes taking mere seconds. This is the opposite of how the full-sized plants were filmed. They were performed slowly, while the camera also filmed at a slower rate which made everything "real time" when projected normally.

Be sure to click on the above image for a larger size - the level of detail in the model buildings is simply stunning.

Check out the little car being waved around in the plant's tentacle!

The sets created by miniature effects supervisor Richard Conway were truly incredible, with more detail than I've ever seen in a miniatures sequence, including walls that crumbled into individual bricks as the plants crashed through. Here, a plant demolishes a theater showing Jason & the Argonauts, a landmark fantasy film with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen. The effects for this sequence, however, were all computer-controlled movements, not stop-motion.

Brooklyn Bridge - Shot #1 (Between this film, Cloverfield and I Am Legend, Hollywood has not been kind to the Brooklyn Bridge!)

Brooklyn Bridge - Shot #2 (Notice a 2nd plant poking into the frame in the lower left.)

Brooklyn Bridge - Shot #3 (I believe this shot demonstrates the most accurate color balance out of the three Bridge images presented here.)

The final shots of the "Don't Feed the Plants" sequence showed plants clinging to the Statue of Liberty. You can see the tendrils of a second plant sitting on the Statue's shoulder. Below, I added a fiery background in PhotoShop.

The only model footage in the final film is the cityscape behind Steve Martin in the opening bars of "Dentist!"

Fun fact - Richard Conway filmed a great model sequence featuring another giant, talking, carnivorous plant for a 1976 episode of Doctor Who. The tentacled plant-creature attacks a very detailed model of an English country house in "The Seeds of Doom," before meeting its inevitable fate at the hands of Tom Baker. Of course!


Marvel Comics artist Mike Ploog storyboarded all the Audrey II sequences, allowing the film-makers to get a clear idea of what puppets and what sets would be needed for each angle. These "Mean Green Mother" panels are the only storyboards I've ever seen - I got them on eBay from one of the original puppeteers. That's a story for another time, however. Needless to say, I would love to see these presented on a re-release DVD!

Update, February 2012:  A few storyboard panels (for the sequence where Audrey is pulled from the plant's mouth after "Suppertime II") are published in Modern Masters, and I recently found this excellent concept piece titled "You ate the only thing I ever loved!" with a very different plant design.  Another different plant, much more "EC Comics" style, is on Ploog's own website.

The storyboards below I still have never seen anywhere!

Thursday, February 14, 2008


From unexpected success on film to unexpected smash on stage, it seemed inevitable that Little Shop of Horrors would transition back to the screen. Part two looks at how it happened, plus how and why the ending was changed...

When Hollywood beckoned, the creative team faced a huge challenge in preserving the play’s delicate balance of retro satire, heartfelt romance, and black humor. As it happened, the resulting film was entirely charming, with a script that stuck very faithfully to the stage show (the first 20 minutes are almost a line-by-line transliteration of the original libretto) but condensed scenes and dropped songs where necessary and expanded other ideas which could only be suggested on stage. Most importantly, the cast was perfectly chosen and the director, Frank Oz, proved sympathetic to both the humor and the heart of the show.

Who could resist this little cutie?

Originally, the film was to be shot on the cheap by Martin Scorsese, in authentic Lower East Side locations. This approach was abandoned for a big-budget production shot entirely on stylized skid row sets, with directorial names such as Steven Speilberg and John Landis mentioned. Despite the ballooning budget, however, Howard Ashman wisely kept his screenplay tight and compact, paring down the narrative to the essentials with not a moment wasted. The production team, determined to preserve the play’s unique appeal, even eschewed the time-honored tradition of ousting the play’s lead actress for a big name. Instead, Ellen Greene reprised her endearing stage performance as Audrey. Lovable schlemiel for hire Rick Moranis was cast as Seymour, veteran character actor Vincent Gardenia became Mr. Mushnik, and Steve Martin turned in a brilliant comedic performance as the dastardly - and none to bright - Orin Scrivello, DDS.

Ellen Greene as Little Shop's battered beauty.

The directorial reigns were handed over to Jim Henson’s long-time collaborator Frank Oz, who performed famous Muppet characters such as Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear. More recently, Oz’s portrayals of Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) and Augrah (The Dark Crystal, 1982) had set new standards for believable puppet characters. Geffen felt Oz, though a neophyte director, had the comic touch, emotional sensitivity, and puppetry knowledge to make Little Shop work on screen. Oz quickly proved the producer correct. Though helming a lavish multimillion-dollar production, he steadfastly refused to "open up" the play, eschewing both MTV-style flash and conventional staginess. To preserve the play’s emotional intimacy, and to keep the disparate plot elements from devolving into the absurd, he favored a subtle, economical approach that let the material speak for itself. Instead of complicated choreography, he paid close attention to the rhythms of natural movements, and keyed them to the musical beats. To emphasize the characters’ cramped, claustrophobic existences, Oz kept mostly to medium shots and close-ups rather than panoramic cityscapes or intricate camera movements. Robert Paynter’s lush faux-Technicolor cinematography savored the rich colors and weathered textures of Roy Walker’s ingenious sets. By sticking to the essentials, Oz achieved a level of conviction and believability rare for a movie musical, creating a self-contained world where everything, from a spontaneous ballad to an unexpected total eclipse, felt oddly natural.

