Ever a Suprise: Remembering Howard Ashman (Part 2)

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). Part One can be read here. 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.

Little Shop of Horrors' original windowcard
Little Shop of Horrors‘ original windowcard

With Sweet Understanding”: Little Shop’s Secret Strength

Little Shop of Horrors owed much of its Off-Broadway success to Alan Menken’s earworm melodies and the handmade spectacle of the alien flytrap, brought to life by Sesame Street Muppeteer Martin P. Robinson. It also benefited from Ellen Greene’s strange and endearing performance as Audrey, the flower shop clerk who’s dating an abusive dentist by night. But Little Shop’s main architect was undoubtedly Howard Ashman. The show may have been a spoofy comedy, but Howard was never content to be merely clever; he understood how every song might be used to succinctly express character, or to catapult the story ahead. Difficult textual decisions, like cutting the show’s most romantic ballad (“We’ll Have Tomorrow”), were made well into rehearsals.

Above all, Howard never allowed his playful vocabulary or pop culture savvy to eclipse the integrity of his characters. In fact, he balked when the show was described as campy—as it still frequently is. “Camp has a nasty edge,” he once said to an interviewer. “Little Shop is a fairytale. Camp doesn’t ask you to love its characters.” Howard could be very protective when it came to this distinction. “He was also temperamental,” Sarah says. “He went back to Little Shop often, well after it was a hit, warning his cast bluntly when they got too close to caricature or, worst of all, mugging. He demanded authenticity.” In an introduction to the published script, Howard warns that the humor should arise naturally from the words themselves, and that the performances should be “almost childlike in sincerity and intensity.”

Howard directs Ellen Greene as Audrey (HowardAshman.com)

It is the earnest approach to off-the-wall material that makes Little Shop the most unique musical comedy of the 1980s. This quality might best be embodied by the character of Audrey. In his description, Howard explains her with great specificity. “If you took Judy Holiday, Carol Channing, Marilyn Monroe, and Goldie Hawn, removed their education and feelings of self worth, dressed them in spiked heels and a low-cut black dress, and then shook them up in a test tube to extract what’s sweetest and most vulnerable—that’d be Audrey.” When Audrey sings “Somewhere That’s Green,” the number in which she poignantly expresses her hope for a suburban family life, we laugh because the words that ring like poetry to her (“a fence of real chain link,” “the Pinesol-scented air”) are so mundane and unromantic to us. But we’re also moved because although Audrey’s dream sounds comically humble, it is still an impossible prayer for escape and happiness. We don’t laugh at her. A lesser writer would have used the show’s tone as an excuse to make Audrey an object of ridicule.

Indeed, Little Shop launched a whole genre of B-movie musicals, but only a few of them have grasped what made the musical so special. It often seems as though writers and producers have looked at the success of Ashman and Menken’s collaboration and assumed that it was a hit simply for being bad on purpose. The secret is that Little Shop is actually a very well crafted musical. It’s only dressed as schlock.

“Somebody’s Gettin’ Famous While Nobody’s Gettin’ Well”

Every night, Little Shop’s cast warned against a make-believe apocalyptic force, singing to packed houses: “If we fight it, we’ve still got a chance!” Meanwhile, Howard saw a real threat growing. As a gay man living in New York, his life was affected terribly by the AIDS crisis before it even had a name. Starting around 1981, the syndrome tore through the city. Politicians and other public figures generally refused to acknowledge the “gay cancer.”

Shortly after Little Shop’s opening, Ashman responded to the epidemic by writing a song with his now usual composer. Alan Menken, who was straight and married, felt touched that Howard chose him as the “vessel” for such a personal statement. The song was called “Sheridan Square,” named for the spot in New York’s West Village. It was not intended to be part of a show, and it was never professionally recorded. There was only a demo recording, sung by Howard himself. “He had already lost friends,” Sarah says. “He was concerned that it would come off as ‘poor me,’ and never pushed to produce it.” Still, it is a searing lyric:

Some of the boys have panic
But none of the boys leave town
They say, We’re on the good ship Titanic
We’re gonna sing ‘til the boat goes down
And if it ended before it started
Well, no one told us that life is fair
And why is it still so quiet
Tonight on Sheridan Square?

The song asks this chilling question several times, but it ends on a note of hope, promising that “We can make it until the sun comes up.” The sickness claimed Stuart White, Howard’s ex-boyfriend and colleague at the WPA. Howard and Stuart had broken up long before, but their decade-long relationship spanned from college well into Howard’s New York years. Sadly, the crisis would only worsen over the next few years. AIDS never left Howard’s life.

