‘Little Shop of Horrors’: How a Horror Musical Launched the Disney Renaissance

When you think about Disney movies and where they fall in pop culture, the horror genre doesn’t come to mind. The same goes for musical theater. But if it weren’t for the cult classic musical Little Shop of Horrors, we wouldn’t have the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are the book, music, and lyrics team behind 1982’s Little Shop of Horrors and the animated classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Their collaboration on these films, and Ashman’s influence on Disney’s creative process, are given an intimate look in the new Disney+ documentary Howard. The film breaks down the artist’s legacy and showcases how he spearheaded the success of these movies while privately battling AIDs. (He lost that battle in March 1991.)

Disney+’s ‘Howard’ explains how the Disney animated musicals were created

Little Shop was Ashman and Menken’s second project together. The first was a musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. As Ashman describes in Howard, Little Shop is basically “horror Grease”—meaning the songs are upbeat doo-wop tunes, but the subject matter is much darker. It’s hard to imagine that a musical all about poverty, sex work, domestic abuse, murder, and an apocalypse at the hands (well, vines) of an alien plant species could inspire any kind of children’s movie, but alas, here we are.

Little Shop never went to Broadway in Ashman’s lifetime, and that’s exactly how he wanted it. He and Menken knew there was something that just worked about small budget musicals staged in small theaters. Musical theater is also a weird concept to accept if you don’t naturally like it. People randomly breaking into song is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Ashman and Menken knew you could get people to at least try the tea if the songs advanced the plot.

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‘Little Shop of Horrors’ was a blueprint for the structure of Disney animated musicals

The show’s resulting musical numbers featured keen attention to detail that helped with character development and world-building. The opening number, “Skid Row,” established the impoverished city neighborhood that main characters Seymour and Audrey dreamed of escaping.

Then there was the classic musical theater “Want Song” in “Somewhere That’s Green,” during which Audrey shares her dreams of moving to the suburbs with Seymour and having “luxuries” like a washer, a dryer, and an ironing machine in a tract house. And of course, there was the character number “Feed Me (Git It!)” for the show’s villainous plant, Audrey II.

Even though (spoiler alert) nearly every character is dead at the end of the show, the finale is upbeat, catchy, and summarizes the lessons learned in the story. (Don’t feed the plants.) Does that structure sound a bit familiar?

Although its subsequent film adaptation in 1986 starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin was far from a box office success, Little Shop put Ashman and Menken on the map as a powerhouse pairing that caught Disney’s attention.

Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, and Rick Moranis in a scene from the film ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’, 1986. | The Geffen Company/Getty Images

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Howard Ashman saw animated musicals as the last frontier of musical theater

According to Howard, Jeffrey Katzenberg recruited Ashman for The Little Mermaid. Ashman felt animated movies could be “the last great place to do musicals,” and of course, he was right.

Once Menken joined the team out in California, they began work on what would soon be Disney Animation’s first box office hit in over a decade and the beginning of the Disney Renaissance. (It had most recently attempted a musical comeback with Oliver & Company, to no avail.)

What worked so well in The Little Mermaid is a mirror image of what worked so well in Little Shop: classic musical theater numbers built on Ashman and Menken’s in-depth lyrics. There’s the world-establishing opening number “Fathoms Below,” where viewers learn about sailor folktales claiming that merpeople exist.

Taking the world-building one step further, there’s the “Daughters of Triton” number, which introduces Ariel’s six sisters, King Triton, Sebastian, and of course, the little mermaid herself.

Then there’s the iconic “Want Song,” “Part Of Your World.” In it, just like in “Somewhere That’s Green,” Ariel tells you precisely what she dreams of: being human. Then she meets Ursula. At the beginning of the character number “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” Ariel has only just met the sea witch. By the end, she’s human. See? The song drives the plot.

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Disney animated musicals revived the movie musical genre

Ashman and Menken’s music became the perfect vehicle for fairy tale storytelling. And the success of their work shows not only in their accolades (Beauty and the Beast is the first full-length animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars) but also in the films’ collective legacy.

Disney is credited with reinvigorating the movie musical genre with its animated masterpieces from the ‘90s. While Ashman and Menken were not the films’ directors, their songs were the heart, soul, and roadmap of each film’s plot, and their impact can’t be understated. And they never would have been hired had it not been for their little off-Broadway show down on Skid Row.