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“Skid Row (Downtown)” is the refrain of everyone destined to become plant food

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of Jersey Boys, we’re picking our favorite songs from musicals.

I believe it was the classic tragedian Sophocles who said that all great dramas must seek to define their characters to the fullest, so that the audience cares when they are eaten by a giant alien space plant. This theory that I quite possibly made up is nevertheless borne out in Little Shop Of Horrors, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie, which itself became a movie musical in 1986 from director Frank Oz. 

The premise is a blackly comic farce involving flesh-eating flytraps and sadistic dentists; in Menken and Ashman’s hands, all of these things are then set to a singing, dancing, Motown revue. Yet the reason this crazy mash-up of sensibilities works—the reason Little Shop has remained not only a favorite of ’80s kids who grew up watching Rick Moranis’ Seymour, but of countless high school and community theater groups—is that Menken and Ashman’s songs are such effective, catchy character studies. And for revolving around foulmouthed, bloodsucking vegetables, they’re also surprisingly moving.

My brush with local theater productions aside, my love for Little Shop mostly has to do with the movie. So, as a kid, I naturally gravitated to the wackiness of Steve Martin’s “Dentist!” and the funny funk-rock of “Feed Me (Git It).” But as I got older, I began to realize what an amazing piece of work the opening number “Skid Row (Downtown)” is—the way it establishes not only the play’s individual voices, from Seymour to Audrey to the girl-group Greek chorus, but also the pervasive, quiet desperation that unites them in harmony. “Skid Row” isn’t just a great song within the context of the musical; it’s a great bit of songwriting, period.

The parenthetical in “Skid Row (Downtown)” positions it as a grimy puddle reflection of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” where rather than being a place where you forget all your troubles and cares, downtown is “where depression’s just status quo.” Over the tune’s alternately soaring and trudging, soulful and soul-scraping doo-wop, we hear a dozen different voices—“messengers and mailroom clerks,” drunks and office drones alike—interweaving to wail desperately about their problems and shattered dreams, the sad truth of which is that they’re no more special than anyone else’s.

Here on “Skid Row,” everyone has a song that’s bursting to get out of them, just as they’re bursting to get out of it. It’s a real showstopper of an opening that also telegraphs the great cosmic joke of Little Shop’s original, darker ending. It’s also a beautiful, yet bleak musical rendering of the human condition, in which we’re all just wandering around hoping to find our way out of here, only to wind up food for the plants.