Find a city this Halloween -- or hell, find any mid-sized college for that matter -- and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find at least one group of misfits trying to figure out how many amps they can safely plug into a powerstrip so that the chorus of “Time Warp” reaches the back of the bar. It’s as much a part of the scary season as haunted houses or the Great Pumpkin.
A true review of the show is almost superfluous at this point, and not only because there’s been an untold number of performances in the near-forty years since its original production. Honestly, it’s become more phenomenon and tradition than a play or a movie -- albeit a strange tradition. In a world still so straight-jacketed by do-this-not-that morality, it’s one of those rare moments you can really let your freak flag fly.
Lots has certainly changed since Richard O’Brien, a British actor recently canned from the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar, wrote the original music and book for Rocky Horror. Funnily enough, he did it just to blow off steam, not really with any intention of making it into a serious production. “I went home and I wrote a musical that I wanted to go and see,” says O’Brien. “And it was just a bit of fun.”
When director Jim Sharman spoke to O’Brien about it, however, it came to life. The rock musical about the straight-laced Brad and Janet lured into the outrageous B-movie world of a transsexual Transylvanian came to be at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Two more fine, upstanding members of respectable society were stripped half-naked and corrupted onstage almost every night for three weeks. Needless to say, this was not a place for purity rings.
This was only four years after Stonewall. The idea of going outside any kind of gender norm -- let alone having your biologically male protagonist strut the stage in fishnets and a bustier -- was still a bit risque outside the still-marginalized world of drag-shows. In fact, same-sex relations of any kind had only been decriminalized in the UK six years before in Britain.
Back then, the Royal Court itself had only been open for about seventeen years, and had become known for taking on more experimental fare. It was also in an area not quite as posh as today. In the early ‘70s, the Earl’s Court and Knightsbridge areas hadn’t gotten anywhere near as slick and gentrified as they were later to be.
What’s more, queering was in the air more generally. The 60s might have been over, but rock was in a pretty subversive place. Glam was on top at this point with Bowie and Roxie Music; even the New York Dolls, who played a much more stripped down, less synthed rock and roll, were more than happy to cake their faces with makeup. It made conservatives sneer and good church-goers gasp in terror.
Remember, this is 1973, a good two or three years before the idea of “punk” arrived on everyone’s lips. Nonetheless, the show’s outrageous grittiness mixed with a reckless abandon and sense of fun -- not to mention a utilitarian approach to its rock and roll score -- did seem to anticipate the shock to the mainstream that punk would deliver.
The 1976 film was an entirely different animal, if for no other reason than it was, well, a film. Not a play. To this day O’Brien, who also played Riff Raff on camera, retains mixed feelings on it. “I don’t like talking about the movie,” he said in a 2011 interview with Sabotage Times. “I don’t like drumming up more business for 20th Century Fox you see.”
At the same time, O’Brien can’t help but admit that it was a hell of a lot of fun. And why wouldn’t he? Tim Curry (in what is surely his best-known role over thirty-five years later), Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and yes, Meat Loaf, well before he endorsed a presidential candidate whose Mormon head would explode if he ever actually watched the film.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show also carried with it a great deal more of the punk aesthetic (just check out Frank N. Furter’s leather jacket halfway through) and a few sly jabs against straight-laced conservatism. Probably the most illustrative example comes right before squares Brad and Janet get a flat-tire and discover the Frankenstein place -- as they listen to Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation speech on the radio.
By this moment, most of the world had experienced the end of the post-War boom, and Britain in particular was declining into economic depression. Lampooning conservatives was pretty easy in the midst of all this. That it could be done in such a camp style incorporating everything from spaceships to gold lamé speedos merely solidified how hard it would be for traditionalists to even think of responding.
