Within minutes of my meeting Jonathan Groff, he asks if I would like a slice of cherry pie, and then, only a short time later, if I would like to be eaten by a giant plant. The first I readily accept because Groff and the rest of the cast of Little Shop of Horrors have thoroughly analyzed the desserts they picked up for a bus ride down from New York to the suburban Philadelphia puppet studio where they’re rehearsing for the day, and they’ve all concluded it’s the best option. The idea of being eaten by a plant seems a little less palatable, considering the contortions involved in entering the hippopotamus-esque maw of the man-eating Audrey II, which is operated by several puppeteers, and because I’m not sure if Groff is making a serious offer. I learn quickly that he is always offering you things, and those offers are always serious.
The puppet in question represents the largest form of Audrey II, a sassy carnivorous horticultural oddity that convinces Seymour, an awkward flower-shop assistant, to commit murder in the pursuit of fame, fortune, and a suburban life with the original Audrey, a human who works with him. The day I visit, Groff, playing the misfit Seymour (despite good looks that actor Christian Borle, who plays the maniacal dentist, Orin, describes as “scrumptious”), and his castmates are climbing inside Audrey II one by one, figuring out how each of them will die. Wearing a hat from Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “On the Run II” tour, Groff jumps inside wielding a floppy machete, which is so unaerodynamic it keeps getting stuck in Audrey II’s lips. Groff suggests a real machete prop would be sturdier, and they try substituting an umbrella, which flies out more cleanly. Michael Mayer, the director, says with satisfaction, “It’s a belch!”
Staging this revival of Little Shop is “illegal fun,” as Groff puts it. The original ran from 1982 to 1987 but never transferred to Broadway, at the insistence of writer-lyricist Howard Ashman, who wanted to preserve the show’s off-kilter spirit in a smaller space. Ashman and composer Alan Menken would go on to fill the Disney Renaissance— which consisted of films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast—with the Marie’s Crisis–ready melodies and queer subversions you can already hear in Little Shop (Ashman died of aids-related complications in 1991). Despite a Broadway staging that kicked off in 2003, this version is staying put at the Westside Theatre Off Broadway in hopes of preserving the quirky spirit of the original. There’s a lot of laughter in rehearsal as well as dress codes like a “kimono Wednesday,” which Mayer enforces by handing me a spare kimono when I drop in that day.
I can’t imagine anyone who is consistently involved in or adjacent to homicide having a better time. In addition to playing a murderously nice guy in Little Shop, Groff stars in Netflix’s David Fincher–produced drama Mindhunter, playing an FBI agent who interviews serial killers; the show is based on the real work of John Douglas, who was one of the first criminal profilers. Considering he’s no big fan of true crime, Groff is somewhat confused about how he became a poster boy for gore and mutilation, though he’s enjoying the texts from friends who point out that even when he does musical comedy, there’s a dark edge involved. A few days after we meet in Philadelphia, we’re talking over breakfast at the cozy Grey Dog in Chelsea, where he insists on paying for everything, picking up all the water and utensils, and getting up from the table to refill my coffee cup when it’s empty.
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