In the world of literature, writers have first readers. For playwrights and lyricists, the job is not so much to read as it is to listen and react. Instead of first readers, they have first responders.
I was but one of Howard’s many first responders, although I was among the very first.
At Indiana University, Howard developed a particularly close-knit group of first responders. Nancy Parent and Stuart White were two of the most relied upon – and I suspect the more verbal.
Later, when Howard and Stuart and Nancy moved to New York, I joined the group. We sat in on Howard’s ruminations and fantasies of what would make a great show.
I don’t count collaborators, producers or actors as first responders, really, as the job description calls for a sort of existential cheer leader with no hope of personal gain beyond a ticket to the opening and an invitation to the cast party.
However, some of our cheers were less cheery than others. More along the lines of, “Really, Howard? Think it through. I’m not sure if you want to say that.”
“Way to go. This will be bigger than hula hoops…much bigger.”
For instance, and it hurts me to admit this, I thought a musical version of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors was a strange and unusual idea. Not only that, I couldn’t at all see how it would work.
Now remember, please, that Howard’s professional reviews up to this point were pretty much, “talented with great potential but…”
There was always a “but…” and Howard was feeling pretty battered. I was afraid that he would give up. In fact, Howard had begun making dark mutterings about a career in publishing and just letting the whole theater thing go. No one who knew Howard truly believed him, but he did mutter quite darkly.
Back in 1981, my husband, Ron, and I were the only ones among our friends who had anything like a video player – it was a Betamax (look it up). So, shortly after Howard announced to his first responders that his next project would be a musical based on that ridiculous little horror film, Ron and I rented Corman’s movie and hosted a movie evening.
I remember Howard and his agent, Esther Sherman, smoking furiously as we watched, my one green glass ashtray kept just for them, filling up rapidly.
I remember exchanging concerned glances with Ron and Nan and saying nothing for a long time after the credits. Howard told us about the puppet idea. I think he’d even spoken to Marty Robinson by then. Except for Esther, who had a policy of trusting Howard absolutely, we were all concerned.
Here’s an interesting experiment. Screen the original Corman movie. Try to erase all you know of the musical out of your mind. No Ellen Greene, no Suddenly Seymour, no bright lilting music, no bright lilting dialog, no character development, no Faust fable, no clever puppetry. No… as my father would say…nuttin’.
And you tell me if it’s a great concept for a musical.
Sure it is, you’re saying. But really, if you’d been there, I bet at least a few of you would have taken pause, too.
And that’s where being a Howard first responder really came in.
Because, we responded but we didn’t say you can’t or that’s nuts or it’ll never fly (or in Audrey II’s case, grow).
Because, like Elder Price in Book Of Morman, we really did believe.