Flowers of evil |

Flowers of evil

Twenty years ago, Edie Cowan never imagined the comedy musical “Little Shop of Horrors” would become such a hit.

She didn’t sign on as the musical’s original choreographer in 1982 at the WPA, an off-off Broadway company, for the potential fame.

And it definitely wasn’t for the pay – she worked for $400 the first six months.

Cowan signed on simply because she adored the play.

“I love everything about the show,” Cowan said Monday by phone from her New York City home. “It’s such a beautiful show with every scene written well and interesting characters. It’s a well-constructed show.”

In other plays Cowan has directed or choreographed, she often worked around what she calls deficiencies in the script.

Not the case with “Little Shop of Horrors.” “Everything works,” Cowan said.

Audiences for the last 20 years obviously share her views about the play.

After opening at the WPA, the play moved within months after receiving glowing reviews from the New York press to off Broadway’s Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue and Eighth Street for a five-year run.

“It was exciting to work on this original piece,” Cowan said. “We all loved what we did on the show. (Artistic staff) would meet at the end of the day, and it would be so thrilling to see the show coming together.”

Two decades later, the play has been performed at theater venues and schools around the world.

Cowan has personally traveled around the states and to other countries with “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Besides New York, Cowan was author and director Howard Ashman’s choreographer in Los Angeles, during the national tour, and in London. Cowan also directed and choreographed “Little Shop of Horrors” throughout the United States and abroad, including Korea. She choreographed the show in Iceland.

But during the first few performances of “Little Shop of Horrors” in 1982, Cowan worried that the play might not attract an all-ages audience.

In retrospect, she didn’t have to worry.

“I knew it was good – all of us liked it. But no one can tell if something will be a hit,” Cowan said. “Because it was such a weird little play, I didn’t know if it would appeal to all ages.”

Specifically, Cowan wasn’t sure the play would attract the over-60 and under-20 groups.

She relaxed a bit when her theatergoing mother saw an early show.

“My mother, who always said exactly what she thought, told me she was laughing throughout it. I told my friends, ‘OK, we got the over-60 group approval,'” Cowan said. And children laughed just as hard as their parents, she said.

Cowan started her theater career as a Broadway dancer in “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand in 1964. The last Broadway show she performed in before seriously becoming a choreographer was “Annie” in 1977.

“I had a nice career as a dancer and actress on Broadway and national tours, but I wanted to see what else I could do in theater,” she said. So she worked at directing and choreography positions along with her performing jobs.

As is typical in any business, connections helped Cowan land the “Little Shop of Horrors” gig.

“I directed and choreographed ‘Dames at Sea’ at Indiana University. Howard Ashman was a graduate student there, and I cast him as Dick,” Cowan said. “He called me years later to choreograph ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ because he knew I worked well with non-dancers.”

Only one dancer was in the “Little Shop of Horrors” cast. The rest were singer-actors.

“They had a good sense of movement,” Cowan said. “It was just a question of finding steps they looked good doing. If people work hard, they can get it.”

It took Cowan about five weeks of rather normal rehearsals to prepare her “Little Shop of Horrors” cast for the show. What was unusual, she said, was that “it became this colossal hit.”

Currently, Cowan is auditioning actors for a new musical she is directing. In April, she will teach at a musical theater festival in Korea for one week and then go to Japan for five weeks to teach tap-dancing and choreograph three numbers for a “Salute to America” variety show.

This summer, she will choreograph and direct “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires.

“Coming back to ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ once a year is like coming back to an old friend,” Cowan said. “It is absolutely one of my favorites.”

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