Over at the Frankenstein palace, inside the decrepit castle, under the gothic chandelier of the mad scientist’s laboratory, something weird is going on. A monster wears gold bikini briefs. A hunchbacked butler sports leopard print and has “elbow sex” with a groupie in sequined shorts. The scientist himself vamps for a camera in fishnet stockings, pearls and blood-red high heeled boots.
Are we sure this is Manoa Valley Theatre?
It’s The Rocky Horror Show, everyone’s favorite gender-bending, sci-fi/horror, rock ‘n’ roll musical, and it’s coming to life June 25 through July 13 at MVT under the direction of Jerry Tracy. This cult classic of musical theater, made famous by the 1975 movie version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, follows the tale of Brad and Janet, two clean-cut kids whose car breaks down on the wrong back road and they end up in a gothic castle on the night a mad scientist brings his creation to life. The twist, of course, is that the scientist is a “sweet transvestite” with an appetite for musclemen and virgins. Tony Young plays the delicious Dr. Frank-n-furter, leader of a motley crew of misfits that are beginning to chafe under his sensual rule. Sexy? Yes. Perverted? Just enough to be interesting. We’re still in Honolulu, after all. Thus, the question on everyone’s red, high-gloss lips:
Is MVT’s version anything like the movie?
“It’s better than the movie!” barks Tracy. He plans to employ cabaret-style seating in the theatre, with chairs and small tables for patrons and “Phantoms in Waiting,” wearing lingerie, schoolgirl skirts and bow ties, serving cocktails and linking the audience with the action onstage. Judging by the size of the stage and the lavish costuming and makeup, it’s going to be quite a show.
The director presses the point that his production should be seen and judged on its own merits: “We’re not doing the movie!” But not to worry–theatergoers can still dress up as their favorite characters and purchase a bag of props at the door to participate in the great Rocky Horror experience, a phenomenon more than 30 years in the making that has spawned an entire counterculture of avid fans across the globe. Sure, it’s a little dangerous, but all in good fun, as is evident when Riff-Raff, played by James Sigmon, leers at Becky Maltby in her Columbia costume and sensually mashes his arm against hers. They pose for their press photo and then help Tony Young, in his Frank-n-furter boots, re-wrap John Tolentino in clinical bandages for Rocky’s emergence from the laboratory.
In the early 1970s, rock-n-roll was seen by many as the future of musical theater. The success of shows such as Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and The Wiz proved that musicals didn’t have to be about sissy Austrian nuns and ballet-dancing Oklahomans; they could also deal with issues of race, religion, and sexuality without being boring or preachy. But no musical at the time was as weird, as liberating or as badass as The Rocky Horror Show, where horror, science fiction, romance and androgyny clashed and frayed in a glorious, campy rock extravaganza.
The Rocky Horror phenomenon started in 1973 at the Theatre Upstairs in London, where Jim Sharman, director of London’s first stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, presented a new rock-n-roll musical written by Brit-turned-New Zealander newcomer Richard O’Brien. The fledgling Rocky Horror Show enjoyed a run of exactly one month at the 63-seat Theatre Upstairs before being transferred to the much-larger King’s Road Theatre, and then finally to the Comedy Theatre in London’s famous West End theater district. The original production ran for seven years and 2,960 performances. Versions of it are still performed today in the United Kingdom.
But that was just the beginning. In 1975, Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman adapted their musical to film and made The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released by 20th Century Fox. Using the popular Hammer Horror movie-making style (as well as many leftover Hammer Horror props and settings, such as Frank-n-furter’s gothic castle), O’Brien and Sharman sought to both lampoon and redefine the science fiction/horror flick genre that was made popular by the drive-in movie culture.
At first, critics and audiences both shunned the film, much as they had the first Broadway production of the musical. The tide shifted when New York’s Waverly Theatre began showing the film at midnight, starting on April 1, 1976. The “creatures of the night” identified with Rocky Horror in a way that mainstream America couldn’t, and by Halloween, audiences were dressing up as the movie’s characters, talking back to the screen and throwing gag items such as toast or playing cards. Tracy recalls, “I was able to see the movie once all the way through [when it was first released], and after that, boom! You couldn’t hear the movie for all the people talking back to the screen. That’s how the phenomenon started… it evolved from the creatures of the night who knew what to do and say.”
From there, it was one small step to screenings with live actors on stage, performing the movie while it showed on the screen behind them. By mid-1978, local performance groups were publishing movie newsletters and fans began gathering for Rocky Horror conventions.
Since then, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been called a cult classic, although considering its success and the size of its audience, it would be better classified as a cultural phenomenon. It is considered one of the longest running releases in film history, and has never entirely left theaters in the thirty-odd years since its release. Somewhere in the United States, as you read this, a big screen is showing RHPS and some misunderstood teenager is pulling his or her fishnet stockings, ready to “do the Time Warp” all over again.
