It Was Great When It All Began #2

What does a theatre company owe to our art form, and to the people who love our art form?

Thoughtfulness and artistry. Those of us making theatre, those of us given the great honor of being the storytellers, we all need to respect the material, and not impose our own agenda upon it. I've seen so many productions that "bring something new" to an already brilliant show by misunder­standing and short-circuiting what the show is really about, and imposing upon it a nonsensical period, setting, or other High Concepts

Por ejemplo...

As I've written beforeRocky Horror has to be set in the early 1970s because it's really specifically about how Americans reacted to the Sexual Revolution of the late 60s and 70s. Tommy has to be set in post-World War II London, because it's really specifically about Western Civilization finding itself spiritually lost after the war, while drowning in postwar conspicuous consumption. When you change the setting of these stories, either explicitly or through set and costume design (the biggest warning sign is the random use of Steampunk), you betray the work, its authors, your audience, and our art form.

We may see resonance in The Rocky Horror Show for our own times, but the more specifically it lives in the seventies, the easier it can serve as a metaphor for today, allowing us to stand back from our own times and see them objectively. Frank is presented as a glam rock star because that was the only period of rock and roll during which gender was both fluid and irrelevant (the same reason Hedwig, of The Angry Inch fame, finds her home in that subgenre). The dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most during the Sexual Revolution. Frank’s lack of clear gender is his real monstrosity, which is why it’s always a mistake for productions to re-imagine Frank as anything other than a glam rocker.

It's not just about drag; it's about gender in our culture.

To take the seventies and its issues out of Rocky Horror both emasculates it and short-circuits its social satire. No one working on the 2000 Broadway revival seemed to notice that the leather and S&M themes in the costumes went exactly opposite to O’Brien’s original intentions of innocent, campy, goofy sexuality. Rocky Horror is not soft porn; it’s a satiric cartoon of sexuality at a particularly clumsy time and place in American history. But director Christopher Ashley and his designers didn’t understand that.

Only the Wall Street Journal could still see Rocky’s smarts behind all the distractions, and its reviewer Amy Gamerman wrote, “The carnival atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Show is so enveloping that it takes awhile before you notice how clever the show itself is – a smartly calibrated blend of salty, sweet and sarcastic, with its pierced tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.”

Rocky is a brilliant, insightful social document, and the directors and actors who don't get that are missing everything that's really wonderful about the show.

After all, modern-day Puritans weren’t the only ones who thought the Sexual Revolution was a bad thing. Others disliked it because they felt this new movement took all the mystery and magic – and most important, the romance – out of sex. In Rocky Horror, Eddie’s song “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?”(aka “Hot Patootie”) addresses this issue of how the hippie movement and the Sexual Revolution "ruined" everything. There’s even a reference to the change (for the worse, in Eddie’s opinion) in American pop culture and music, away from the romance of 1950s rock and roll, and toward the politics and disenfranchisement and nihilism of 1960s acid rock, embodied in the image of rock icon Buddy Holly’s premature death. This song is far from the pointless interruption of the show that some people claim.

You'll always look foolish if you condemn Grease, Hair, ot Rocky Horror as empty-headed silliness. Just because you may not see the substance doesn't mean it's not there...

Eddie’s song is a pointed commentary on the way the Sexual Revolution (in the person of Frank) was changing sex and romance in America (in the person of Columbia), a last, metaphorical stab at stopping the tide of the Sexual Revolution, and a final warning as the show’s first half comes to a close that Brad and Janet’s world is gone. Frank and the Sexual Revolution are too strong, and they silence forever the simplicity and purity of 50s rock and romance through Frank’s act of murdering Eddie, in effect also shutting the door forever on Brad and Janet’s old-fashioned world of sexual innocence.

This is also a theme addressed, though more subtly, in the show’s opening, “Science Fiction Double Feature.” A close reading of this lyric shows a real longing for the innocence of the 1950s, when sex was all subtext and metaphor. The song starts by taking us back to that idealized time when movies told Americans what was good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and “deviant.” And they told us all this very carefully and indirectly. But subtextual sexuality couldn’t stay hidden forever. Rock and roll would emerge, alongside drive-in movies, and these forces would change sex forever.

Which is the central through-line of Grease, by the way.

This opening song in Rocky Horror sets up the central conflict of the show, though like the movies it celebrates, it does so subtly. It positions open, overt sexuality as not just a threat, but also a despoiler of the innocent, sweet, teen sexuality of the 1950s, a kind of innocence that existed more on the screen than in the back row of the local movie house.

In this song, O’Brien is talking about the very center of the culture of the fifties: the nexus of sex, drive-ins, and rock and roll, the forces that were changing America in profound ways. And a big part of the drive-in experience was low-budget science fiction, often in double features. “Science Fiction Double Feature” is O’Brien’s statement of purpose. This will be a story about the (false) moral perfection of the 1950s as it slams up against the wild explorations of the Sexual Revolution, here rendered "in the back row."

Rocky Horror explored American sexual hang-ups, the excesses of the Sexual Revolution, and the sometimes cruel myth of the American Dream. It used as its vocabulary pop culture icons like Charles Atlas and muscle magazines, Frederick’s of Hollywood, old sci-fi movies with scantily clad women, horror movies with barely sublimated sexual fantasies, glam rock with its blurring of gender lines – all icons that represented the history of Americans hiding sex behind other things.

And perhaps it’s Rocky’s underlying condemnation of America’s sexual puritanicalism and hypocrisy that keeps the show relevant today. Rocky satirizes sex in America by personifying in Brad and Janet the two responses American society had toward the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, and the revolution itself personified by the gender-vague, pansexual Frank N. Furter. In the real world, half of America (Brad) responded to the Sexual Revolution by fighting even harder than before to stop the progression of sexual freedom, to demonize homosexuality, to condemn sexual independence in women, to blame all of America’s ills on sex, to brand (or rebrand) otherwise healthy expressions of sexuality as dirty and inappropriate. The other half of America (Janet) responded with an almost manic sexual celebration and a kind of aggressive experimentation that today may seem outrageous. Both reactions in the real world probably made the early stages of the AIDS pandemic worse than it should have been. And Rocky Horror rightly satirizes both reactions. Both sides went too far.

You can't transplant this story to another cultural context.

The Rocky Horror Show is about a time in America when our nation stood at a crossroads. Sexual oppression was ending (or at least, beginning to fade) and America had to decide how it would move forward. But neither the people who celebrated this new era or the people terrified by it acted responsibly; neither side caused AIDS, but both sides helped it spread. Of course, Rocky Horror is not about AIDS, but it is about consequences. It was written in 1973, but it is about sexual politics in America then and now.

Watching it today, we can see a moment in time when it wasn’t yet too late, when the devastation of a generation of innocent men and women should not have been inevitable. We can love the music, laugh at the jokes, and sing along with “The Time Warp,” but we should never forget that Rocky Horror is about something.

Something very specific.

You wouldn't set Grease in the 80s (although the 1994 revival tried), so don't don't do it to Rocky. It's not just a sex farce or a drag show. Why some directors feel the need to impose a "vision" or a metaphor on shows is beyond me. Just tell the fucking story. And this story is about America in the early 1970s, a moment so sui generis there is no adequate substitute.

So let's do "The Time Warp" again and again, but let's leave the leather harness at home.

Long Live the Musical!