Ever a Surprise: Remembering Howard Ashman (Part 1)

In “Ever a Surprise,” Geva Journal celebrates the life and career of Little Shop of Horrors’ book writer, lyricist, and original director: Howard Ashman (1950-1991). Special thanks to Howard’s sister Sarah Ashman-Gillespie for answering our questions. Please visit HowardAshman.com for much more on Howard and his works, and for many more memories from Sarah. Little Shop of Horrors runs from January 13th to February 15th on Geva’s Wilson Mainstage.

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“In almost every musical ever written,” Howard Ashman once said in a rare interview, “there’s a place; it’s usually about the third song of the evening. Sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth, but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something. Sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, or sometimes it’s under the pillars of Covent Garden in My Fair Lady. Or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors. But the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her, and roots for her to get it for the rest of the night!” One of Howard’s specialties as a lyricist was crafting these “I want” ballads with remarkable specificity and sincerity. Perhaps that’s because the man who introduced the world to an R&B-belting flytrap, a flatware-collecting Mermaid, and a jazz-singing Genie always knew exactly what he wanted in life. He wanted to tell stories.

“So Much More Than They’ve Got Planned”

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Howard and his sister Sarah (HowardAshman.com)

The effeminate Baltimore boy who directed so many backyard plays and learned to read at such a young age, who staged dangerously dramatic photo ops for the neighborhood kids and wrote poetry just for fun, must have seemed a little out of place. Howard, the son of a Jewish salesman named Raymond Ashman and his wife Shirley, consumed culture omnivorously. He devoured books, films, and Broadway cast albums. Through the alchemy of his imagination, he spat them back out as something all his own. “In 1960,” his younger sister Sarah says, “a gay ten-year-old boy in a working class home definitely qualified as an outsider.” Still, Howard found ways to turn even the most austerely masculine objects into part of his world. One quiet snow day, Howard (who worshiped Mary Martin’s Peter Pan) toured his sister around a blanket-fort Neverland. The painted fairies and Indians that populated this sacred place had been green plastic army men in their previous lives. Howard cast Sarah in makeshift shows like “Scenes from Gypsy,” and introduced her to his favorite movies when they came on afternoon TV. One of these was a Grade-Z science fiction comedy that was shot by prolific schlock director Roger Corman in just two days. The plot revolved around a man-eating plant. It was called The Little Shop of Horrors, and it made a lasting impression on him. He even wrote a thinly-veiled take-off of the film, called The Candy Shop. “Yes,” he wrote decades later, “I was a teenaged plagiarist.”

By adolescence, Howard had learned to conceal his flamboyant mannerisms. But his creative impulses found a home at Baltimore’s Children’s Theater Association, where he spent much of his free time through high school. There, he earned leading roles in shows like Aladdin. After studying theatre at both Boston University and Goddard, he earned a master’s degree at Indiana University. Much of Howard’s college work focused on acting and directing, but his final thesis was a musical adaptation of The Snow Queen for which he wrote the book and lyrics. It was an academic career that displayed the kind of interdisciplinary curiosity (as opposed to goal-oriented specificity) that is often frowned upon in arts education today. Howard moved to New York and got a job at Grosset and Dunlap publishers, working in the editing department during the day and pursuing his theatrical dreams at night. His first full-length play, a semi-autobiographical family drama called The Confirmation, was performed by Circle Rep. Shortly thereafter, Howard and a group that included his then-boyfriend Stuart White took over leadership of the Off-Off-Broadway WPA Theater. The tiny stage may have been housed directly above a massage parlor of questionable repute, but it was a professional New York house. At age twenty-eight, Howard was an artistic director.

“Look Who’s Here”: Arriving in the New York Theatre

Howard’s first personal project at the WPA was enormously ambitious. It was a musical comedy based upon a novel by that least-adaptable of American writers, Kurt Vonnegut: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Howard would write the book and lyrics (with some additional lyrics by Dennis Green) and direct the production. But a musical needs a composer, and Howard found one in a Steinhardt School and BMI Musical Theatre Workshop alum named Alan Menken. Menken had an unusual gift not only for writing in many styles and genres, but for turning out instantly memorable melodies. It became clear that the artists’ sensibilities complemented each other; that their collaboration created something that neither one could achieve on his own. “Howard was that rare force,” Alan said many years later, “a dramatist who knew how to use music effectively.” Ashman and Menken would ultimately write nearly ninety songs together. But it all started with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, an expansive score that ranged from sincere folk to hilarious patter.

