Botany Gone Awry

Halloween is finally upon us and in the spirit of spooky season, I have decided to visit a cult classic. Little Shop of Horrors is a musical that has honestly always been on the peripheral for me. Oh sure, I know the songs and I’m familiar with the imagery, but I’ve never seen a production or even the film (I’m begging you not to hold that second point against me). It goes without saying that this is not one of my go-to’s, even with its famous use of puppets. I love puppets! How could I let this show go unappreciated any longer?

Little Shop of Horrors is the story of a florist shop clerk who discovers that the unusual plant he’s recently acquired thrives on human blood. It features the music of Alan Menken with a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. The original production premiered Off-Off Broadway in 1982 and opened Off-Broadway less than three months later where it ran for five years. A 1983 West End production had a successful two year run as well, which makes the fact that Little Shop did not open on Broadway until 2003 a tad surprising. That Broadway production was not without its problems and the show returned to its stronger Off-Broadway roots in 2019. Meanwhile, it has been produced all over the world and a much beloved film version was released in 1986. Counting the film soundtrack, Little Shop of Horrors has released five cast albums that fit my criteria.

The 1982 original Off-Broadway cast recording is up first, naturally. Or supernaturally, as the case may be. It has the old fashioned rock and roll feel that I expected and I relish in that. It’s got to be hard to replicate an authentic feel for 1960s music when writing in the 80s, and Menken does it beautifully. Every performance is stellar and we are treated to Ellen Greene’s legendary performance as Audrey for the first time. What a treat she is! Truly the cherry on top of this sweet bloodbath. Lee Wilkof’s Seymour and Ron Taylor’s Audrey II are also top notch. Right away, I am concerned about the prospect of choosing my favorite songs, because there isn’t a dud to be found. That said, “Grow For Me” and “Somewhere That’s Green” stand out just a hair above the rest. We’re off to a very good start.

Ellen Greene is back for the 1986 film soundtrack, which also features Rick Moranis as Seymour, Steve Martin as Orin, and Levi Stubbs as Audrey II. Moranis is doing his best and it shows, but he’s not as confident as his predecessor and Greene performs circles around him. Regardless, this is still an enjoyable listen. There’s even a new song here; “Some Fun Now” takes the place of “Ya Never Know” and brings some calypso flavor to Little Shop. But the really good thing about “Some Fun Now” is it gives Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) a little extra something to do. These three are one of the most famous Greek choruses in all of musical theatre and for good reason. They should absolutely have even more to do. All things considered, this a surprisingly solid cast album for a film soundtrack. I dig it.

The UK tour cast released their cast album in 1994 and it’s next on my list. This production took a risk in giving the music a synth pop sound while keeping the essential rock and roll feel. The result is a more subdued Little Shop and unfortunately that makes it less memorable for me. None of the performances really stood out here. It’s not that it’s a bad album, far from it in fact. It’s just that it’s weaker than all of the others. The one advantage that it has is the inclusion of a mega mix of the biggest songs from the show. It’s a fun little addition and, perhaps contrary to what I had to say about the Hello, Dolly! finale, more shows should release mega mixes, especially in our age of bite-sized media.

With that, we finally come to Broadway. The 2003 Broadway cast album of Little Shop of Horrors is the longest at an hour and 18 minutes, but that running time comes with a whole lot of dialogue. I appreciate that because it gives my novice ears a little bit of context. Another bonus is the cast: Hunter Foster, Michael-Leon Wooley, and Kerry Butler are our leads and they had me excited from the start. Foster and Wooley are terrific and have great chemistry, while Butler’s Audrey comes of as a Disney princess from Queens. That’s a little off-putting, but I barely even care because she’s always a delight. This album also features several demos of songs that were cut during production, which is interesting and a fun way to stick the landing. Overall I really like this version.

