(Author’s Note: This originally appeared on Harlot.)
A rad Off Broadway musical, a parody of the sci-fi/horror ilk that Roger Corman (its original creator, of sorts) churned out, and, perhaps, most of all, a sweetly poisonous satire on race, class, and the American Dream. Frank Oz’s adaptation of Alan Menken and Howard Ashmen’s cult musical (which was in turn based on a low budget 1960 film) is a delectably deadly apple concerning a boy, a girl, poverty, and a foul-mouthed carnivorous plant.
As Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve notes, “What’s significant about Little Shop is that the traditional, supposedly guaranteed avenues to the American Dream have failed them.” She goes on to elaborate the exact methods that failed them (starting a business, having big dreams, etc.), but what’s also crucial is that contingent on the concept of the American Dream is capitalism, a system that everyone in the film (who ostensibly has a job) is complicit in, or a victim of. “Skid Row”, though thematically derivative of many showtunes where desires are expressed (for stability, for love, for money, for fame, etc) , speaks very specifically to the way that the community, environment, and system works within what looks like an anonymous version of Manhattan.
Lyric after lyric, the details of life on Skid Row aren’t pretty, and they’re intentionally juxtaposed against what life is like when one’s working for those that have achieved the seemingly mythic American Dream:
“Uptown, you cater to a million jerks / Uptown, you’re messengers and mailroom clerks / Eating all your lunches at the hot dog carts / The bosses take your money and they break your hearts.”
Oz’s camera pulls out in a crane shot over a fence, and despite the momentous ending of the track musically (major key, a swell of voices and instruments), the end message is primarily a dour one. There’s no hope for these people. As much as they try, as often as they repeat it, they can’t “get out of here”.
Also noticeable is that the Skid Row that these folks inhabit seems to be, though diverse, very much minority inhabited. Many people of color, ethnic representations (Italian people, Polish people, as well as the Jewish caricature Mr. Mushnik), all of whom drag their feet or bags, dressed primarily in tatters. A subtext of gentrification feels more overt when contrasted so starkly against the rest of community that remain financially unstable.
When the business starts succeeding as a result of the showcase of Audrey II, the enigmatic plant Seymour found during the total eclipse of the sun, there’s a whiff of “urban renewal” about the area: Mr. Mushnik’s shop shines bright with the pastel palette typical of the musical genre that it’s playing with while the world around them remains dank and decrepit. Behind the counter are Seymour, Audrey, and Mr. Mushnik, all of whom are Caucasian. Their customers are almost all white. Mr. Mushnik shouts after the Greek chorus, dressed as young school girls, to be in school so that they can “better [themselves]”. “‘Better ourselves’?” one of them spits back. “Did you hear that? Mister, when you’re in Skid Row, there ain’t no such thing.” It’s easy to interpret this on a general level;, that it is impossible for anyone in Skid Row to do that. Yet, the subtext and implication is “when you’re a marginalized person in Skid Row, there ain’t no such thing”.
This is a subtle breaking of the fourth wall, as we understand these characters to serve primarily as Greek chorus. The schoolgirl who says this looks back at her friends, and then back past the camera, and though she’s addressing Mr. Mushnik, she’s talking to us. Implicit in that little piece of dialogue is the structural inequality that serves as an obstacle for these girls to “better” themselves, as well as a criqitue of the notion that people have to “better” themselves in the first place. It’s a small, but potent ideological battle, one that’s class and linguistic based. That they aim their words straight at the audience makes for the experience to be all the more jarring.
Audrey and Seymour have unfortunate backstories, and Audrey particularly dreams of a future she was thus far unable to attain. She croons about the white picket fence and family she wishes to have in “Somewhere That’s Green”.Oz’s deliberately artificial rendering of the house, the lawn, etc. resonates in that the American Dream, in this film, is facile even to those for whom it is their dream. Seymour, an orphan, wants those things, too (especially with Audrey).
Again, in sharp contrast with the world around them, the film’s Greek chorus, women of color, are dressed, in a word, fabulously. Bright colors, gorgeous designs, lovely accessories. It is intentionally antithetical to the environment they inhabit, even a middle finger to the people who deny the beauty, but uphold the beauty standards, that people of this economic background can attain.
The Greek chorus exists as both internally and externally from the film, their garments dependent on the relationship they have to the narrative at a given time. Merely making comment, they’re allowed to fulfill that American fantastical aesthetic, a bourgeoisie look that Mr. Mushnik would be quick to scoff at. When they are working within the film as participants, they’re donning old, dirty school clothes, emblematic of their realities. They seem to vacillate between a fantasy, where they can observe the goings on omnisciently, and a lived reality, where they’re subject to the same conditions of poverty as everyone else.
Also interesting is this idea that Audrey II is voiced by former Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs, this meta-text suggesting that as Seymour becomes ascends to fame, he’s profiting off a black person. He is profiting off of the black body. There seems to be an odd ambivalence in commitment to this idea, as Audrey II, voiced by a person of color or not, is nonetheless illustrated as a villain, a “mean green mother from outer space”. Much of the film’s satire is in service of critiquing the very whiteness that threatens the Other, but Audrey II is, admittedly, parodic in comparison.
The blunter reading of Seymour’s methodology is “some people will do anything to get everything”, and while that power hungry narrative is relevant, it doesn’t acknowledge some of the more sociological aspects at work. Audrey II is the step to the American Dream that Seymour and Audrey crave, and in a desire to acquire that, Seymour fees Audrey II endlessly, all in the hope that Audrey II will have enough.
Though hunger for power is certainly damning, the film indicts the audience to some degree in their perpetuation of trickle down and gentrifying economic policies, ones that suggest that places like Skid Row will be able to “better” themselves not by helping the people in need directly, but by providing economic benefit to those that already have power, privilege, and stability. In essence, Audrey II is the pawn for Seymour and Audrey’s personal success.
Audrey II has the last word, though. In the infamously altered ending, sure, Seymour and Audrey end up acquiring the American Dream. The white house, picket fence, and plastic wrapped furniture is all there. But lurking in the garden is a remnant of the past, perhaps indicative of gentrification’s, even colonialism’s, ghost.