In the character breakdown of the script for Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II, referenced throughout as The Plant, is described as, “an anthropomorphic cross between a Venus flytrap and an avocado.” In the course of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, The Plant grows in four stages from a small, potted, blood-thirsty bud to a giant, carnivorous pod covering much of the stage. It’s not a small ask.
The musical, which originally opened Off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre in 1982, is based on the 1960 B-movie The Little Shop of Horrors and, from Ashman’s author’s note, satirizes “science fiction, B-movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend.” The story centers on hapless clerk Seymour, who nurtures the man-eating plant in a Skid Row flower shop. As The Plant grows, so does his fortune and his relationship with his co-worker crush Audrey (for whom he names The Plant after).
Puppeteer Martin P. Robinson designed, built, and performed Audrey II for the original production and for the 2003 Broadway production. A long-time Henson puppeteer, Robinson has been with Sesame Street since 1981 performing Telly Monster and Snuffleupagus, among others. In fact, it was his Sesame Street gig that he says allowed him to do Little Shop in the first place, providing not only a television salary to supplement the low Off-Broadway income, but also some materials for the first puppet build.
The present hit Off-Broadway production (currently with Matt Doyle as Seymour and Lena Hall as Audrey) features a puppet design by Nicholas Mahon—modeled after Robinson's design. The mechanical design and construction of Audrey II is by Monkey Boys Productions. Mahon's varied design career includes work with Michael Curry, Blue Man Group, and The Jim Henson Company. His work can also be seen in the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Though Robinson and Mahon have spent years in each other’s puppet-universe orbits, the two Little Shop designers had never actually met until Playbill put them on a Zoom call together.
Read their conversation below (edited for length and clarity).
Marty, how did the show originally come to you?
Martin P. Robinson: When Howard was gearing up for the show, he cast a wide net. His agent, Esther Sherman, was also the agent for Julie Taymor, and I had worked with Julie on a number of projects at the Public Theater. She considered the project for a while and then kind of thought, “This is nothing; it’s going nowhere.” I’ve seen her designs; they were interesting. But she recommended me, and I went in and met Howard and we got on like a house on fire. We kind of had a similar background with the movie when we were kids. We loved it. We imitated it. It was a seminal part of our childhood, so we had the same excitement about the project.
I solved a couple a couple of problems very quickly. And with some very cheap theatrical tricks, such as the fake arm that holds the pot [so the actor who plays Seymour can move Audrey II himself, in the song "Ya Never Know"].
The way Howard described it, there would be puppeteers in various pieces of furniture, and Seymour would put The Plant down and the puppeteer would go inside it. Then Seymour would pick it up and put it someplace else. So, I said, “Well, what about the old fake arm idea? You build a fake arm around the pot, and you put Seymour's hand up in The Plant. And we teach them the basics of puppetry.” He loved that idea.
He told me later, that when people came in to talk about The Plant, he'd say, “It's gotta start small and then get bigger and bigger and bigger in different increments. And it's got to eventually talk, and then sing and dance, jive and eat the entire cast, and take over the world.” He said that most people said, “You can do this, but you want to change that.” And, “You can do this, but this is tough.” I was the only one who said, “Yeah, sure.” Once I had the job, I had to figure it out.
Nicholas, with the design, how are you able to do your own thing while honoring the Audrey II the audience is expecting to see?
Nicholas Mahon: It’s tricky. Actually, whenever my name comes up as the designer for this show, I always put a big asterisk next to it. Marty brought the design that we have for the current show to the one-yard line. It’s always hard when you’re dealing with a legacy piece. As artists, we want to put our own spin on things, but this was already perfect and it’s a losing battle trying to fight that.
MR: Keep in mind, though, I had the same thing with the original film production. That very much informed my starting point. It was grandfathered in from Roger Corman [the film’s director] and Mel Welles [the film’s Mr. Mushnick, who also served as assistant director]. Mel hired a guy who did window displays for department stores to build The Plant. Then Howard’s writing dictated what this thing looked like and how it moved.
Do you refer to the puppet as male or female?
MR: Oh, female. All the time.
Despite the voices? [Traditionally a male baritone, Audrey II was originally voiced by Ron Taylor in the 1982 Off-Broadway production, Michael-Leon Wooley in the Broadway premiere, and currently by Aaron Arnell Harrington.]
MR: Yeah. She’s Audrey.
NM: Also, when it is a male voice, which often it is, that contrast is part of the idea and appeal and the humor of it.
MR: She does use a certain amount of classical feminine wiles to get her way. She knows how to work Seymour.
What are some of the details that you’ve put into the puppet to portray her character?
MR: I wanted her to be beautiful. I wanted her to be seductive. She'll browbeat Seymour, she’ll tempt him, she'll flatter him. I wanted her to be really an attractive thing. The curves on her pod are things of beauty. I pulled a lot of a lot of imagery from orchids. They’re…explicit.
NM: The scenic design that Julian Crouch did has a very gritty, dirty downtown feel to it. Even though The Plant wants to feel like this very special alien thing that doesn't belong in this world, I still wanted to use that same grittiness and dirtiness and nastiness to it—to have this kind of voluptuous, sexy shape, which is attractive, but then have something a little nasty, scary, and threatening about it.
