29 November 2013

Somewhere That's Murderously Ironic and Green

Stereotypes are one of the most essential components of our art, culture, and media today. Whether we realize it or not, most audiences thrive on what they expect, or perhaps being presented with what they do not expect. Many campaigns, advertisements, or productions are created with the sole purpose of trying to change a stereotype. More in our current age than ever before, reverse images of stereotypes or expectations are constantly presented, normalized, and even encouraged. 

The 1980s musical, Little Shop of Horrors strongly presents stereotypical characters to tell the audience what to think. The musical number, “Somewhere That’s Green,” works cleverly to not only depict time period, but quickly brings the audience over to Audrey’s side to completely support her in her dreams, even if she’s made some mistakes in the past. Her wishes are simple, perhaps even relatable, making it easy for the audience to become emotionally involved in this fictional story.

Stereotypes become very useful in the production of early musical theatre. Stereotypes tell the audience what to expect, giving them an easy, clear exposition and relationship with the characters. The author can then use that expectation the audience will have to present an interesting story by breaking the stereotype in the end. For example, the sweet, not as strong, nerdy guy may end up triumphing over the big, strong, constantly successful guy.

In Howard Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors, stereotypes are used in the opening scene to strongly set the premise. Mr. Mushnik, the husky Yiddish flower shop owner, barks orders hastily with much underlying anxiety. Seymour, the employee, wears a sweater vest, thick glasses and slicked over hair, as he clumsily works with the plants. Audrey, the skinny, platinum blonde, soft-spoken employee arrives very late, clad in a tight dress, with a fresh black eye displayed on her face. Her motorcycle-riding, well- endowed, pain-inflicting dentist boyfriend, Dr. Orin Scrivello, beats her regularly. And of course, Seymour is hopelessly in love with Audrey, and sees her as the most respectable, beautiful, kind woman he knows.

The story of Little Shop of Horrors (based on the 1960s film by Roger Colman), turns out to be a rather unbelievable tale about a man-eating plant, which has unfortunately fallen into the hands and care of Seymour. However, the audience is engaged enough in the characters that they really commit to the truth of this fictional world. A big contributing factor is Audrey’s lament, “Somewhere That’s Green.” This song paints a very clear picture of Audrey’s dream lifestyle, far away from her current circumstances. All she wants is that classic, 1960s, stay-at-home wife and mother lifestyle in a lovely, matchbox house in a suburb, with bright, clean-cut green grass. The lyrics give the audience this specific image of Audrey’s dream, and they are right there with her. At this point, they want nothing else than to have Audrey out of danger.

The lyrics also distinctly determine the time and geographic setting. Audrey has a thick New York accent, letting us know where Skid Row is located. The home and appliances she describes are all stereotypically picturesque of the 1960s. Audrey dreams that she “cooks like Betty Crocker, and looks like Donna Reed.” She also cleverly mentions three popular television shows of the time, while describing her ideal family with Seymour: “I’m his December Bride, he’s Father, he knows best. Our kids watch Howdy Doody, as the sun sets in the west.” The prominent description of the time period comes right from Howard Ashman, the writer. Alan Menken iterates his evident commitment to storytelling in an interview: “Howard really had a great sense of genre, of zeitgeist, and certainly the best example of the that was Little Shop of Horrors.” Zeitgeist is the encompassing mood of a period in history as a setting (Pearsall).

Teamed with the lyrics, the musical quality of the song is also very compelling. The composition has a light, dreamy texture. The instruments and harmonies are some that might be heard in a fairytale. The song rhymes seamlessly and refers to small amenities, such as a toaster and ironing machine. What sweet, simple little things. This is all Audrey wants, her “picture out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Somewhere That’s Green.” Can’t we give it to her? 

The song as a whole uses a strong amount of pathos, as the audience feels so bad for abused Audrey they want to give her the perfect home immediately. The piece also uses ethos; the audience knows that Audrey isn’t safe with Orin, and knows she would be safe and happy with Seymour. 

The majority of this play does not use a lot of logos. Seymour finds and raises Audrey II, the blood-thirsty venus fly trap, bringing him major success in the but obviously murdering people in the process. However, “Somewhere That’s Green” is the part of the musical that uses a strong level of simple logic. A home like this is real and mentally tangible for the audience. It puts the audience on track to cheer for our protagonists and their dreams, even in this unlikely and bizarre setting.

Like any good musical, Audrey does receive what she wants in the end. Sort of. Audrey II, the vicious plant that has already devoured Orin and Mushnik, soon after eats the rest of the town with help of its newborn offspring. Audrey is attacked by the plant, saved by Seymour, but very close to death. In her last, sweet monologue to Seymour, she asks him to feed her to the plant, because, “If I’m in the plant, then I’m part of the plant. So in a way...we’ll always be...together. I’m feeling strangely happy now, contented, and serene. Oh, don’t you see? Finally I’ll be somewhere that’s...green.” (Little Shop, page 90.) In a very sick, ironic way, Audrey ends up in the “green” place she dreams of, a plant.

Little Shop of Horrors takes a stereotypical-looking exposition and turns it into one of the most surprising, disturbing productions of the 1980s. At last, a comedy musical that ends with the antagonist completely taking over the world. This surprise wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if the audience did not have pre-conceived notions about the characters and setting. At first, it seems that Seymour, the socially-awkward botanist has defeated Orin, the abusive tough guy, by winning Audrey’s heart and gaining plenty of financial success. This would appear to be the ideal, presumable conclusion. However, when all parties receive the same detrimental fate, everyone is a victim. The plant is an astronomical antagonist. Unlike any musical audiences had seen before, Audrey and Seymour didn’t ride off into the sunset to happily ever after. All the characters lost, and Audrey II was only getting started, to destroy “Cleaveland and Des Moines and Peoria and New York, and this theatre!” Suddenly, the biggest cliche- breaker of all, the characters break the fourth wall to warn the audience of the deadly danger they are now in. 

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