Crucial to the film’s success was the blues-singing Audrey II. In keeping with Oz’s desire for immediacy and realism, no stop-motion or composite shots were used. Instead, special effects wizard Lyle Conway created a series of incredibly complex hand- and cable-controlled puppets, requiring anywhere from three to fifty operators. The detailed designs and effective puppetry, combined with the jiving, conniving baritone of Levi Stubbs (of the classic soul group The Four Tops), made Audrey II a delightfully unique screen villain instead of just another special effect.

Frank Oz (right) with Lyle Conway and Audrey II.

The biggest challenge of all was to translate the play’s famous proscenium-busting ending to celluloid. Various approaches were considered, including making the entire film a dream, or turning Seymour into a crazed figure shouting, "You’re next!" a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the end, Oz decided to go for broke with a spoof on Godzilla-style monster mayhem that saw Manhattan under attack by giant plants and a foreboding “The End!?!” caption.

However, the faithful translation of the stage show to film was not to be. At the test screening held in Orange County, California, the family-demographic audience was quite positive about the film, laughing in all the right places and even applauding the musical numbers. They especially enjoyed Steve Martin's flamboyant turn as the pompadoured Orin Scrivello, DDS. But the mirth stopped cold once Audrey and Seymour died, and titanic plants took over the world.

Giant plants cackle merrily as New York burns.

According to Oz, no audience response cards were needed to know that the ending wasn’t appreciated. "When Seymour and Audrey died the audience was totally silent. They were waiting for something to happen and when it didn't, they were very angry at us." Oddly enough, the apocalyptic finale was one of the factors in making the stage show such an unexpected success. Oz credits this adverse reaction to the differences between stage and screen verisimilitude. "On the stage you know it's a felt puppet. You know they're going to come back for a curtain call...With film it's very powerful, and you really believe they're dead." The emotional truthfulness Oz had strived to capture worked against him: "If I had turned around and made it very funny and campy, then the problem of their deaths would be like saying 'Hey, it's OK, don't take it seriously.' Then I would have betrayed the people that really cared for the characters."

David Geffen, who backed the off-Broadway show, and whose company also produced the film, had predicted that the downbeat ending would not be accepted, though he boldly allowed filming to proceed. However spectacular, the $5 million sequence was now relegated to the cutting room floor, and another ending was needed – fast. In the new ending, Audrey recovers from the plant attack, and Seymour takes advantage of the flower shop’s demolition to electrocute the plant with an exposed power line. The two lovers then flit off to Audrey's suburban fantasy-land…where an Audrey II seedling lurks, smirking, in the flowerbeds.

"Oh, shit!"

It is a tribute to everyone involved that this new ending does not entirely dissatisfy. Indeed, the characters as impersonated by Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are so appealing that one wants them to survive, and the "surprise" appearance of another plant (a venerable monster-movie ploy) somewhat alleviates the taste of sugar-coating - not to mention opening up the way for a sequel. Nevertheless, devotees of the stage show stringently objected to the change. "If I hadn't shot the original ending then I might have agreed that I should have," the director exclaims, "But I shot the goddamn thing! I tried it! But the audience is a very dynamic part of a movie. You don't make a movie for yourself, you make it for the audience."

But which audience? That is where Warner Brothers made their crucial mistake - they intended Little Shop to be a family-friendly holiday movie, when in fact, it was a weird cult item (albeit one that cost $30m to make). Forcing it into the feel-good mold warped the film out of shape.

In the following posts, I will argue that the whole conception of who Little Shop of Horrors was for was off. This came from the marketing department, not the artists, and led to the decision to change the ending and fatally damage the story. By providing Little Shop with a Hollywood happy ending, Warner Brothers not only abandoned one of the greatest FX sequences of all time, they turned a funny, charming but essentially serious and moralistic parable into a delightful but spiritually hollow movie. My ultimate hope is that Warner Brothers will do us the favor of releasing a deluxe “director’s cut” DVD and let the movie be seen as it was intended.

Next - how changing the ending changed the proverbial moral of the story.


