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The Little Shop of Horrors is, at first sight, a spoof sci-fi comedy-horror off Broadway show from the 1980s. It was written by writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken and was based on an 1960s black and white horror film.
But the Menken/Ashman version is more than a musical spoof, it is a bleak post-modern look at the reality of life in the USA as a contrast to the glitzy promises of "The American Dream" and it has far more in common with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby than most of the audience realises whilst they are swinging along to "Be a Dentist" or emoting with "Somewhere That’s Green."
I am going to compare and contrast the production of Little Shop of Horrors that I saw at The Custard Factory on Birmingham with a touring production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers.
Although one show is set in an American city and one in Liverpool, they cover many of the same themes and both use music to create heightened atmosphere and to engage the emotions of the audience, highlighting the pain inherent in the relationships within each show and also the conflict between rich and poor, haves and have-nots and lure of wealth — to help those we love even if not just for ourselves — and both shows borrow from the traditions of Ancient Greek theatre, using a "Chorus" to comment on the action and to direct the opinion of the audience. In Little Shop of Horrors, the chorus is represented by a trio of 1960s street urchins named Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon who point out the futility of struggling to be something you are not and in Blood Brothers, the Chorus is represented by the "Narrator" a single voice who warns about the folly of the decision taken by Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons.
In Little Shop of Horrors, the American Dream is represented by Orin, the sadistic dentist and the news channels/big companies who are only interested in the next "scoop" or the next shopping fad that will make them money. In Blood Brothers, this is the much more ordinary but no less dangerous Mr. and Mrs. Lyons, the business owner and his bored, stay-at-home wife.
Both productions used a composite set very effectively. Because the scenes change frequently, dropping a curtain and re-setting the stage is not an option. It would interrupt the flow of the story and alienated the audience, slowing everything down and destroying the gathering pace and emotional momentum. At The Custard Factory, a revolve, up stage centre, was used to effect the main scene changes, from Mushnik’s flower shop to the radio station studio and Orin’s surgery. It was also used to introduce the Audrey II puppet which was controlled from back stage. In the touring production of Blood Brothers the Lyon’s "home" is brought on from the stage left wings as a moveable backdrop with an expensive fireplace, mirror and ornaments hides much of the run-down Liverpool industrial slums backdrop. The stage lighting plays a significant part in the creation of atmosphere in both productions. In Blood Brothers, the Lyons’ home is lit with bright, warm lights so that we subconsciously feel warm, safe, and cared for; the outdoor world inhabited by the Johnstones is lit with a harsh, flat white light which creates shadows at the same time as showing up all the rough and tattered edges of their black, white and grey environment. It has no warmth, no colour, and no joy.
Willie Russell opens Blood Brothers in a very different way to the opening of Little Shop of Horrors, he shows us the climax of the play, the final outcome of Mrs. Johnstone’s struggle to get a better life for one of her children. The play opens with a tableau of the Johnstone twins, dead. This is a Brechtian alienation technique which Brecht used, he said, to stop the audience from getting too caught up in the narrative and to allow them the space to think about choices and implications. I think that Willy Russell used it for a different reason. I believe that he knew that if the audience knows the futility of all Mrs Johnstone’s struggles in life and with her conscience, they will develop much greater sympathy for her as the play progresses and not be alienated from her because of her action in giving Edward away. I think this is an example of using dramatic irony to control the audience experience and influence their response to the play, making Mrs. Johnstone a victim and someone to be pitied rather than portraying her as a monster.
The opening song in Blood Brothers, Marilyn Monroe sets the scene by giving us the back story of Mrs. Johnstone’s life. We see something that was okay become difficult and then impossible and the problems she encounters increase. It also introduces themes of dancing and tragedy because everyone is aware of Marilyn Monroe as a tragic, flawed character. The tension is broken when she gets the job cleaning for Mrs. Lyons, only to increase again when she/we discover that she is expecting twins and Mrs. Lyons persuades her to give one of them up. The counter harmonies of "My Child" creating a melancholy atmosphere and the juxtaposition of Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons on the stage, Mrs. Johnstone stage right, closer to the black, white and grey harshly lit slum backdrop and Mrs. Lyons cocooned inside the warm and safe, luxurious environment of her home. One dressed in slippers and a worn baggy, colourless cardigan, the other immaculate from her permed hair to her expensive but very refined shoes with the obligatory string of pearls and wedding and engagement rings. The contrast between the two characters could not be more obvious and it is clear to the audience that Mrs. Lyons will win the argument because she has everything going for her. We can see Mrs. Johnstone struggle but we know that in the end she will give in, for love. She just wants one of her children to have everything that she cannot give to the rest of them. This is the saving of her character and why the audience can identify and empathise with her, she doesn’t make the decision for personal gain, she does it for the sake of others; for the children she already has and a little bit for Mrs. Lyons. We can contrast this with the decisions that face Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, initially he goes along with promoting Audrey II, for the sake of the shop, Mr. Mushnick, and Audrey. His rejection of "big business" when it comes, comes too late for him and Audrey and their ending is not a happy one (unlike the Frank Oz film version) with the power of Audrey II who symbolises money/big business/The American Dream/capitalism destroying them both before they can destroy it. In the same way, Mrs. Lyons, the representative of the upper class and business in Blood Brothers, controls Mrs. Johnstone with her swearing on the bible and her appeal to superstition in the song "New Shoes on the Table," a song with a haunting and malevolent melody line. Little Shop of Horrors also opens with a musical number, the up tempo "Little Shop of Horrors" is quickly followed by "Downtown - Skid Row," which sets the context of the show for the audience.