The 2019 Off-Broadway cast album is Little Shop‘s most recent. It stars Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard, Kingsley Leggs, and Christian Borle. It has the most contemporary rock sound of the five but it doesn’t sacrifice the 60s feel that helps make this show so great. In fact, the prologue opens with what sounds like an actual 60s news broadcast. That sets the tone for a great listen, especially when it comes to Blanchard’s Audrey. My one complaint is that Groff is too polished a Seymour for my liking. While the others had a stereotypically boyish charm, his comes off as a talented heartthrob. That is made all the more apparent by the inclusion of a bonus track of “Grow For Me” performed by Groff’s replacement, Jeremy Jordan, who is a better fit for the character. Still, this is once again a stellar cast album.

Little Shop of Horrors is a brilliant musical with a super fun score and any one of these albums is proof of that. I really think the 1982, 2003, and 2019 cast albums are neck and neck along with the film soundtrack (my apologies to the UK) but I’m going to go ahead and give the bragging rights that come along with being my favorite to the original Off-Broadway cast. After all, it set the tone and what a nice and consistent tone it is. If you’ve not been giving this show the attention it deserves like I wasn’t, do yourself a favor and dive in. I promise you’ll have a good time. Just don’t feed the plants.

Musical: Little Shop of Horrors

Music: Alan Menken 

Lyrics: Howard Ashman

Opening Night Off-Off-Broadway: May 6, 1982, Players Art Foundation Theatre, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1982 original Off-Broadway, 1986 film, 1994 UK, 2003 Broadway, and 2019 Off-Broadway casts

My Favorite Cast Album: 1982 Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording

Highlights: “Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors),” “Grow For Me,” “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Feed Me (Git It!),” and “Suddenly, Seymour”

Overall Impression: A very fun listen with extraordinary casts throughout. This one is worth the hype.

Lady Di Didn’t Deserve This

With all the talk going on about the new Broadway musical Diana, especially since its unconventional Netflix premiere earlier this month, I thought now was as good a time as any to get back to my blog. The internet has not been kind to this show. In fact, it has been met with nearly universal vitriol. So much so that I had already drawn two conclusions before I began to examine it for this post: first, that I wouldn’t have anything to add to the larger conversation, and second, that I had read so much bad press on the work that I was fully prepared to listen to the cast album with low expectations.

If my life had an audible narrator, this is the part where they would say “he was not prepared.”

Diana is a new musical with music and lyrics by the team who gave us Memphis, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro. Joe DiPietro also wrote the book. If the name David Bryan rings any bells you may recognize him as the keyboardist from Bon Jovi. The show was set to open in March of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed it. However, it was professionally filmed at the Longacre Theatre last year and can now be streamed on Netflix. As of today, Diana has yet to officially open on Broadway.

Now, I have not seen the Netflix pro-shoot of Diana because I really try and focus only on cast albums here. And judging solely by the cast album, I can say with certainty that this show deserves every ounce of criticism that it gets. The music is ridiculous, the lyrics unbearable, and the performances seem ripped from a sketch comedy show. What’s left? The orchestrations? Ha! Don’t get me started. The whole thing had me scratching my head as I tried to make out whether Diana was intended as a work of satire. It’s a wonder it made it out of workshops, let alone to Broadway!

Here the British royal family belts out songs that would be at home on a Kidz Bop Goes Rock Opera album while the People’s Princess navigates her life around villains Charles (whom she calls “a third rate Henry VIII”) and Camilla (“Godzilla”). The only song with any real charm is Diana’s ballad “I Will.” Aside from that, this album is saturated with the worst tunes and lyrics you’ve ever heard. Yes, even worse than that. And it’s an hour and nineteen minutes long! What gives it the right? Indeed, any one of the Rusical episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race would have put out a better cast album than this.

Diana still awaits an opening night (November 2, in case you’re a masochist). I think I’ll skip the pro-shoot after all. Heck, I may even move to London where I’ll be safe from this monstrosity. Heaven knows it will never play the West End.

Musical: Diana

Music and Lyrics: David Bryan and Joe DiPietro

Cast Album I Listened To: 2021 Original Broadway Cast

Highlight: “I Will”

Overall Impression: The real Diana was too good a person to be memorialized with this mess.