It would be a mistake to dismiss Little Shop of Horrors as camp, because it is written with more attention to the intricacies of construction than most serious musicals. In a sense, it’s the last purely funny musical comedy to have stood the test of time; its endurance due, in part, to its solid architecture.
The songwriting is especially specific to the time and place it’s set in: an urban skid row from the early 1960s. Composer Alan Menken has great fun with the stylistic quirks of the female soul trios of the period, and, in fact, these characters are named for The Crystals, The Ronnettes and The Chiffons. They function both as a Greek chorus and a musical comedy chorus, except they express more of a sassy attitude than those usually do.
“Somewhere That’s Green” is the exemplar of an “I Want” song, but it also manages to be simultaneously funny and very touching. What Audrey wants is not extraordinary, and many of her dreams come from now-forgotten television shows of the time, each of which tells us something about her, leading us to know her and love her in a short period of time.
The Little Shop of Horrors score is full of “I want” songs: “Downtown” makes a countermelody out of desires: “Someone show me a way to get out of here,” and the villain is defined by a two-word phrase, “Feed me” that’s repeated in both dialogue and song. It’s also a prime example of a duet in which one character is trying to convince another to do something, as is “Mushnik & Son.” Another duet, the musical scene called “Now (It’s Just the Gas)” humorously stops the action. The situation of the dentist being stuck in a gas mask gives the hero time to contemplate his next move. Menken plays up the contrasts: the dentist, high on laughing gas, sings a trippy melody to a fairly slow beat while Seymour, his heart racing, has a quick patter.
One song that’s very funny but doesn’t work as well within the context of the show is “Dentist,” in which a relatively minor character “and a dislikable one at that “gives us his life story. The audience gets impatient when so much time is given to something that’s clearly not too important. When it’s performed out of context, away from the Little Shop of Horrors story, listeners love it.
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