Volume 17, Number 1 (January 1987)
Volume 17, Number 5 (September 1987)

CINEFEX Magazine
Number 30 - May 1987

Number 60, January 1987

by Robert and Louise Egan
Perigee Books, 1986

by John McCarty and Mark Thomas McGhee
St Martin's Press, 1988


My very favorite stage musical is Little Shop of Horrors, so I’d like to inaugurate with a post charting this very popular mondo musical’s journey across various media. Read part one after the jump.


A vintage poster from the author’s collection. Particularly pleasing to me is the mis-quote from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, another favorite of mine. It’s almost as if the marketing department were already thinking “musical." Why has no imaginative stage director featured a flower-like, rather than gourd-like, Audrey as seen here?

When the 1986 musical was released, I was already quite affectionate towards with the 1960 black & white film, famous for introducing the phrase "Feed me!" to the movie-quote lexicon, and featuring a young Jack Nicholson as a creepily masochistic dental patient. I sought out the original film not only because I am generally into old crappy horror movies, but because I have always been fascinated by Venus' fly-traps and wild tales of man-eating plants lurking in the darkest jungles. The film's fame for being shot in two or three days also appealed to my love of the amateur - though I realize now that only seasoned pros could have produced an entire film, despite its flimsy appearance, in so short a time!

For about three years I was completely obsessed with the musical. For a strange, shy, closeted, monster-movie loving, Muppet obsessed, over-eating musical theater boy like myself, this was pure catnip. It had everything – great tunes, good jokes, a memorable cast, just the right balance of irony and sincerity, some weird sexual overtones, and the most amazing puppet character ever put to celluloid. I sang the songs, I drew Audrey IIs in class - I even wrangled my way into a puppeteer gig in a 1990 local production (a role I repeated in 2003). Actually my big dream is to play Seymour onstage, but both times I’ve auditioned for the role they thought I’d be better as the cackling, gluttonous monster. This would injure my pride if I didn’t know, deep down, that they are right. Damn typecasting!

When I realized that the ending of the show had been changed for the film, I was initially unconcerned. After all, I wanted Seymour and Audrey to live happily ever after. But then I heard the cast album…and saw photos of the insane sequence that was filmed and abandoned…and the injustice, the artistic vandalism, the wrongness of it all cut me to the core. But exactly why it’s so wrong is something it’s taken me a while to work out. However, this will be a post (actually several) for another day.

First, let’s just have a look at how this crazy show went from exploitation curio to Off-Broadway hit to big-budget movie, and take note of the major act of vandalism perpetrated when the original ending was changed to a standard Hollywood happy ending.

The original black & white Little Shop of Horrors (1960) achieved notoriety as the quickest of Roger Corman's exploitation quickies. Charles B. Griffith wrote the screenplay, which broadly reprised the plot of his beatnik art-world spoof A Bucket of Blood (1959). The film (originally titled The Passionate People-Eater) was famously shot in two or three days on sets left over from another production, a triumph of Corman’s pennywise ingenuity. With its offbeat humor and memorable man-eating plant, Little Shop became a cult favorite. Because Corman never bothered copyrighting the film, it was often seen on late-night television and was released early and often on VHS.

The plot concerns one Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze), nebbishy minion of the tight-fisted Mr. Mushnik (Mel Welles), proprietor of a dingy skid row flower shop. Seymour is secretly in love with his daffy co-worker, Audrey (Jackie Joseph), and names the strange flytrap he cultivates “Audrey Junior” in her honor. The unusual specimen draws business and publicity to the shop and gets Audrey’s attention, to Seymour’s horror, the odd plant can only thrive on human blood - and demands nutrition with hectoring cries of "Feed me!" Seymour nurtures the plant with his own pricked fingers, and in true demoniac fashion, it flourishes as he withers. Seymour soon grows too anemic to satisfy the growing plant, and so the denizens of skid row begin disappearing. Seymour’s grisly secret is exposed when the plant’s flowers open to reveal the faces of its victims. Guilt and desperation drive Seymour to try to hack up the plant’s insides with a knife, but instead he becomes the plant’s final meal.

When writer Howard Ashman got the idea for a “monster musical” in the late 1970s, he started writing a scenario that unconsciously aped Little Shop. It was only when he caught the film on television that he realized what he was doing and secured the stage rights. Apparently a stage version had already been attempted in France – and if any reader has knowledge of this production, the author would greatly appreciate hearing about it!

Ashman and composer Alan Menken originally went for a very dark tone, with Brecht/Weill sturm und drang dominating the proceedings. Inspired by the early-1960s setting, however, they decided to base the musical’s sound on the pop and Motown of the era, with Phil Spector and the Supremes foremost in their minds. This proved a master-stroke, lightening the tone and providing a score filled with memorable tunes. It also allowed the show to fit neatly into the boom for 50s nostalgia that was so popular in the 1970s and 80s.

