Actress Ellen Greene, director Frank Oz, and composer Alan Menken reflect on the 1986 movie and the happier ending that went 'against the moral of the story'
When Howard Ashman’s 1982 play Little Shop of Horrors blossomed too big for its Off-Broadway pot, he teamed with Jim Henson puppeteer Frank Oz in search of greener Hollywood pastures. Together, they planted an unforgettable seed of terror with their campy monster musical about a man-eating plant with sights set on planetary domination. Though nebbish floral attendant Seymour (Rick Moranis) ultimately vanquishes the bloodthirsty bloom and settles in the suburbs with Audrey (Ellen Greene), the film’s hero wasn’t always meant to live happily ever after. Three decades later, the minds behind the cult classic — director Frank Oz, composer Alan Menken, and lead actress Ellen Greene (Audrey) — reflect on crafting the iconic production, reveal who wanted to play Seymour before Moranis came aboard (Tom Cruise, anyone?), and lament the ending that could’ve been.
After Ashman and Menken worked with David Geffen to bring the stage version to the big screen, the search for a director began
FRANK OZ: I read [Howard’s script] and I thought it was terrific, and then I saw the stage show, and it was terrific, but I couldn’t’ get a handle on how to make it cinematic instead of theatrical. I went off to Toronto to do some commercials a few weeks later, and something popped into my head: the three girls on stage, who bop up on stage left or enter from stage right, mostly. I realized I could now bop them, cinematically, wherever I want to… The key is the three girls bopping around. Theirs is an important opening number, and can only be done cinematically. It wasn’t in the script, but I decided to have it rain in the opening number, and the rain won’t touch the three girls. Immediately, you know something’s magical about them; they’re not of this world. Then I have them go into the shop, and I follow them, and I introduce Mushnik and Seymour that way… essentially I gave geography in that opening number… it went from 180 degrees [in theater] to 360 degrees [for a movie].
ELLEN GREENE: I knew Frank and Jim [Henson] from Sesame Street because my boyfriend [worked as Snuffleupagus], so I knew him before this whole thing started. When the studio wanted to use Frank for the film, I asked to talk to him. I told him he should direct it. I said, “You don’t have to use me, but you understand the land, because you do Grover! He’s so truthful and you have to understand that weird combination. It’s not easy to get.” You either get it or you don’t. Grover is the same, and he understood.
OZ: The biggest responsibility I had was not to make a Hollywood musical… I had to be true to the Second Avenue, down and dirty little theater off Broadway. On purpose, I only used two crane shots, and in musicals you’ll see they always use big crane shots. The more crane shots I used, the less intimate and gritty it would be.
Casting was next, and a roundtable of popular stars — including Tom Cruise — were reportedly in the running before Moranis and Greene came aboard
ALAN MENKEN: There was a group of A-list actors for Seymour that were discussed. Including, as I remember, Tom Cruise. He was interested. I wasn’t personally there, but he loved it, was interested in doing it, and put on some glasses to become the nerdy Seymour. [Note: a representative for Cruise denies the actor was interested.] But, Rick was the prototypical Seymour. Seymour’s heartfelt and sincere, not too bright, and lovestruck. That’s what allows him to be both funny and touching at the same time. In casting, there were wonderful actors who were physically perfect, but they exuded a certain kind of intelligence even through the character that cut against the humor. There was that sense of cluelessness in the performance that Rick brought that was perfect.
OZ: For Audrey, there were three or four big stars who David wanted and they wanted to do it, and I [told David Geffen] I just don’t see anybody else doing it but Ellen Greene. She had the heart and soul of it. So I asked David to at least screen test her, and I screen tested her with Rick, and that’s when he said, okay, you can have her. When I picked Levi Stubbs to voice the plant, I really wanted him down and dirty, and I thought he’d be funnier that… he had that grit that I wanted. As we were doing it, somebody in Geffen’s office was secretly trying to change his voice to Rodney Dangerfield. I get it, because they felt it had to be a big comedy, but then it would’ve betrayed the entire story.
GREENE: I gained weight [for the part], I wanted her round! I wanted her to be what men thought of as a luscious woman, so it countered who she was inside.
