Tony Award–winning director Michael Mayer brought the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman classic Little Shop of Horrors back to life and back to its roots in 2019 at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre. NY1 entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Mayer to talk about putting his spin on the famed musical — all while keeping the integrity of the original production.
How did this production of Little Shop come to be?
It’s a long story. [Laughs.] I would say the short version is that I had been in talks with the Howard Ashman estate — his sister, Sarah, and his widower, Bill — for quite a while, and it all got hot again a few years ago. I’d directed God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and we all agreed we needed to make Little Shop happen. Many people have approached Alan and the Ashmans about doing a Broadway revival, but it was clear to all of us that it was meant to be in an Off-Broadway setting, as Howard had also felt. We searched for a while to find the right venue and were thrilled when the Westside Theatre became available. It just all felt right.
Little Shop is such a special piece. What’s your first memory of the show?
It might have been my last year at NYU; we were down in the East Village at that point. The original production of Little Shop was at the Orpheum and you couldn’t avoid it. Several months into the run, I saw it for the first time. I saw it with the original cast and then quite some time later because a friend of mine was playing Audrey — Marsha Waterbury. I couldn’t believe how great it was. I remember being so charmed by it. The show knew exactly what I wanted, every minute, and delivered it perfectly.
The musical has gone back to its roots, playing now in an intimate Off-Broadway setting.
I think it’s in the DNA of the material. Little Shop is based on an old movie that took 72 hours to shoot. Three days. Roger Corman wrote it and directed it. There was something urgent and immediate about the comedy of it. It really was this terrifically sideways kind of indictment of the American dream — it’s quite a dark comedy. Really of-the-moment. It wasn’t polished, it had a raw energy to it. And I think Howard Ashman and Alan Menken took that vibe and ran with it. Even though what they made was quite sophisticated, they knew how to give you wonderful art and at the same time maintain having one foot in this campy little indie film. It doesn’t want to be a big, slick production. That’s not what it is.
You’re getting a full, hilarious musical-theater meal — insert plant eating pun here — by the time you exit the theatre.
There’s something about this show that can connect the audience and performers. Inspired by the original production, we wanted to go back to our essential theater-making selves when we started putting this show together. It took us back to when we first wanted to do a play, or put on a show. The minute you interact with this show, it unlocks that special thing in you. When you can do it and it’s not about Tony Awards or sending a giant tour out, it’s pure. Everyone’s doing it because we love it.
I need to point out your incredible company of performers, starting with the Seymours: Jonathan Groff, Gideon Glick, Jeremy Jordan, and now Conrad Ricamora.
Our Seymours have been astounding — sympathetic, funny, heartbreaking, and they’ve all said it’s a dream role. Plus, they’ve each had the most beautiful, magical voices. Seeing and hearing them perform these songs in that intimate space is just heaven.
Tammy Blanchard’s take on Audrey … It’s completely original and she’s perfect in the role.
I thought what Ellen Greene did in the first Little Shop was amazing. Every time I’ve seen it since, people were always trying to do Ellen’s version of it, and we knew we didn’t want that. I felt like we needed to find our own version of Audrey, specific to this production. Tammy taps into a vulnerability that is so incredibly moving. You could see it when she did Judy Garland, and when she did Louise in Gypsy. And now her Audrey.
And Christian Borle as Dr. Orin Scrivello is out of this world. Absolutely hilarious every time he steps on stage.
Christian Borle is one of the greatest musical-theater comedians of our time. He’s inventive and charismatic and shows the audience that he’s having the time of his life. It’s a performance that is not to be missed.
You’ve gone on record saying that one of your goals of this revival was to honor the late, great Howard Ashman.
I feel like it’s a part of Howard. You hear about the Ashman/Menken collaboration and one is dazzled by that. In those few short years, they did Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. That’s seminal work for millions of people, and has been for several generations now. For me, the part of him that I wanted to honor was that he was a director. He directed Rosewater, Little Shop, Smile. He was, in essence, a director on all the Disney projects. It was his brain that came up with all those stories. People think of him as just a great lyricist, but he would create a world and a sensibility. It’s so much more.
What has your interaction been like with the Howard Ashman estate?
They are so pleased, and that makes me incredibly proud. Their approval is the closest I can get to getting Howard’s approval.
What about working with the great Alan Menken?
Alan is the dreamiest and he has been around a lot. We did the album with him, which sounds incredible.
You’ve directed your fair share of musicals and won a Tony for Spring Awakening. Would you call this a perfect musical?
I would. No question. For my money, it’s the best musical of its time, without a doubt — and one of the top 10 best musicals of all time. And I felt that way before I started working on it. The way that it functions is an absolute model of efficiency and taste. Alan and Howard knew exactly what they wanted this to be and brought all their intelligence, humor, and heart to it.
Little Shop is pure entertainment, but there’s also a message.
The real message is there’s a danger to succumbing to what other people call “success.” When Seymour chooses to keep feeding the plant because he believes that’s what’s giving him everything he wants — fame, fortune, “the girl” — knowing full well that he’s committing atrocities, he’s doomed. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s hilariously funny and moving; you want to get up and dance to the music. It pulls you in, just like the plant — you get sucked into it. We see ourselves in it.
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