Airbrushing was used as general tinting, but not too heavily. And I didn't want it to feel too soft in the paint approach, so we did a lot of spattering. There are maybe a dozen different types of spatter. Then when the mouth opens, we wanted it to feel like a Chinese finger trap, where if you got in there, you couldn't get out. We have a lot of teeth that dangle and a lot of crinoline tubing which creates fingers inside the mouth. There are about 100 little small teeth nubs around the larger teeth. So all of a sudden, it’s very threatening when it opens up.
Is the voice of The Plant tracked or is it live every night?
MR: It’s live! That's really one of the keys to the show and keys to puppetry in general: Puppeteers hate tracks. As soon as you have a track, you're locked in. [With Little Shop] it’s the live interaction between Seymour, the voice of The Plant, and the people operating The Plant. It's a really a three-way thing.
NM: Yeah, it's a really interesting dance when you have someone at the back of the house doing the voice and there's this energetic connection between the three of them. It’s really beautiful and amazing how well it can come together. On paper, it doesn’t make sense.
MR: You have to really tune into each other, though. The voice has to be remarkably consistent. The puppeteers have to be tuned in to the voice and to what Seymour is saying. Eventually, it gets intuitive and you can start mixing things up live. It doesn't have to be a rote performance. It can be a greasy wet performance night after night.
See some of that three-way magic in the video below.
How have the various musical theatre actors hired to play Seymour taken to becoming puppeteers?
MR: The first thing Lee Wilkof [who originated the role of Seymour in the original 1982 Little Shop] said when we approached him with this concept was that as a kid, he did ventriloquism. So, he was very, very game for this. And he was just terrific at it. As an actor, the challenge is dividing your mind into Seymour and Audrey. He was naturally brilliant at that. So, he kind of set the standard for all the Seymours after that. Hunter Foster on Broadway [in 2003] was also excellent. He was also a natural and just had so much fun with it.
NM: I was curious to see how that would go. Puppetry is a very specific thing. Acting is a very separate thing. Sometimes actors are totally game for that kind of thing, and sometimes they're not interested at all. When I've trained puppeteers, almost more important than ability is attitude and enthusiasm and willingness. This production has been really lucky in that way. I was very pleasantly surprised to be working with people who, even though they hadn't done that kind of thing before, they were not only excited about it, but actually pretty good at it.
MR: And that song ["Ya Never Know"] is beautifully crafted, too: When it's Audrey [II]'s turn, when it's Seymour's turn, when the girls provide this whole, "Don't look there. Look here" thing. It's lovely.
NM: It's hard to imagine that scene now knowing what you said about it originally, without the fake arm, because it's so dynamic with the current setup. That would have slowed it down a lot.
MR: I agree. But more importantly, Howard agreed!
Nicholas, what was your entry into the world of puppetry?
NM: My whole life I thought I was going to become an animator. I love cartoons. So, I went to fine art school. Then I started in animation. I liked it, but it felt too much like one thing. I like doing a lot of things. I like sculpting, painting, sewing, performing, doing voices, story. I took a year to try to figure out what I should do. Then it hit me that puppets check all those boxes. So I decided to study theatre design, even though that's not directly puppetry. But I wanted to know that world more, so I studied scenic design, costume, lighting—all that stuff to try to put puppets in when I could. The teachers were really great about supporting my interest in puppets.
Marty, you mentioned the large casting net when Little Shop began. Was there a big downtown puppet scene?
MR: There was lot of stuff happening at Theater for the New City, and puppetry was kind of worming its way into a lot of theatrical things. Thanks to Julie Taymor and some other designers, it's sloughed off its children's cloak and become a useful tool for a lot of dramatic things. The possibilities have been opening up. Over the years, it's been just really delightful to watch, to see it become more acceptable and more mainstream.
One of the things that I have always loved about Little Shop of Horrors is: It was one of the first times when a puppet created character, and was an actual member of the cast. It wasn't just a prop or a special effect. Audrey II was core to the acting company and a valuable member of the cast. When we were on Broadway, I was pushing to have her nominated for Best Actress Tony. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but partly serious to give credence to the strength of that character.
NM: I always advise if you can solve your problems without a puppet, do that. You only want to use puppets when it's necessary so it has that real integrated feel to it. That’s what's nice about with Audrey II, she is the core of the whole play. The fact that the other people around her are humans adds a lot of life to Audrey II, because a puppet has no soul. The puppeteer lends their soul to the puppet, and that brings it to life. The way that the human actors around Audrey II react to her adds life to her and makes her even more real and more believable.
MR: Nick, there's a wonderful definition of puppetry that you were so close to. I heard it first from Bart Roccoberton up at the University of Connecticut: “A puppet is an empty vessel. Half the soul is provided by the puppeteer, but the other half of the soul is provided by the audience.”
Little Shop of Horrors is currently running Off-Broadway at Westside Theatre. Directed by Tony winner Michael Mayer, the revival first opened October 17, 2019, and returned following the pandemic shutdown. Audrey II puppeteers are Teddy Yudain and Weston Chandler Long.