Both shows also entertain the audience, they would not have long runs if they didn’t! One of the liveliest scenes and songs in Blood Brothers is in Act 1, "Kid’s Game." Although the show doesn’t have any formal dance in it, this is a closely choreographed dance/movement piece based on the lyrics of the song. It is up-tempo and although it is full of dark humour, that is offset by the enthusiasm and energy of the characters and the light hearted way the piece is delivered. It is a scene which contrasts quite significantly with the pace of many of the other scenes in the show and it raises the hope of the audience due to the energy level and enthusiasm.
All the children are played by the adult actors, this is a difficult part of the characterisation to get right. The actors achieve it partly through their costumes and make-up but mostly through their movement and body-language. The costumes are typical 1970s kids hand-me-down clothes made too big so that the actors look even smaller. They all have grubby knees and faces but it it’s the quality of their movement that convinces the audience that they are children. Their movements are loose and seem to be spontaneous. Mickey and the others don’t sit or lie down carefully (although Edwards does but this is to show the difference in his up bringing and social status), they throw themselves to the floor and they bounce up again, running everywhere and with open body language. It is this energy and physical carelessness that convinces the audience to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept that they are watching a group of children playing in the street outside their houses. A willing suspension of disbelief is also needed when we watch Little Shop of Horrors, this is achieved in part by the fact that we watch the growth of Audrey II from a sickly cutting that is a bit like a cross between a Venus Flytrap and a Pitcher plant. At first the plant is no more than a cutting and so the audience can accept that it is carnivorous as it is not very threatening and because we watch it growing on stage, we accept the development from sickly cutting to life-threatening, controlling alien. The development by stages allows us to accept things that we would not accept if they came all at once.
In the stage version of the story, just like in the film version, the contrast between the vocal range and power of Audrey II and Seymour is very important. Seymour’s songs are for a light Tenor voice while Audrey II is strong Baritone with underlying Bass. The implication being that Seymour, though morally on the right side is a "lightweight" whilst Audrey II is where all the "weight," "power," and "strength" is. The standard of both the Audrey II puppet and the puppetry is essential to the success of the show Little Shop of Horrors. The smaller versions are controlled by animatronics and the larger by a combination of puppeteers, working inside the plant to manipulate the flower head and using strings to manipulate the tentacles.
Both shows rely heavily on dramatic irony. In Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey ironically yearns for a fake, plastic life which has been dictated to her by advertising, she is brainwashed and the yearning quality of her voice and the music as she sings about wanting to have furniture with plastic covers and to live in the "Pine-Sol scented air" (Pine –Sol is a commercial disinfectant) in the song "Somewhere That’s Green" is a deeply ironic comment on the impact of advertising on the aspirations of American people. In a parallel to this, Mrs. Johnstone has given up one of her twins to Mrs. Lyons in the hope that he will have a "better life." Ironically, at the beginning of the play, it is undoubtedly Mickey who is the happier child, he has more fun and as they grow up, he also has Linda to support him. Despite all of this, Mickey longs for something more and doing a "job" with Sammy (counterpart to Audrey II?) he is arrested, imprisoned and falls into a clinical depression – a metaphor for the way that Seymour fall into the mouth of Audrey II? Neither escape their fate.
The audience can, perhaps, feel more sympathy for Seymour and Audrey than for Mickey and Edward and at least Seymour and Audrey are together at the end of the show, they are even, ironically, "somewhere that’s green" if you count being inside the plant as being green. In death Mickey and Edward are finally equal and so are Mrs. Johnston and Mrs. Lyons, both have lost the things they love.
In the end all the main characters, except for Mickey, reject the thing that is trying to control their life but it is too late, business/money/a social class based society is too strong for the individual to escape and Audrey and Seymour are literally and figuratively eaten alive by those in power and in control; Mickey and Edward die because there was a challenge to the status quo, Edwards moved up from the status he was supposed to have in his life and that wasn’t acceptable to either side, so he had to die.
Both shows have the message that society is divided, unequal and unfair and that trying to break through the things that control you and keep you in your place in society will make you worse off in the long run. Although the shows are very different in genre, musical style and in their setting, the underlying message is the same, despite what might be suggested by governments society is not flexible and social aspirations are just that, dreams and that ordinary people should not try to get themselves to where they don’t belong because that just causes trouble for them.