New songs were written for the project, too — many of which didn’t make the final cut
MENKEN: We had a lot of song moments we were going after. We had a song for Audrey II called “Bad Like Me” — there are recordings of all of them so they should put out an album of all the outtakes from the movie. There was a song the Urchins sang called “Your Day Begins Tonight,” we had a song “Thundercrash” for the Urchins to sing. Certainly our thought was, can we have a song that could be the hit song from the movie. That’s one of the things you don’t worry about for stage but you definitely worry about for a film… I remember years of Howard and me writing songs for the movie, trying several approaches. It took as much time to write all the different songs for the movie as it did to write the entire show to begin with.
Greene and costar Steve Martin faced several physical “challenges” during production at England’s 007 Stage
GREEN: [In one scene] Steve and I are running, the scene where we go into the apartment and he slaps me. Even when he slaps me, I said, “Steve, you have to go for it,” because at first he wanted to do a fake slap, and I said, “No, the only way this works is if it’s real, it feels real, and it seems real.” And it was. My face was swollen! Anyway, they call “action” and I run, and while Steve’s chasing me, they stop the take because sound has a problem. They’re hearing something, but they don’t know where it’s coming from. So, they look all over the set and they try to find where the sound’s coming from. We do this two more times, and all of a sudden, all the men are gathered around the sound guy, and they break out into laughter. He comes over to me and says, “Pardon me, but could you divide your breasts?” because they were hitting the mic!
Ashman, Oz, and Menken pushed for a pricey, apocalyptic closing sequence — mostly shot using miniature cityscapes — that mirrored the play’s, in which Audrey II embarks on a global rampage after devouring the film’s heroes
MENKEN: [The 1986 film was] talking about the environment, nuclear war, anything that’s hurtling us toward our own destruction. That’s where this [ending] came from. Little Shop is a happy little wink at the end of the world. [We’re] saying: Look at these self-destructive humans who are going to blow up our world with their greed.
OZ: We [screened] the film the way Howard and I wanted it. The audience was clapping after every number. Then, when Seymour and Audrey died, they turned like an icebox. The reaction was so bad, Warner Bros. wasn’t going to release it. When one dies in the theater, one dies and comes back for a curtain call, but in the movie you don’t come back for a curtain call.
Two weeks of reshoots in September 1985 commenced, and the expensive models gave way to Oz’s new ending, where Audrey and Seymour live happily ever after
OZ: I had to call [model designer Richard Conway] and tell him that after almost a year of work, we couldn’t use his ending. He didn’t scream at me; I just felt horrible…. I have to take the blame [because] my job is to make something work for a lot of people. It wasn’t confrontational, it was like, “Oh, sorry, I screwed up.”
While the new ending received higher audience scores, its makers still champion the merits of its predecessor… to a certain degree
OZ: It was a great lesson for me in that on the stage, you don’t see a close-up. This experience shows you the power of the close-up. In movies, I’m showing you every subtle thing, so the more close-ups, the more intimate and caring you are for the character. I understood the power of a close-up more after that… The audience [was] angry at us for killing the leads.
MENKEN: In an Off-Broadway theater, a nine-foot Muppet is scary, but also fun; on a movie screen, seeing a life-size Audrey II consuming skyscrapers was not necessarily funny for most audiences… The context [in a movie] is entirely different. Let’s say the film had been done more in the style of the original Roger Corman movie, the audience might have gotten the signal that oh, okay, we get it, this is a spoof. But, even then, a movie audience is different than a theater audience. They strap on for a different ride, and at that moment, they’re not prepared to have Audrey and Seymour die and get eaten by the plant. The plant has a little more edge and anger to it. It’s a little cuter on stage. But the film is so successful I can’t argue with the fact that it establishes its own tone that works. Context changes everything!
GREENE: The moral is: If you do the deed, you pay the piper, and Seymour fed [people to] the plant. I accepted the new ending because I believe at the time they wanted to make a sequel, and this was the only way they could. [But] the problem with the happier ending is, it goes against the moral of the story. It’s not the way it’s supposed to end. You have to learn a lesson in a fable…. You can’t build up to a point and then say, “Nah, I change my mind.”