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Little Shop of Horrors and Reinvention of the "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space"

By Julia Stitely

Trigger Warning: mention of Asian hate and slur

A tweet caught my eye about the current casting of Jinkx Monsoon as Audrey in the Off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors: “RIP Howard Ashman you would’ve LOVED this announcement.” It made me think not only of the progress we’ve had and still need to make with inclusive casting but also of how appropriate this kind of casting is in context within Little Shop of Horrors

Howard Ashman was one of the creators who spearheaded the original musical from his love of the original 1960 film. His name might sound familiar to many due to him being credited for the Disney Renaissance, including films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and snippets of Aladdin before his untimely death from AIDS in 1991. The lyricist was a Gay and Jewish man, and many of his works allude to themes of “otherness” and created queer subtext like in The Little Mermaid, which is discussed in another article. Much like his other works, Little Shop of Horrors includes similar themes but also contains themes of capitalism and classism. These themes affect marginalized groups of people of color and queer people. 

The music of Little Shop takes inspiration from the music of Motown. The majority of the songs are sung by a Greek chorus: a trio of Black women called the Urchins, made up of Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon. Audrey II, the killer plant, is almost always voiced by a Black person. The current voice of Audrey II in the Off-Broadway Revival of Little Shop, Aaron Arnell Harrington, states that “...The kind of music we are singing and presenting [in the show] is just influenced by Black music and it will never go away. It will always have an imprint.” 

Although Little Shop of Horrors contains characters of color, they are often in minor roles or portray villains. The Urchins, who don't have any narrative influence, are only there to tell the White characters' story. Seymour and Audrey aren’t specified as a race, but in the majority of big stage productions, they’re played by White people. In addition, anti-Asian rhetoric is prominent in one of the songs, “Da-Doo,” where Seymour explains how he bought Audrey II from an “old Chinese man” who “sometimes sells [him] weird and exotic cuttings.” While he says this lyric, the Urchins sing “Chang da doo.” Not only was it a trope in the 80s media for an old Chinese man to introduce the film’s villain to the White protagonist (Gremlins, Hellraiser), but “chang” is a slur to mock Asian people. 

Haunted Greenhouse

The Off-Broadway Revival began its run in 2019 and even though the casting of Seymour and Audrey were still very much White and cis, the actors that followed to replace the original cast didn’t reflect that. Asian-American actor Conrad Ricamora, known for his role as Will in Hulu’s Fire Island, took over the role of Seymour. Later on, Corbin Bleu, a biracial actor of Italian-Jamaican descent, would play Seymour and will return once Glee star Darren Criss, who is of Filipino descent, completes his March run as Seymour. 

Lena Hall, Tony Award Winner and Actress of Filipino-Spanish descent was the first replacement for Audrey. Joy Woods, who originated the role of Chiffon in the revival, would later go on to play Audrey. Her performance of “Somewhere That’s Green” made Alan Menken, who created music for the show and was a frequent collaborator with Ashman before his death, exclaim, “Can she be any more adorable?” Constance Wu followed as her replacement, and now drag queen Jinkx Monsoon began playing Audrey alongside Corbin Bleu in April. 

Off-Broadway Revival isn’t the first time for an inclusive casting. Most notably, the Pasadena Playhouse put on a production where Seymour and Audrey were both played by people of color and Audrey specifically was played by MJ Rodriguez, the first trans woman to ever win in a Golden Globes major acting category. And in addition, Amber Riley voiced Audrey II, making her one of the only Black women to ever voice Audrey II. 

For Seymour and Audrey to be cast as people of color and non-cis actors adds depth to the show since the show’s focus is capitalism and how many live in poverty because of it. Sadly, many communities of color suffer the most. Corbin Bleu says that “the stories that we are telling on Skid Row are stories that many people, especially people of color, do go through.” In 2020, The National Equity Atlas found that “14.3 percent of people of color lived in high-poverty neighborhoods compared to 3.9 percent of the white population.” This isn’t to say people from these communities should only play characters like this but it’s stories that should be heard. And all types of stories starring people of color should be seen and heard.  In addition, this stops the stigma of main characters only being White and that being the “norm”. 

Obviously, this inclusive casting isn’t going to fix the problematic aspects of the original book. Still, the hope is that having this inclusion will allow new actors to set foot in roles they didn’t have access to. And in addition, have people be able to see themselves in these characters and add a new meaning to the themes and story. Broadway and media far too long have only considered White, cis, straight perspectives. Having more inclusive casting now allows us to pave the way for more stories and representation.

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