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  • How many Broadway musicals have the audience going wild as soon as the curtain rises? And it doesn't stop there. At the revival of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman's Little Shop of Horrors, there are standing ovations before the actors even take their bows and screaming fans at the stage door.

    Since it was a preview performance, one is suspect that, as often is the case, the producers filled a good portion of the theatre with theatergoers on the "Friends and Family Plan." But, according to co-star Hunter Foster, that was not the case. It definitely appears Broadway has a cult hit: A fun, horror musical - and just in time for Halloween.

    "It's wonderful to have enthusiast audiences," says Hunter Foster, who plays Seymour, the nerdy florist's assistant/botanist who befriends an exotic plant with ever-growing carnivorous appetites. "People know the characters and the songs -- from its original Off Broadway run, the film adaptation and the fact that it's been done by nearly every regional theatre, university and high school."

    Little Shop of Horrors is black comedy at its best. It's one thing to have seen it at your community theatre, but, says Foster, if you're seeing it on Broadway, with all the production values that name implies, you expect that all the stops will be pulled out.

    One worry, says Foster, was that the Virginia Theatre, with its huge stage and nearly 1,280 seats, would be too big for the little Little Shop; that the show would be so bowdlerized for Broadway that it would lose its charm.

    Thankfully, Foster adds, "that hasn't been the case. The scope of the show is big, so the story and songs fill the space. It helps that the show is inherently funny and that [multi Tony Award-winning director] Jerry [Zaks] knows how to mine humor. He was careful to get us to base it on truth as opposed to just doing shtick. With a show as loved as Little Shop, there are high audience expectations so you don't want to disappoint. I'm sure there were temptations, but our producers, [choreographer] Kathleen [Marshall] and Jerry [Zaks] saw to it that we kept things reigned in. It was a constant reality check."

    Howard Ashman was the artistic director of the now-defunct WPA Theatre when he was introduced to Menken via the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. They collaborated on a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a fantasy musical which didn't catch on when it was moved to a larger Off Broadway space. "I believe," says Menken, "that we set the record for losing the most money Off Broadway! But we used what we learned on Rosewater for Little Shop."

    Menken added that theater doesn't get any easier, even for someone who has somewhat of a track record [not to mention a couple of Academy Awards for his Disney movie songs], "but the best career you can have is as composer of a number of musicals that have a life out of New York. With Little Shop, we just wanted a show that would run a little while Off Broadway so we'd be able to do our big project.

    "It ended up becoming an international industry. It was incredible watching it take off. [The musical went on to win Drama Desk, Drama Critics and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical.] Over the years, it's been done literally everywhere and has had and will have a long, long life in regional theatre. You can't even do better than that in Hollywood, which is not always as lucrative as it is touted to be."

    The musical, inspired by the quickie indie 1960 Roger Corman movie [which is best remembered for a spectacular performance by Jack Nicholson, in what is credited as only his second film], may be set on Skid Row, but you don't come out of this Shop depressed. That's partly due to a fabulous cast.

    Foster, amazingly boyish for 34 and who shot to fame as the hero in another cult hit, Urinetown, is quite believable playing much younger. You might assume he's in his late teens. "The youthfulness helps in this business," he admits. "My goal was to grow up and play ëadult' parts. I now realize I can have a pretty long career playing younger."

    He says he been fortunate to have done so well in a relatively short time. "You always have struggle. There are parts you desperately want that you don't get. They were always bringing me in for Miss Saigon. I must have auditioned ten times, but I never got it. I really wanted to do Rent, and I auditioned for the tour, but that was not to be. Then I was up for Bruce in The Producers, but that wasn't terribly disappointing because it was around the same time of Little Shop."

    Sometimes, he says, fate is a good thing. "After we did Urinetown in the Fringe Festival, I was pretty high on the list for Dance of the Vampires. Thank God I didn't get that one! I would have been really depressed."

    Digressing momentarily, here's a little background on Foster: He grew up in Georgia and Michigan. He auditioned for the theater program at the University of Michigan and that was a successful audition. With his younger sister Tony Award winner Sutton Foster of Thoroughly Modern Mille, they are both stars on Broadway. The Foster family must have been one musical family.

    "Not at all," he explains. "What has happened - our success - is really amazing since no one in our family was interested in theater. Dad was an executive with General Motors. All we ever heard about were cars. We didn't grow up singing Broadway show tunes. As a youngster in Georgia, I didn't know what Broadway shows were. We did shows in high school, like Grease [which, after touring as Rum Tum Tugger in Cats and understudying the lead in Footloose, he would eventually do on Broadway, playing Roger], but we didn't know about theater. It was just fun."

    He reports that he actually wanted to be a writer. "I wrote dozens of short stories and my teachers predicted I'd be an author or journalist. Being around musicals in college really changed my direction." However, he has managed to circle back to writing - having adapted the book for the short-lived Off Broadway musical Summer of '42 in '02 and now putting the finishing touches to the books for the musical adaptations of Bonnie and Clyde and the 1992 film Fearless.

    Foster says he's drawn to passionate love stories - "make that, situations where two people are thrown together during unusual circumstances and somehow manage to find love."

    Can anything - novel, movie, play - be made into a musical? "No," he instantly says with a great laugh. "It's pretty evident that there are certain things that shouldn't have ever been musicalized."

    He points out that although Summer of '42 didn't fare well here with critics and audiences, it's having a major success in regional theater.

    Getting back to Little Shop and it's cast: there's also Kerry Butler, who may look, as Foster states, as if she's 12 but she's been around - Mrs. Jones in Blood Brothers, Eponine in Les Miz, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Shelley in Bat Boy and most recently Hairspray, where she portrayed Penny Pingleton. The wide-eyed innocence she's able to exude helps make her delightfully likeable as Little Shop's Audrey, a girl with a past who dates men who are hazardous to her health.

    Then there's Douglas Sills, best known for his acclaimed portrayal of The Scarlet Pimpernel, as a gleefully delightful vile villain [his characterization of the dentist will do for that profession what Jaws did for swimmers going to the beach!]; a female doo-wop trio that keeps the joint jumpin'; and Rob Bartlett channeling Zero Mostel's Tevye for his Mushnik, the florist.

    But don't forget Audrey II, the little plant (created by the Jim Henson folks) that in this big show set in a little shop grows bigger and bigger, lustier and lustier and hungrier and hungrier. Michael-Leon Wooley gives terrific bass voice to Audrey II, which is hydraulically operated by designer Martin Robinson into a King Kong-like monster.

    [Before or after the show, or even if you don't go see the show,
    stop by Season's Florist at Eighth Avenue and 53rd Street, just around the corner from the Virginia Theatre, to see their window display of a much tamer Audrey II.]

    Reviews for Little Shop of Horrors have been positive to mixed, but Ben Brantley of the Times agrees. He wrote: "Directed with silky efficiency by Jerry Zaks, the show is, in word and song, honorably true to the smaller Off Broadway incarnation that became the sleeper of the season 21 years ago. The urge to go for the glitz has, for once, been kept in checkÖHoward Ashman's droll, clichÈ-bending book and lyrics remain in placeÖSo does the gleeful 1960's-pastiche score by Alan Menken, which still sneaks into the back of your head and stays there."

    According to Foster, it does more than "sneak." He says, "Alan Menken and Howard Ashman created a master class for anyone interested in writing musicals. From the opening moment, the momentum builds like a runaway train. Its boom, boom, boom -- one song after another. That lifts us off and we never let up in taking the audience higher and higher!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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