Ashman’s script retained only the bare bones of the story, and tightened up the narrative considerably, turning a shambolic spoof into a romantic comedy with Faustian overtones. The action was transplanted from LA to New York, and the cast was reduced to essentials – gone are Seymour’s hypochondriac souse of a mother, the detectives who snoop around after the disappearing bums, and regular customers Mrs. Shiva and Burson Fouch. But the remaining characters were given more depth: Seymour (now Krelborn) was imbued with a romantic yearning that added poignancy to his doomed love affair with the dizzy Audrey, who became tragic sexpot, tangled up in an abusive relationship with the sadistic dentist who figured only tangentially into the original plot. Mr. Mushnik was mostly lost in the translation. Whereas the original Mushnik is the film’s most memorable human character, the show relegates him to supporting status, and replaces his mangled English and broad Jewish humor with a rather more generic irascibility.

The show cleverly transmuted Seymour’s teenybopper groupies into three black street urchins, named Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon, after the famous girl-groups. The girls act as a Greek Chorus, hanging out on the stoop and commenting on the action in tight harmonies. The reduction in cast served the story well – it was economical and intimate. Moreover, in the original film only bit-players and Seymour get eaten, but in the play, only the chorus girls remain alive at the end.

Corman's Audrey Junior was mostly a plot device, immobile and basically helpless, though it did develop the power of hypnotism late in the film. The acclaim it brought the shop seemed mostly due to its genuine novelty. By contrast, Ashman's Audrey II (renamed because few words rhyme with “Junior”) is a scheming smooth-talker who plays on Seymour's insecurities while attracting money and fame through some kind of psychic influence. Audrey II is more mobile and more anthropomorphic, with a trap full of teeth and claw-like branches with which to grab its prey. More importantly, whereas the original plant was a cultivar that looked no further than its next meal, Audrey II was an alien invader with designs on world conquest. The monster was brought to life on stage by Sesame Street alum Martin P. Robinson (he’s the voice and front end of Mr. Snuffleupagus), whose fabulous creations blurred the line between puppet and costume.

Lee Wilkof as Seymour and Marty Robinson as Audrey II in the original New York staging.

Ellen Greene's Audrey meets her namesake in the Off-Broadway production.

Ashman’s script turned Little Shop of Horrors into a tragedy of ends and means. Setting Seymour on the path to his doom, Ashman plays a subtle game with the audience's affections and expectations, making them morally complicit in the killings by offing the most unlikable character first (the dentist), then upping the ante until Audrey herself must be sacrificed. As Ashman stated in 1986, "It was a question of escalating the stakes for him, to make his predicament more and more intense and to make the audience feel more and more ambivalent as to what is going on, and that's how you get pulled into the story." When Audrey is fatally mauled by her namesake, it negates Seymour’s efforts in a classic tragic irony. “You ate the only thing I ever loved!” he cries, before he himself is devoured.

This is more or less where the first film ended, though Audrey does not die in the original. To provide a truly thrilling finale, however, Ashman concocted an homage to exploitation maestro William Castle's The Tingler, in which certain seats were wired with buzzers, and The House on Haunted Hill, which flew a plastic skeleton was flown over the audience’s heads. In Ashman’s low-budget doomsday scenario, Seymour is eaten, and an oblivious entrepreneur starts taking cuttings. Ominous chords play as the three chorus girls slink downstage and narrate how thousands of Audrey II sprouts, sold as novelties, convince their owners to feed them blood and grow until they are able to “eat Cleveland - and Des Moines - and Peoria – and New York - and this theater!" At which point the scrim opens to reveal Audrey II, its branches now giant, grasping claws, with blood-red flowers blooming to expose the undead faces of Seymour, Audrey, Mushnik and the Dentist, trapped like souls in Dante’s frozen hell. As Audrey II uses its branches to crawl towards the front row, hungry mouth agape, the chorus exhorts the audience to resist the siren call of fame and glory. But it is already too late – just before blackout, the plant’s leafy tendrils descend from the rafters to engulf the spectators.

The play opened at the tiny WPA Theatre in Chelsea, where the plant's growth and subsequent takeover could be achieved with great effectiveness. Little Shop of Horrors was a surprise hit and won Best New Musical. Once transplanted to the East Village’s Orpheum Theater, became a long-running attraction. Audrey's tendrils reached around the globe, with simultaneous productions in New York, Los Angeles and London.

In my next post, we'll see what happened when Little Shop made the transition back to celluloid.


Volume 17, Number 1 (January 1987)

by John McCarty and Mark Thomas McGhee
St Martin's Press, 1988