I was first exposed to it when I was fourteen or fifteen – I don’t remember exactly. I snuck downtown for a midnight showing with a friend; it was my first R-rated movie.
He stopped going. I continued.
At first, it was the audience participation. Screaming funny things at the screen with a couple hundred other freaks is a wonderful experience – and a quick way to find like-minded folks. Then I began to appreciate the music for its own sake.
And then, finally, I came to appreciate the plot.
Oh, the scripting and dialogue is campy as hell. It has to be – otherwise you’d reject it out of hand. The theme of the story, behind all the drag and cheesy music, is the story of a flawed free spirit trying to create perfection, the two “normal” people who find the deep hidden urges they’ve always kept hidden, and the boot of society punishing those who dare step outside its norms. At the end, Brad and Janet – having discovered things about themselves they never suspected – have to somehow go back to their normal lives. (Don’t believe me? Check out the lyrics from “Superheroes”, the song that was cut from the movie.)
And those themes – shared with Dracula, actually – are powerful ones. They’re even more counter-cultural than simply dressing in drag.
The strength of those themes may be why so much of the audience participation parts became conforming to majority cultural values – that is, openly sexist, homophobic, and racist.
There’s a huge difference between laughing at those with power and laughing at those without. The actual show and movie do the first – too many of the audience participation bits do the latter.
It’s a narrow line – one that satires like Family Guy have slid across as well. It’s slid from satirizing mainstream American values – best exemplified in the episode when Peter gets declared an illegal immigrant or when Herbert (the creepy old pedophile) sings “Proud to be an American” in front of a crowd of schoolboys – into being just a bunch of fat and gay jokes. The show has gone from laughing at those with power to laughing at those without.
I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting the same thing with the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors.
I only remembered Audrey II saying “Feed me, Seymour”, and the dentist being a sadist. I did not remember the rampant domestic violence throughout the first act, or the way it was routinely dismissed or minimized by the other characters. I did not remember the racist depiction of a money-grubbing Jewish shop owner adopting Seymour simply to keep the money flowing in.
And I didn’t remember the classism.
Audrey (the woman, not the plant) has a “wish song” a good way through the first act – “Somewhere That’s Green”. Singing with the other women on Skid Row, she spells out her desires pretty clearly:
A matchbox of our own/A fence of real chain link,
A grill out on the patio/Disposal in the sink
A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine
In a tract house that we share/Somewhere that’s green.
He rakes and trims the grass/He loves to mow and weed
I cook like Betty Crocker/And I look like Donna Reed
There’s plastic on the furniture/To keep it neat and clean
In the Pine-Sol scented air/Somewhere that’s green
Between our frozen dinner/And our bedtime, nine-fifteen
We snuggle watchin’ Lucy/On our big, enormous twelve-inch screen
The audience I was with last night laughed throughout. The lady beside me repeated some of the lines in disbelief. “A twelve inch screen! Pine-sol! A garbage disposal and frozen dinner!”
Maybe it was because I had just eaten at McDonalds before going to the theater, sharing space with two people discussing where they were going to find a place to sleep tonight. Maybe it was remembering my parents trying to save enough to move out of the trailer. Maybe it was because two hours before, I had told another person about my experiences when I was on welfare.
But somehow, those lyrics weren’t funny to me. I could too easily imagine the people in McDonalds wanting something like Audrey’s dream. I’m all too aware that Audrey’s wish is still unattainable for billions of people, even if her dreams seem pathetic to an upper middle class audience in the USA.
Ultimately, Little Shop of Horrors has a theme of the price of success in our society, and the ways we dehumanize ourselves to achieve even the most basic commercial and consumer comforts. In one sense, the musical really brings this home with the way Audrey II ends up threatening the entire audience. The greed and desires of one small group of people doom us all.
There’s heart and story in both The Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors. Maybe you’ve had fun just watching both, laughing along with the rest of mainstream society at those silly people up there.
Now take a risk. Stop laughing for a few moments, and try to feel what the characters are feeling.
I dare you.
 Yes, you should be thinking about our current economic woes.