In the age of hastily churned revivals, reboots, and reunions, the roots of a particular Hollywood classic seem destined to stay planted in its original incarnation.
Frank Oz’s 1986 monster-musical Little Shop of Horrors carved a unique lane for itself among its studio genre counterparts, finding a unique balance of camp, horror, and humor in its charmingly tacky tale of a nebbish floral assistant, Seymour (Rick Moranis), who rears a vicious alien plant on human flesh, only to find his man-eating hunk of vegetation has a far more sinister plot (spoiler alert: world domination!) up its vine-covered sleeve, prompting him to vanquish the carnivorous bloom before settling with his lover, Audrey (Ellen Greene) in the suburbs.
Nearly 30 years after the Warner Bros. film launched, Greene, who originated the role of Audrey in Howard Ashman’s 1982 Off-Broadway play, which served as inspiration for Oz’s film, came full circle in 2015, fronting a two-night-only engagement of the production at New York City Center alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Saturday Night Live‘s Taran Killam, just as the country began to feel the impending presence of a Donald Trump presidency.
“Jake l and I found so many new layers in the humor and the silliness,” Greene tells EW of her reinvigorated passion for Little Shop of Horrors after the City Center stretch. “[After that], I got this idea that, well, maybe I could do this onstage again… I kept thinking about the play. The plant talks about world conquest, and nobody even thought for a moment [that Donald Trump] would win the election [at the time], and it’s the plant is kind of like Trump.”
It wasn’t until Oz and original composer Alan Menken, who worked with Ashman Off-Broadway and for the film, showed up to the City Center performances that Greene began forging a legitimate mental path toward a new production.
“I kept asking myself, if I blended the Audrey in the play with the Audrey from the film, and made her live on stage [again], could someone take the qualities of the film and bring them to the stage and combine the play and the film together, too?” she remembers. “[So], I went to Frank with the idea… I told him: I believe you’re the person to do this if you want to do it with me.”
“We set out to make it darker [than the original]. We worked for two years. It’s not easy to figure out how to make two scripts [one for the 1982 version, and one for the film version] go together and make sense [but] we had something. We were so excited. We were going to do limited runs in London,” she continues. Oz adds: “Ellen and I felt that it would be great fun to bring it back with the heart that Ellen brings to it, and to also emphasize the powerful underlying intent that Howard felt so strongly about and which happens to be very timely with what’s happening in the world today.”
“[With] the movie, Howard and I knew we wanted to be true to the Faustian bargain, which was the underpinning of the Off-Broadway show,” Oz says of the original ending scrapped by Warner Bros., which saw Audrey II eating the film’s leading couple (Seymour “did the deed” of feeding the plant people, so he had to “pay the piper,” Greene says) before fronting a planetary invasion. “That bargain, selling one’s soul for unlimited power, is what Howard wrote and what Ellen and I see as the focus of our version; we wanted to focus on the plant coming to earth — out of nowhere — and achieving power over the world. You can see that as just a story, or you can see it as a metaphor. Your choice.”
There was one hurdle they’d yet to clear: securing the rights to the story from Ashman’s estate.
“The powers that be denied [us]. There’s only so far you can push a painting back in your closet. I said to Frank: ‘If we do this we, have to do this now.’ We were prepared, and when we were denied the rights, it broke my heart because I really wanted [the fans] to know that I really fought for trying to bring it to them,” she stresses. Adds Oz: “It was disappointing that they never gave us the courtesy of having a meeting with them about it. Maybe they only want to see it as fun and fluff instead of how Howard and Ellen and I saw it. I don’t know.”
Warner Bros. did not respond to EW’s request for comment. A representative for Ashman’s estate released a statement to EW, saying, “Howard adored Ellen Greene’s iconic stage performance as Audrey, which is why he vigorously campaigned for her to be cast in Frank Oz’s film. When they approached us regarding a revival it was without a producer and we were already deeply involved in negotiations for a new revival with a major producer.”
While Greene says the abrupt end to the work she did with Oz was painful, letting down Little Shop’s dedicated fans stung far worse.
“I’d been asked so many times [by the fans], they were broken-hearted that they didn’t get into the City Center [performances], and I wanted to do this for the people who’d never seen me on stage, and of course for the people who already loved it, whether it was in the film or [otherwise],” she concludes. “We’re very broken about it… We couldn’t deliver.”
“At the end of the day it’s the audience’s loss,” he says. “It would have not only been funny and heartwarming, it also would have had the guts to it that Howard wrote in his script.”