In a new production of Little Shop of Horrors, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s sci-fi musical comedy about Skid Row florists and a killer plant, Mj Rodriguez has found somewhere that’s green—and, refreshingly, many other colors of the rainbow.
Rodriguez, 28, has blossomed before our eyes as Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, in Pose, FX’s drama about New York City’s queer ballroom scene. She returns to her musical theater roots as Audrey in Little Shop at the Pasadena Playhouse, California’s official state theater, opposite Be More Chill’s George Salazar as Seymour. Directed by Mike Donahue, the diverse cast also includes Glee’s Amber Riley as Audrey II, Matthew Wilkas as Dr. Orin Scrivello, and Kevin Chamberlin as Mr. Mushnik.
Rodriguez recently spoke to NewNowNext about her fresh take on a traditionally cisgender character, and whether she has any beef with that other staging of Little Shop now off-Broadway.
Look at you working during your Pose hiatus. Haven’t you earned a vacation?
[Laughs] A vacation is so far from my mind right now. I love working. I’m a workaholic. It’s so bad.
Why did you want to do Little Shop of Horrors?
I’ve watched the movie all my life. I watched it when I was younger, with my mother, literally on repeat. I remember she tried to get us tickets to the 2003 Broadway revival because I really wanted to see the musical live, but it didn’t work out. I’ve always dreamed of being a part of this show, so playing Audrey feels like a real full circle moment. It feels good.
I’m jealous. I played Seymour in high school, but I secretly wanted to sing “Somewhere That’s Green.”
Right? I love that song. Not a lot of women like myself have been able to play a role like Audrey, so it feels monumental and groundbreaking that this team saw me and wanted me for the show. Audrey seems bubbly and happy-go-lucky, but deep down this girl is going through a bunch. I’m happy and honored that I finally get to take on such an epic, meaty role, not just as a trans woman but as a woman and a woman of color.
The day after casting was announced for the current off-Broadway revival of Little Shop starring Jonathan Groff, your Pasadena Playhouse cast was announced and the diversity jumped out!
I know! It’s so great to have such a diverse cast. It speaks volumes. I think every race should be considered for any role whenever possible. That’s never a bad thing. We’re used to seeing Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette as the only people of color in this show, but I love that we’re opening it up for other people of color to be considered for all of these roles in the future.
It’s also worth noting that the three main male roles are all played by out gay actors.
Yes! It’s beautiful and I’m loving it.
Little Shop premiered in 1982, and the movie came out in 1986. Does the musical have a message for today’s audiences?
I think it shows that we should pay more attention to people who are calling out for help, but it’s really about overcoming obstacles and our backgrounds and finding love. Our director, Mike, has envisioned a different, more modern look and feel for the show, a little darker than we’re used to, and I love that kind of raw, gritty realism.
As part of this vision, do you see your Audrey as trans?
No. Just because I’m a trans woman, Audrey doesn’t become a trans woman, and I think that’s great. I’m playing a cisgender role—and I don’t think anybody should be bothered by that, considering how many cis people have played trans roles for years. But if people want to interpret Audrey as trans, then that’s their interpretation. I see her as a cis woman of color just trying to get by.
Audrey is being physically abused by her boyfriend. I wondered if a trans woman of color in the role might add another layer to that violence.
Of course, definitely, it’s hard not to think about that right now when there are so many trans women, particularly trans women of color, being killed. I get that and it’s important to acknowledge that. But this is also a musical, you know? Yes, it definitely has its dark, gritty moments, but it’s still a musical comedy, so I wouldn’t want the audience to get too caught up in Audrey representing trans women or tying her to the violence we see in the real world.
It wouldn’t be the first time you changed how audiences perceive an iconic character. In the 2011 off-Broadway revival of Rent, you portrayed Angel, commonly considered a drag queen, as genderqueer.
Yeah, when I was playing Angel in Rent, I was also on that stage portraying who I was and the many people I knew who could relate to that character. I personally felt that Angel was trans, just because of some wording and how other characters talked about her. I think the show took place at a time where they didn’t have the language we have today, so they just called her a drag queen. But, again, it’s all in your interpretation, in how the audience sees things, and it’s all beautiful no matter what.
You made headlines when you auditioned for a cis character in Hamilton. As a trans actor, do you feel it’s important to go after cis roles?
I think it’s important to go after any role I have my mind set on. Tackling cis roles is not something I’m extremely adamant about, but I do want to help break that barrier of trans people only being allowed to play trans roles. I would love to play more cis roles, more trans roles, and roles without any gender. Trans actors, gender nonconforming actors, gay actors, all of us should be considered for any type of role, because we shouldn’t be boxed into any one thing. Cis roles aren’t my focus, but I do want to open more doors so that casting directors will give more women like me a chance to play them.
Why was your mind set on Audrey? Can you relate to her?
I haven’t been in an abusive relationship like that, but I’ve been abused with words just walking down the street. I can relate to that kind of trauma that can make someone go into their shell. Also, Audrey’s still figuring herself out, and I’m always figuring myself out, as a woman, as a person, and as an artist.
Do you see any similarities between Audrey and Blanca?
They can both turn a look. [Laughs] I think they’re very different, actually, and I love that. Blanca’s a mother, and she has a motherly instinct. Audrey may dream of being a mom, but I don’t know if she’s ready for kids. Audrey’s the type of woman who needs a lot of tender care when it comes to her feelings—she yearns for romantic relationships, for someone to fill that void. Blanca is extremely independent.
Speaking of Blanca, you lip-synced Whitney Houston’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the second season finale of Pose. Did you know you were a lip sync assassin?
[Laughs] I was so nervous when we had to shoot that episode. I’d never lip-synced in my life, and I didn’t want to butcher it—and to Whitney Houston, who, like me, is from Newark, New Jersey. I was so worried about my mouth and all the words… But when I saw it, I was really happy with it. So no, I did not know I was a lip sync assassin, and I still don’t think I am!
It was thrilling to watch you slay our national anthem in a room full of queer people of color. What did that moment mean to you?
I felt like that scene was a declaration of the space that we as trans people and LGBTQ people of color deserve to have in this country. We’re in America and that makes us Americans. We’re no different than anybody else, and more people need to see that.
You worked closely this past season with a musical theater icon, Patti LuPone. Did she give you any words of wisdom?
I actually asked her for some advice. She told me that I had to start knowing my worth as a strong woman and demanding the respect that I deserve. I really appreciated hearing that from her. It’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Patti LuPone is so good at portraying an evil woman, but she is such a beautiful person.
If your Little Shop cast were competing as a family at the balls, what would be your house name?
Ooh! It would have to be the House of Audrey, right? Or maybe one of those couple names for Audrey and Seymour. House of Audmour? Seymourdrey?
Yeah, let the off-Broadway cast be the House of Horrors.
You know what? That was the first name I thought of but I didn’t want to sound too cheesy.
We all know your cast would snatch every trophy. Should we get a West Coast vs. East Coast rivalry going? Want to throw any shade?
[Laughs] No! Listen, I’m from the East Coast, baby, so I can’t come for my East Coast people. Yes, we may be serving different things on the stage, but we’re all in this together.
Little Shop of Horrors runs through October 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse.