Little Shop of Horrors is responsible for one musical theater’s unexpectedly terrifying characters: a carnivorous plant from outer space. The horror-comedy musical follows the misadventures that take place at Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop on Skid Row, thanks to an employee named Seymour and his plant that feeds on human blood.
What’s it like to bring the world’s most famous man-eating plant to life eight times a week? Aaron Arnell Harrington, Weston Chandler Long, and Teddy Yudain are the three artists who can tell you. Harrington provides the booming vocals, while both Long and Yudain are the principal puppeteers responsible for the menacing movements.
As the Off-Broadway revival gears up to celebrate its fourth anniversary at the Westside Theatre, Broadway Direct sat down with the three artists to hear about what it takes to “git it” over on Skid Row.
What was your familiarity with Little Shop before joining this production?
Aaron Arnell Harrington: I grew up watching the 1986 film with Rick Moranis, and I don’t think anyone could ever forget how they felt when they first saw “Twoey” [Audrey II] open her mouth. It was terrifying!
Weston Chandler Long: I was familiar with the show, but not overly so, before I was introduced to this production. I saw a high school performance when I was young — the kind where they add 15 more Urchin characters to allow for more students to be in the production. I remember really enjoying it. But it wasn’t until I saw this production, before I was involved with it, that I truly was able to appreciate how perfect of a musical-theater piece this was. I was floored by it.
Teddy Yudain: I actually did the show in sixth grade! We watched the movie to prepare for it. I played Seymour, even though I really wanted to be the dentist. Fast forward to 2018, I was asked by a family friend to help build and design Audrey II for a production at the Monomoy Theatre on Cape Cod. It was my first time building puppets for a professional production. The next summer, I returned to puppeteer Audrey II at The Cape Playhouse, and that was about two months before I auditioned for the Off-Broadway production!
How would you describe Audrey II?
WCL: Audrey II is an extraterrestrial being that has one thing on the brain — world domination! She will stop at nothing to get there and knows exactly how to manipulate those around her to get what she wants. She’s incredibly smart and conniving — mainly toward Seymour — in order to get fed, so she can grow to the point where she becomes unstoppable.
TY: Audrey II is a bully, but she’s not just physically imposing. She knows how to find your weakness and exploit it. She plays people like a fiddle and then disposes of them once she doesn’t need them anymore.
Aaron, why do you think Audrey II has become such a fan favorite in musical theater?
AAH: Because she is just one sassy queen! She’s the puppeteer, and everyone else is a marionette. She’s always two steps ahead, and fearlessly goes after what she wants. If we look past her murderous intent, she is, as the kids would say, “goals!”
How does it feel to make your Off-Broadway debut with such an iconic role?
AAH: Nothing, so far, has come remotely close to this experience and the joy it brings me every day. Doing this show, in the theater capital, alongside the most incredible and talented individuals I’ve ever met is something I never take lightly. I’m so wonderfully blessed.
How do you all work together to synchronize the puppet’s movements and vocals?
AAH: During rehearsals, the puppeteers would come to my sessions with our music director, and match whatever energy I would give for each song or scene. It made it so much smoother when we put it all together, and we’d discuss different adjustments that needed to be made to ensure we were always on the same page.
WCL: We wear in-ear monitors that are connected to the audio of the show, including Aaron’s live mic feed, so we can hear everything from him loudly and clearly. When we are isolated in the puppet, sounds from the stage around us can become muffled, so getting to have that clear connection to hear every breath and inflection that Aaron gives in his richly dynamic performance is so vital — so that we can match it!
TY: It’s important to know all of Audrey II’s lines, as well as everyone else’s in the scene, in case something goes awry. Beyond that, it’s just lots of rehearsal, repetition, and listening to Aaron’s habits.
WCL: Aaron really is a beautifully consistent performer, which is so helpful for us because we know the shape of what he is going to do and are able to anticipate what he gives.
AAH: They really trust me, and it makes our partnership that much tighter, which I believe shines when we’re doing the show.
Aaron, where are you physically located during the performance? How do you navigate interacting with cast members without being directly in front of them?
AAH: A lot of people are shocked when they find out that I’m not actually inside the plant. I’m stationed in a soundproofed booth all the way in the back of the house, so I have the privilege of watching my castmates masterfully navigate the stage every night. I can’t say that I’m not jealous that I’m missing out on all of the backstage shenanigans, but I make sure to bug them plenty before we get called to places. I’m really good at bugging them!
Weston and Teddy, what’s the process of Audrey II eating someone, in terms of puppeteering?
WCL: I think people would be surprised that it takes up to four people at a time to bring this one character to life. There are three of us on the puppetry team, and then Aaron providing the voice, all having to be in perfect synchronicity. It all has to work together so seamlessly to make the audience not even register that it’s such a team effort.
TY: When folks are eaten, we rest the largest puppet on the ground. Then we have to unclip the upper and lower jaw from each other, so we can open the upper jaw and lift it over our heads, like with a barbell. We have our legs spread wide so the people can either crawl, be fed, or dive into an opening in the fabric where they land and crawl out the back of the puppet with the help of a stage manager.
WCL: The Audrey II puppet that eats people is remarkably heavy and hard, so we want to make sure that everyone who comes into contact with it is safe and secure while still telling the story effectively. We have to walk this tightrope of making sure that we, as actors, are protecting the safety of our fellow actors on stage during those “eating” sequences while giving the illusion to the audience that Audrey II is devouring them with every ounce of energy she has.