Today, there’s a different landscape in which Rocky Horror and all its iterations exist. On the plus side, the idea of non-straight orientations, including trans lifestyles, are viewed with much more acceptance and embrace. Says O’Brien:
“Well in our western world, England, Australia and the United States etc, there are still strongholds of dinosaur thinking. But, you know, I am a trans myself and I know it’s easier for me now. I can be wherever I want, whatever I want and however I want. And I suppose to some extent, a very small extent, my attitudes in Rocky Horror have helped make the climate a little warmer for people who have been marginalised, so that’s definitely not a bad thing...
“I’m not saying we’re totally responsible for any of this but we are indeed part of a journey of shifting boundaries. You know, to be transgender is not a choice, to be gay is not a choice, to be heterosexual is not a choice, it’s just the way we’re made. And we hopefully got that message across with a lot of fun along the way. Rocky’s allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to express themselves have that chance to be more open and to free themselves.”
Unfortunately, those “strongholds of dinosaur thinking” are hard to ignore. They may even help put a straight-up homophobe in the White House (not that Obama has really done all he can to help the LGBT and queer communities).
Maybe that’s why experiencing Rocky Horror remains both necessary and a real thrill. In college I had the luck to perform in a version of the show. The directors needed someone who played guitar to play Eddie, because he would double as a member of the band. I could play bar chords and hock a loogey across the rehearsal space. Apparently that’s all they needed.
Something to understand is that this was in Syracuse, New York, where I was attending the university. There really isn’t much else in Syracuse, a city of 200,000 that is rust belt personified. It used to host the largest Carrier air conditioner plant in the country; in fact the stadium is named after the company. The jobs there were good union jobs. But like so many other factories, Carrier closed shop in the 1980s, took the jobs with them and let the city’s working class get scattered to the wind. Half of downtown Syracuse was perpetually boarded up. From my understanding, it still is too.
Of course, there was plenty of homophobia among the fairly large frat scene on campus. But any area that’s in perpetual economic hardship is guaranteed to carry with it a great degree of “blame the other” mentality -- even in the “enlightened” blue state of New York. It’s worth keeping in mind that as recently as 2008 Syracuse was the scene of the fatal shooting of transgender woman Lateisha Green. Like all cities, it’s the kind of place where alternative spaces are always in demand.
The LGBT scene wasn’t huge at that time, but it was certainly big and proud enough to hold its annual pride march, and the gay bars were the places where you were guaranteed to have the most fun regardless of your own orientation.
It was in one of these places we performed Rocky Horror. Actually the place officially identified as a club, but most NYC or Los Angeles clubs would scoff at these modest digs. It couldn’t have been more than the size of a small loft, with a tiny stage and shit sound equipment.
Still, the energy wasn’t to be missed or matched. We had built it well beyond the campus, and the crowd was gay, straight, lesbian, trans, queer, young and old, black and white. Cliché though it might be to say so, it’s also true that it was a little closer to how any proponent of sexual liberation thinks the world should look.
The shout-backs from the audience were right on cue and as hilarious as if they were being said for the first time. We took more than a few liberties: I modeled my Eddie off of Joe Strummer, complete with the electric leg and telecaster. Our Riff Raff based himself on Sid Vicious. We thought it’d be fun to have our Rocky be someone with a beer gut, and our Frank N. Furter had a shaved head, a nice offset to his bustier and garters.
And ultimately, that’s what made the night so fun; that we were taking a work that had become something of a “classic” by this point, turning it on its head, and the knowledge that this is what we were supposed to do if the show was to be relevant in any way. Were we successful? I can’t be the judge of that; I just know I had a good time.
In the end, what shows like Rocky Horror put on the table is the question of what it means to be a “freak,” and why we all, in this society so bound by repression and deprivation, have a need to fly it. Halloween aside, the question answers itself.
What most people desire -- even the Republicans reduced to footsie in an airport bathroom -- is for the line between freakishness and respectability to be erased. Where freedom has actual meaning, and where, oddly enough, Frank N. Furter’s mantra “don’t dream it, be it” is possible 365 days a year.
First appeared at Red Wedge magazine