Mean Green Movie

Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello (1986)
Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello (1986)

After a few false starts (Martin Scorsese considered helming a 3D adaptation), Little Shop of Horrors made the leap from the stage back to cinemas in 1986. If director Frank Oz’s big-budget movie version could not retain the stage version’s intimate charm, it did succeed on several fronts. The film is most notable for preserving Ellen Greene’s performance as Audrey, and for the remarkable puppetry work that brought Audrey Two to life. The new plant was designed by Lyle Conway, and performed in seven stages of growth by a team that included many other alums of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Its voice was provided by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, and the plant lip-synched perfectly to Stubbs’ performance without the aid of stop motion animation or optical effects. Rick Moranis utilized his usual nebbish persona as Seymour. As the sadistic dentist, Steve Martin chewed more scenery than the plant ever could. However, the literal nature of film made the story feel meaner than it had onstage.

That many of the show’s songs were excluded or shortened for cinematic pacing reasons is understandable. It is harder to overlook the removal of the show’s monstrous finale. Oz and his crew did film a mostly faithful conclusion filled with elaborate effects work, but it was excised after one test audience full of teenagers responded poorly. Howard was understandably contemptuous toward the notion of tailoring a story to market research, but he agreed to help shape a happier ending in order to get the movie released. The film would open for the holiday season without its most spectacular sequence in place, as if King Kong were defeated before climbing the Empire State Building. Worse, the Faustian morality tale at the heart of Little Shop was destroyed. It was not until 2012 that the original director’s cut was finally made available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Ashman and Menken received their first Academy Award nomination for the film’s one new song, “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” which was added to give the plant a threatening and uniquely cinematic 11 o’clock number. The film was a mild hit in theaters, but it became a smash when released to video. This time, Little Shop’s success was not the personal victory for Howard that it had been onstage. “In all, he took much more ownership of the show than the movie,” Sarah says. “He was excited that there was a movie of the show but in many ways, I think he felt it had stopped being his.”

Little Shop's original ending.
Little Shop‘s deleted ending

The Sting of Smile

Howard’s next project as a librettist-director was a 1986 Broadway musical called Smile, based upon the 1975 film about a “Young American Miss” beauty pageant. Although he was originally brought on solely as a lyricist, Howard’s role grew as he helped to overhaul the troubled material. The show featured lively music by A Chorus Line’s Marvin Hamlisch. Despite its youthful and ostensibly frothy subject matter, Smile had teeth. ”A major theme of the show is the dual messages parents send to children, when they push them to become successful,” Ashman said in an interview. It was a musical comedy about “learning to see grey” and “the notion of asking people to pay lip service to things they may not necessarily believe just to attain a goal.” The irony came when these themes were expressed through a catchy score that often sounded like a (much savvier) descendant of Bye Bye Birdie.

Smile's windowcard
Smile windowcard

Even for Howard, who had exercised such precise control over tone in Little Shop, this was a tricky balancing act. The high-risk show also put incredible strain on a cast of young actresses who were all hoping to make their big break. Howard was sensitive to this as a director, working with the performers individually and sustaining eye contact whenever possible. “I think his paternal [quality] helped him as a director,” Sarah says. “He directed with an assurance that I think made his actors feel they were in good hands.” The show previewed in his hometown of Baltimore and went through extensive rewrites before landing in New York. The process was difficult, the reviews were tepid (though even the Times’ infamous Frank Rich had to concede that the lyrics were “impressively crafted”), and Smile lasted for only 48 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. The show, which had taken years to create, did not even receive a Broadway cast album. Smile’s failure was a devastating blow, but Howard’s book was nominated for a Tony Award.

Smile’s underappreciated score did produce one cabaret standard: a lovely and pained “I want” number called “Disneyland.” Leading up to the song, a contestant named Doria tells her savvier pageant roommate that she has a dream to one day see the Happiest Place on Earth. But the roommate (who has been there) talks about how artificial the whole pace is, calling it “kind of creepy.” Awake in her bed, Doria privately reminisces. Her parents routinely fought at night, and she would escape through her family’s TV. One evening when Doria was eleven years old, the little black-and-white screen showed her Disneyland for the first time. She instantly and deeply felt that traveling to this magical place would make everything in her life okay. The song builds from a lullaby-like beginning towards a deflective, driving, almost hysterical climax:

Oh, I know you’re gonna say
The trees are paper mâché
It’s done with mirrors, the magic there
Each little bird’s full of springs
You press a button, it sings
Recorded music in the air
The castle’s plywood and paste
They’ve had the mountain refaced
Go on, say it!
I’ll turn around and tell you
I don’t care

I will live in Disneyland
Make my home in Disneyland
Maybe it’s all fake
That’s a chance I’ll take
It’s perfectly okay
Someone, give me Disneyland!
Take me there, to Disneyland!
And when I get to Disneyland
I’ll stay

“Disneyland” was performed on Broadway by a young actress named Jodi Benson. As fate would have it, Disney was in Benson’s future. Howard Ashman would bring her there. Together, they would help to create a character that an entire generation would call part of their world.


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