Musical Context and Meaning of Little Shop of Horrors
The rock musical, Little Shop of Horrors opened off Broadway in the early 1980s. Little Shop of Horrors utilizes various musical styles, using pastiche for R&B, Gospel, Rock and Roll, 50’s Doo-wop, 60’s girl groups and Jewish Klezmer music. The use of these styles is part of the social meaning of the work, and communicates information to the audience about the characters.
In comparison to the music that was popular during the 1980s, Little Shop of Horrors pastiches musical styles of the past. The styles popular in American mainstream music were 1980s pop, 1980s hair metal, music from Britain, and emerging 1980s female solo musicians. To many people, pop singers Michael Jackson and Madonna defined the music of the 1980. Michael Jackson, in 1982 released his album “Thriller” which made seven top ten singles, and won 8 Grammy awards. Madonna challenged societal norms with her unrestrained sexuality. 1980s hair metal groups included Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, and UK’s def leppard. British singers such as Bruce Springsteen and Prince were huge in the US as well. Female singers transformed the American image of women singing about real life rather than the previously innocently sweet songs of the past. These women included Paula Abdul, Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper (American Popular Culture Through History: The 1980s).
Gospel music began in Africa. Thousands of years ago the elements of music, religion and world outlook combined to create music that spirituals and gospel could grow out of. Music was an expression of African daily life and music and dance were interconnected. African language evolved in some circumstances, words were changed over time by people who didn’t know the language originally. Century’s later overseers overhead slaves singing and brushed their songs aside as being nonsensical noises. Slaves were then able to communicate freely singing songs of praise, insult, love, hero’s, religion, mourning, and joy (People Get Ready!: A new History of Black Gospel Music). From this freedom of expression grew Gospel music.
The prominent 1960’s girl groups were mainly made up of working class background African American girls. In most cases the groups were controlled by white men. However, the songs had a wide audience of class and race backgrounds and people could easily relate to the lyrics they sung (Girl Groups, Girl Culture- Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s).
Rock and Roll stemmed primarily from African American Music, the music of African American heritage became the building blocks of this musical style. Early 20th century rural blues, urban blues, gospel and jump band jazz blended together to form Rhythm and Blues music, which, along with the white styles of folk and country music, became other foundations for rock and roll music (Rock and Roll: A Social History).
Doo-Wop began in the 1950’s as groups of 4-5 young black men practiced harmonizing to Rhythm and blues music on front steps and street corners in New York and other cities hoping to be discovered by a talent scout. The style was later labeled doo-wop because of the background vocalists nonsensical syllables (Rock and Roll: A Social History).
Klezmer music has European roots. The grandfather of modern performing Klezmer is Michael Joseph Gusikov who was born into a Jewish (Hasidic) family in the Polish city Shklov in the year 1809. As Klezmorim emigrated to America, they brought the music with them (Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World).
On the surface, Little Shop of Horrors deals with issues of class struggle and poverty. Yet Audrey II is consistently identified as being African American. Audrey II is a monster, an alien from outer space coming to take over the world, showing that the musical is also very much about race relations in 1960s America, and white anxiety about racial integration. Audrey II’s words and songs are so powerful that they are able to corrupt Seymour, and Audrey II’s songs and voice are black musical styles, seemingly communicating that his “blackness” is what corrupts Seymour. Most of the show’s music is white rock and roll, however Audrey II’s R&B style breaks away from the societal norms, sending a message that black music is dangerous, and could cause the collapse of the white powered nation. Although it does not portray a segregated society outwardly the musical styles of the show very much define the characters. These styles of music and speech imply character distinctions based on race. Seymour follows the music of the mainstream easily accepted pop culture, while Audrey’s Broadway style and cute voice show her innocence (“Feed Me!”: Power Struggles and the Portrayal of Race in Little Shop of Horrors). Mr. Mushnik in his name as well as his language and song lyrics is clearly defined as Jewish, and the song “Mushnik and Son” has a Jewish klezmer music feel to it.
Little Shop of Horrors pastiches various musical styles to give the audience information about the characters personalities. The musical styles themselves are very important in the social meanings they bring to the work. Little Shop of Horrors deals with issues of 1960s race relations in America hidden under a seemingly non-segregated portrayal of society.