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When I caught Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar on The Late Late Show With James Corden singing “Suddenly Seymour” from the Pasadena Playhouse production of Little Shop of Horrors, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’d heard about the cast doing the show, and had been interested in seeing it, but in a world with a million things vying for my attention, it had gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. I don’t know if I’d have even watched the clip if I hadn’t seen random social media chatter about it that morning, but by the time it was done, as I wiped tears from my cheeks, finding tickets to see the show became the most important thing on my to-do list.
Sitting on my bed, listening to the song, the exact moment that made me stop in the middle of getting ready for my day and give my complete focus to the screen was when Mj started singing as Audrey. I’ve heard “Suddenly Seymour” hundreds of times in my life, on countless rewatchings of the Little Shop of Horrors musical film, on various cast albums and YouTube covers. I’ve even heard George Salazar sing as Seymour, a role he’s stated has been on his bucket list to play for years. But what I’ve never heard before is what Mj did on the Late Late Show, and again last week at the Pasadena Playhouse, and that's someone singing Audrey’s part in the lower register.
Ellen Greene’s Audrey, from the original stage cast and film, is iconic. It’s the definitive version of the role. As often happens, those who have followed in her footsteps have made their performances into almost an impression of what she did. This means that typically Audrey’s songs can be a showcase of some intense vocal belting. It also means that someone like me who desperately wants to sing along feels like there’s not even an entry point.
I’ve loved musicals my entire life — was a choir kid, did voice recitals, you name it. I was also something of a late bloomer, puberty-wise. This meant that my voice remained at the top of the register well into the 11th grade. This also led to moments like upperclassmen backstage during the spring musical my sophomore year running their hands up my legs to see if I’d been shaving them. I’d made one attempt during this point in my life to come out as transgender, though I didn’t have even that language to use it yet, and it hadn’t gone well. Diving deep back into my closet, anything that focused on how un-manly my body was felt like someone could see my secret and would expose me to the world.
In what would come to feel crueler and crueler in retrospect, especially about a decade later, when I finally did come out for good and begin to transition, I would beg the universe to deepen my voice, let me grow darker hair, give me more height. All these features I desperately wished away, not fully understanding that once they were gone, they’d never be back. None of which stings as badly as what happened to my voice.
My voice dropped down to baritone my senior year, and with it went my ability to hit most of the notes I’d ever learned to sing. Songs that I’d dreamed of performing, like “Miracle of Miracles” from Fiddler on the Roof, were no longer in my range. And neither were the songs that I’d sing to myself in private. “Take Me As I Am” from Rent had left me. I love singing, and I used to go out of my way to sing in public, and yet now as I’ve grown older, and in the years since I started my transition in earnest, I can feel myself wilt and hide away from the karaoke mic, when I’ve convinced myself that this is the time I’ll nail a track, and only hear that baritone or a poor falsetto, again and again and again.
I cried watching Mj Rodriguez on the Late Late Show, and I cried again, this time much harder, while watching her perform live on the Pasadena Playhouse stage. The thing I became aware of earlier in the show, during Audrey’s other major number, "Somewhere That’s Green," is that Mj is fully capable of singing in the same higher pitch that the role is known for. That when she drops down for the emotional moments of "Suddenly Seymour," it’s not something she’s doing out of necessity, but as a conscious choice that she's made as a performer.
While I can’t say as an audience member what her motivations for this were, I know what they meant to me. To me it meant that Audrey could be just as powerful a character, her longing could be just as intense, just as emotional, just as vital, without that same classic belt.
By allowing an interpretation of Audrey that hits her peak while in the lower register, it only underlined her own struggle at that moment, of her love for Seymour and her own doubts whether she’s worth his love back for her. By switching from that classic soprano to her beautiful, soulful alto, it underlines the subtle change to the context of the character, the shift in our (sweet) understanding of Audrey by having a trans woman of color portray her.
For years I have left musical productions feeling a mix of joy from the show I saw and the sadness of knowing I’d never be able to grasp those songs. Seeing this production of Little Shop of Horrors is the first time I’ve left a show wishing I hadn’t wilted all this time. Instead of lamenting the loss of my voice, it’s made me want to learn to sing all over again.