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Rosewater’s windowcard

The musical tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, the philanthropist son of a US senator and heir to an enormous fortune. Eliot, also an alcoholic veteran who appears to suffer from undiagnosed PTSD, is dismissed as “totally bonkers” when he decides to become an artist. His work of art, he says, will be loving the “discarded Americans” living in an impoverished Indiana town named for his family, “even though they are useless and unattractive.”  As a greasy lawyer and Eliot’s distant relatives conspire to prove his mental incompetence (and thereby seize control of his fortune), the town of Rosewater’s infirm seniors and desperate vagrants discover what it is liked to be treated with respect. After Eliot is confined to a mental institution, many of the town of Rosewater’s single mothers file false paternity suits against him in hopes of extracting money. In the show’s finale, Eliot disperses his fortune (before the lawyer can seize it) by erroneously confirming every single one of the claims:

Go tell the youth who’s overweight
Who sometimes wets the bed
Who’s still too shy to masturbate
And flunks out of phys ed
Go tell the ones so commonplace,
Their dreams are sad and small
Though acne scars may mar your face,
Your father loves you all

And I, Eliot Rosewater,
Your adopted Dad,
Love you to pieces,
Love you ‘til I could cry
Love you as Rosewaters
My sons and my daughters
Go forth, be fruitful…
And multiply

Rosewater served as a bellwether for Howard’s style and unique talents. It displayed a rigorous and dramaturgically savvy knack for adaptation: elements of Vonnegut’s book were excised and rearranged, but the spirit was kept intact. The clever and literate lyrics were certainly funny, but they were also surprisingly compassionate. The show was subversive, but straightforward; satirical, but sweet. In the years to come, all of these qualities would become associated with Howard’s work.

When the show opened at the WPA Theater in October 1979, it was met with warm reviews. “For the deprived theatergoer,” said the New York Times, “it seems absolutely eleemosynary.” Even Kurt Vonnegut, who had jokingly called Ashman and Menken “a couple of nobodies,” was enchanted with it. But when the show made the commercial leap to Off-Broadway, it quickly folded. One of the reasons that Rosewater failed to run was its large cast. The show was not tuned to the financial realities of commercial Off-Broadway, and it was not a practical way for Ashman and Menken to establish their presence as a major songwriting team. Their next project was meant to rectify that problem, Menken later recalled: “[Howard] said, ‘You know what? I have an idea for a show that will work Off-Broadway, and it will show people that we’re ready to write our big Broadway show.’”

“Don’t it Go To Show Ya Never Know?”

Howard’s new idea called to him from childhood. He had never forgotten about that man-eating plant movie. In 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors, a nebbish Los Angeles flower shop employee named Seymour develops a new crossbreed of flytrap (named the “Audrey Junior” as a tribute to his workplace crush) that learns to speak…and begins to demand human blood. This story did not scream “musical comedy” to many. Sarah and her husband, who had an early Betamax machine, hosted a viewing of the old film for a small group that included Howard and his agent, Esther Sherman. “I was dubious,” Sarah says. “But by the end of the evening, Howard had convinced us all. He was a very persuasive man…it was his absolute surety.”

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The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Howard would once again write and direct, and Alan would compose. Early efforts on Little Shop hewed very closely to the Corman movie, and ultimately bore little resemblance to the final show beyond Howard’s idea to portray the plant with a growing series of puppets. (Julie Taymor declined an offer to work on this aspect of the production.) The songs sounded like traditional musical comedy numbers; they were far too silly and lightweight. “When it’s time to pick a pet flower, who’s the shrub we love?” went one lyric. “Who’s the potted plant of the hour? Who’s our bush when push comes to shove?” Eventually, Menken recalls, Howard landed upon the notion that Little Shop could be “the dark side of Grease.” The 60s-set musical should start with a bubblegum rock flavor, but a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” influence would emerge as the story moved toward a new Earth-threatening conclusion in line with the period’s more earnest horror films.

With this new framework in place, Ashman and Menken crafted a musical comedy that was truly its own animal. A Greek chorus of street urchins joined the cast, each named after a black 60s girl group: Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon. The story became more farcical and more Faustian. Major characters were cut. The setting was no longer specifically Los Angeles, but an unspecified American slum. The movie’s shrill little “Audrey Junior” was reborn as the intimidating, bass-voiced, R&B-belting “Audrey Two.” (“Two” made for better rhymes.) The flytrap was no longer an earthly crossbreed, but a monster from outer space with designs to repopulate the planet. Perhaps most notably, the minor role of a dentist was expanded into a sadistic villain with a bad habit for laughing gas. This last addition was much to the chagrin of Alan Menken’s parents—the family trade was dentistry! Menken’s father was even the president of an organization that promoted the use of real “laughing gas”: nitrous oxide. Once his family heard the score, Alan proposed cutting the dentist. “Not on your life,” Howard replied.

When Little Shop of Horrors (the “The” was dropped) opened at the WPA Theatre in 1982, it was an instant hit with audiences. The reviews were also excellent (though the New York Times mysteriously and repeatedly referred to Audrey Two as a “cactus”), and the production transferred to the East Village’s Orpheum Theatre in the summer. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical and quickly received West End and Los Angeles productions—both directed by Howard. There was interest in bringing the musical to Broadway, where it would be eligible for Tony nominations. But Howard, having written the piece specifically to work Off-Broadway, wanted it to stay at the intimate Orpheum. He had a genuine New York smash on his hands. It would run for five years, growing even bigger than Audrey Two. And bigger things lay ahead

Howard Ashman and the original WPA Theatre cast of Little Shop of Horrors

Howard and the original WPA Theatre cast of Little Shop of Horrors

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3 thoughts on “Ever a Surprise: Remembering Howard Ashman (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Ever a Suprise: Remembering Howard Ashman (Part 2) | Geva Journal

  2. Pingback: Ever a Surprise: Remembering Howard Ashman (Part 3) | Geva Journal

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