It Was Great When It All Began

I have a problem with Rocky Horror.

I love and understand it too much. Having directed the show for New Line back in 2002 and written a chapter about it for my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, I love it even more now than I did as a crazy high school drama kid seeing the film more than 80 times at the old Varsity Theatre (now Vintage Vinyl).

But my obsessive love has its drawbacks. It's very hard for me to see any production of The Rocky Horror Show now, because too many people doing the show don't understand it, so their productions are chock full of missteps. When I directed the show, I watched every movie mentioned in "Science Fiction Double Feature." I researched every cultural reference. I read interviews with the original cast and designers. I got to know Rocky intimately. And that makes it nearly impossible for me to see productions of the show. I know it too well.

I watched most of the recent TV remake of Rocky Horror, and it was better than I expected, though still a bit tame... A local production of the show just closed, but I couldn't go see it, mainly for the reasons just listed. And to be clear, this post has nothing to do with that production.

But as far as I'm concerned...

Rocky Horror has to be set in the early 1970s. Though Rocky fans will often declare that it's a sendup of 1950s B horror flicks, that's not really true. No, Rocky Horror uses the language of sci-fi and horror films (from the 1930s and 50s) to get at its real point, which is a satire of the Sexual Revolution (embodied by Frank) and how Americans reacted to it. Half the country was Brad, terrified by this new freedom and openness; and half the country was Janet, embracing the New Sexuality perhaps too enthusiastically. But the show also uses other pop culture references, to Steve Reeves movies, to magazine ads for Frederick's of Hollywood, to Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books, etc.

This isn't a show about sci-fi and horror; it's a show about changing sexuality. Horror is just the language of the story, because most classic horror stories are about sublimated sexuality. It's the perfect language for this story.

Rocky Horror doesn't make sense if it's updated and torn from its original cultural context, at the peak of the Sexual Revolution, when all these old movies were playing on local late night TV. The story has to be set in the early 1970s because glam (proto-punk) rock was the only rock genre in which gender was fluid, if not irrelevant. Frank chooses glam-punk because it suits him. (A number of pop culture historians say that Rocky costumer Sue Blaine invented the British punk look with her original Rocky costumes.) The Rocky revival in 2000, costumed all in black leather (and the many productions that have imitated it) utterly missed the point of the show. This isn't a story about S&M or B&D, and it's not a story about sex in general; it's a story about a major cultural shift around sexuality.

Productions that yank Rocky out of its intended context are as wrong-headed as productions of Chicago that remove its central vaudeville metaphor in favor of black leather. What's the deal with black leather and musicals these days?

Maybe these folks think they're making Rocky and Chicago more relevant by making their settings more contemporary, but they're not. They're only short-circuiting the smart, insightful social commentary at the heart of both shows, stripping out fundamental elements, turning both shows into naughty romps instead of the fierce, searing satires both shows are when treated with respect.

You wouldn't take Grease or Hair out of their historical contexts; why would you do it to Rocky Horror?

Even the wonderful film version of Rocky Horror made some missteps – after all, on stage Rocky was punk, not goth. The filmmakers' decision to go gothic makes sense considering the sci-fi and horror language of the storytelling. But goth is less subversive and less aggressive than punk.

Maybe directors and designers are trying to distance themselves from the original, maybe thinking they must "re-invent" Rocky for some reason; but when they do, they often lose the incredibly clever concept behind the costuming. Frank and his fellow aliens are trying to imitate Earth attire, but they do it badly because they're not terribly bright. That's why Frank originally wore an upside-down corset. This "wrongness" is both funny and endearing. And sexy.

I wish companies would produce the original stage version; luckily New Line was able to, back in 2002. But now, companies have to use the script from the misguided revival, which added a chorus to the show, to better imitate the movie. In the original script, there is no party over at the Frankenstein place, just a small family gathering. Adding the chorus turns Rocky into a musical comedy instead of the dark concept musical it really is.

I love the original stage show and I love the movie, as different as they are. But I don't like losing what's wonderful about the original in the service of imitating the movie. The TV Rocky was too often a pale imitation of the original film, often reproducing exact shots.

Maybe worst of all, in my opinion, is encouraging audience participation at performances of the stage show, which was not meant to have audience participation. The wild (and admittedly awesome) practice of the audience talking back to the film is the result of truly terrible pacing; watch the movie on video and you'll see what I mean. There's just so much room for vocal reactions...

But any well directed stage production does not have room for the audience to talk back. Rocky is a comedy and the secret to comedy is pacing. If dialogue is constantly being interrupted by the audience, if the audience is singing along badly (as usual), if the audience is screaming at the actors, it becomes about the audience instead of the story. Maybe that's fun for some folks, but it makes for lousy theatre and lousy storytelling.

The movie is exactly the same every time we see it. A stage show is not.

I remember reading that for the 2000 revival, the producers wanted audience participation, but regular Broadway audiences paying $100 a ticket didn't know the jokes, so the producers started putting "plants" out in the audience to get them going. Apparently it still didn't work. When you're supposed to yell at the actors, it becomes a far less subversive act – which is the only reason it's fun.

And really, can you think of anything more disrespectful than yelling at actors onstage during a live performance? There's a difference between yelling at a movie screen and yelling at people.

I know, I know, I'm too much of a purist. But I don't think that's the problem here. I think the real problem is most people doing Rocky Horror don't even know how smart and insightful it is. They think it's just a silly, dirty show that sells really well. It's so much more than that, as I described in depth in my Rocky chapter.

Like Grease (which has also lost its original bite), the wildness and sexual anarchy of Rocky disguises its intelligence and wicked sharp social satire. But both shows have so much more going on than most people recognize, which means most audiences get clueless, shallow productions of this brilliant, beautifully crafted piece of theatre. As I wrote in my Rocky chapter:
At its core it tells a tale we’ve heard many times before, back even before Shakespeare, of braving a wilderness, of surviving lost innocence, of sexual awakening, about acceptance of difference, about birth and death, forgiveness and redemption, about the fall from grace of a transgressive god.

And yet we often get a Rocky Horror that misses all that. Maybe people assume Rocky doesn't deserve serious respect because it's so "dirty." Maybe it's Americans' perpetual hangups about sexuality that keep most folks from recognizing the brilliance and artistry behind this iconic show.

Whatever the reasons, it's a shame. Sure, Rocky is fun even when it's shallow; but it's so much more fun when it's not shallow, and it reveals fundamental truths about America. As a culture we are still completely freaked out by sexuality. On the one hand, I wish we'd get past that; on the other hand, if we did, we wouldn't need Rocky Horror anymore.

And that would be a shame too.

Long Live the Musical!