TY: We also always have a hand on the fabric that hangs at the back of the mouth, which we keep alive by fluttering the fabric, to give Audrey II a sense of breath and life while she’s eating.
What’s the biggest challenge, and the biggest reward, of puppeteering Audrey II?
TY: The sheer physical effort of the performance is pretty intense. Not only do you have to be strong enough to move the puppets around, but you also have to be able to hold completely still for long periods of time, and then explode with energy that is perfectly synched up to the voice. It’s physically and mentally demanding.
WCL: Audrey II is a beast to perform, in all her growing sizes, so we have to make sure we are thoroughly stretched and warmed up every show to avoid getting injured or pulling anything. We get physical therapy once a week, which is so invaluable to help keep our bodies tuned and in check to do eight shows.
TY: Another big challenge for me is fighting the inclination to “change things up” to keep it interesting — because that might not necessarily serve Aaron’s performance, or the piece as a whole. Since this role is shared with Aaron and Weston, we owe it to one another to maintain the integrity of the performance that we have crafted together as a unit.
WCL: What makes it all more than worth it is getting to hear the audience reaction to Audrey II coming to life every night! Hearing the shock and horror and delight from them as she speaks for the first time, then sings, then dances, then makes them laugh. We get to create theater magic that can’t be replicated anywhere else. I’m so proud of that.
TY: The biggest reward is definitely that audience reaction. When we come alive sometimes there are screams, or when she shows a little attitude and there’s a laugh. Hearing that, I know we’ve done our job and that the audience believes she is completely real, and they’ve forgotten she’s a puppet.
How did you first get involved with puppeteering?
WCL: I became interested in puppetry at 5 years old, after growing up a superfan of Sesame Street and the Muppets. When I learned that puppetry was a way to bring those characters I loved so much to life, I decided I wanted to do that too. I wrote a letter to Caroll Spinney, who was the performer of Big Bird, my favorite character, asking him about what it means to be a puppeteer. He wrote back telling me about it, and that grew into a beautiful, invaluable mentorship that lasted until he passed in 2019. I will be forever grateful that he took me under his wing and guided me. I studied puppetry, along with musical theater, from that young age all the way through high school, and when I moved to New York City for college to study acting 10 years ago. This show combines my two great loves so perfectly.
TY: My first puppetry job was an opera of Puss in Boots. I loved puppetry, but didn’t have any formal experience. What I did have was a background in dance, clown, and physical theater. I learned a few different puppetry styles in that one show, and I was part of an ensemble of great puppet artists who in the coming years would become collaborators and would foster my budding puppetry career.
Which scene do you look forward to every performance? Why?
AAH: I think we’ll all have the same answer here: “Feed Me (Git It!),” hands down. That’s Audrey II’s true introduction number, and it reveals so much about her — from how savage she can be to get what she wants, to convincing an innocent-minded young man to commit murder! Also, for me as the vocalist, it’s a challenge because I want to properly show her range, so I’m all over the place with the dynamics. I think it’s a great demonstration of and accentuates her thought process in convincing Seymour to do her bidding.
TY: Yeah, it’s always “Feed Me.” Hearing the audience’s reactions to the plant coming alive always gets me going, and the song gets me so pumped. It’s a full-body experience and it’s the turning point of the whole story. It’s always so much fun.
WCL: It is also the first time the audience hears the plant talk, and sees it come to life in a big way. So getting to be that first impression of this creature in such a larger-than-life way is so thrilling. Most people assume that puppet is manipulated by two people, because there are so many moving parts to it, but it’s all just controlled by one person and it is wildly fun. It’s pretty much a sprint the whole time, because it’s such an involved number that just gets more and more energetic as it goes on. By the end, we are flailing around and kicking our legs and rocking the pot back and forth, and it’s just exhilarating.
This revival is approaching its fourth anniversary this fall. What is it about this show that you think keeps people coming back for more?
TY: The book and the music of Little Shop are just masterpieces. Not only is it smart and funny, but amid the absurdity there’s real heart and substance there. Adding in the spectacle of seeing huge puppets playing a major role — that doesn’t just exist for comedic effect or a gag — and it’s a really special event that can only be experienced in a theatre.
AAH: Our cast does a phenomenal job at keeping the heart beating for such a classic show. It’s fun, and camp, and we make sure that that’s never forgotten. Our relationship offstage resonates onstage, and audiences immediately get plugged in and follow the hilarious journey with us because we’re genuinely having so much fun. Who doesn’t enjoy a belly laugh? Howard Ashman and Alan Menken— the G.O.A.T.s, Greatest of All Time, — wrote an incredible piece, which is enough to get people in the doors, and I like to think we just make them feel at home while they’re visiting.
WCL: I truly believe this is a perfect musical. There is not one second of wasted time in it. It is funny, and touching, and dark, and campy — it straddles all those genres so expertly. And obviously, the music by Menken and Ashman is brilliant and keeps you humming it long after you leave the theatre. I’ve done something like 500 performances of this show so far — I’ve lost count — and I still love hearing that music every day. I find myself singing it when I’m home or waiting for the subway. It’s a true testament to the quality of the show, and the people involved in bringing it to life, onstage and backstage. They are my family. There is so much love and trust that goes into putting this show on, and I’m sure it reads to the audience. I think that’s what keeps them coming back.