A very gay moment
Rumors abound about the crazy world of RHPS fans. It’s said they make “virgins” (anyone who has never experienced a screening of RHPS with live actors) strip naked, eat donuts off a woman’s crotch or perform musical numbers in front of the audience. Fans in various states of undress may engage in questionable practices during the correspondingly racy scene in the movie, such as promiscuous sex, full frontal lobotomies or the creation of a Frankenstein hunk for after-movie entertainment. Are any of the above, and bizarre, facts true?
Of course not. (Just the donut one.) It’s true that the culture of RHPS has its own customs and mores, but the strangest thing you’re likely to see at a screening is a lot of men and women in drag, which was science fiction-strange back in the 1970s. Rocky Horror’s themes of androgyny and homoeroticism, blended with cross-dressing aliens, Frankenstein sex slaves and rock ‘n’ roll musical numbers may seem almost quaint by modern standards, but when the movie was released in 1975, it was one of the only humorous portrayals of homosexuality available in mainstream art. The gay rights movement was still relatively young, and it was an entirely new thing to see homosexuals in anything other than a serious drama or a documentary. RHPS became an anthem for those marginalized by society because of their sexuality, and they came out in midnight droves to experience a phenomenon that was uniquely their own: strange, fun and totally gay.
“In the 1970s,” remembers Tracy, “gay liberation was still in its youth. [The movie came out] less than a decade after the Stonewall Riots, which was still fresh in the minds [of the gay community].” The 1969 Stonewall Riots sparked intense, worldwide debate about the place of LGBTQ citizens in mainstream society. When RHPS came out, it helped heal the wounds of Stonewall.
“To see on the big screen people of the same gender fondling each other and frolicking in a swimming pool–it was magical!” Tracy sighs. “It wasn’t serious or a documentary. It was ‘let’s dress up in drag and have a good time.'”
Not that RHPS appeals exclusively to those of the LGTBQ community. One thing many RHPS fans have in common is a feeling of being alienated from those around them, and the longing to be with like-minded peers. It’s no coincidence that the “sweet transvestite,” Dr. Frank-n-furter, is a literal alien from the planet transsexual in the Transylvania galaxy. Actor Tony Young, who plays Frank in MVT’s production, explains.
“Society says that Frank-n-furter can’t be this way, and by the end he’s baring his soul, asking ‘Why couldn’t you just let me be [who I wanted]?”
His surprisingly tender numbers at the end of the play speak of his longing to be somewhere else, or more appropriately, someone else, someone more beautiful, glamorous and fabulous. He transfers these feelings to those around him, changing them into something stronger. Fans identify with the urge to both evolve into something better and change the world they inhabit to better align it with their own desires.
Perhaps the gay rights movement, too, tries to accomplish just that: create a world that is friendly and open to all variations of human interaction. Rocky Horror is ultimately a family phenomenon, in that it has created a family of like-minded misfits who share a common dream, however strange it may be.
Back in Manoa Valley, Jerry Tracy discusses our culture’s obsession with Rocky Horror.
“It’s a chance for theatre to let its guard down and let it all hang out. Cross-dressing has never gone out of style, it’s been around as long as theatre…What makes [Rocky Horror] hang on, what makes it endure, is the fact that people can dress up and interact with the actors.”
Tony Young, almost unrecognizable as Frank-n-furter without the fishnets and lipstick, muses that “[Frank-n-furter] has created a safe place for his little posse of misfits, [a place] they can just be who they are and not be judged by what society says is right and wrong. Brad and Janet come caked in inhibitions, and by the end, they’re free.”
Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show
June 25-July 27
Manoa Valley Theatre
Wed & Thurs 7:30pm, Fri & Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm (No show July 4, makeup show July 8)
Tickets: $35; Seniors and Military $30; under 25 $20.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.
Props and Protocol
Audience participants will not be allowed to bring outside props to Ma–noa Valley Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show, but a bag of props with instructions is available for $5 at the front door. If you don’t know what to do with the toilet paper and playing card, here is a quick cheat sheet so you won’t catch any “virgin” mockery.
Bicep tattoo, to match Dr. Frank-n-furter’s. Rainbow confetti, to throw when Frank-n-furter and Rocky go into their bedroom during the reprise of “I can make you a man.” Customized playing card, to throw during the song “I’m Going Home.” Toilet paper, to throw when Dr. Scott enters and Brad yells, “Great Scott!” Latex laboratory glove, to be snapped when Dr. Frank-n-furter snaps his own gloves in the laboratory. Glow stick, to hold up during the song “(There’s a Light) Over at the Frankenstein Place.” Page of newspaper, to be held over the head during the song “(There’s a light) Over at the Frankenstein Place.”
Cast of the original Rocky Horror Picture Show Where are they now?
Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-n-furter: Still acting in films and on stage in America and the United Kingdom, he won a Daytime Emmy in 1991 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1994. He was most recently a voice actor in the animated Around the World in 50 Years 3D, currently in post production.
Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss: Starred in other cult classics such as Thelma and Louise. Now an A-list actress, she’s been nominated for five Academy Awards and won Best Actress in 1996 for Dead Man Walking.
Barry Bostwick as Brad Majors: Won a Golden Globe in 1986 for War and Remembrance. Most recently did voice acting in 2003’s 101 Dalmations II: Patch’s London Adventure.
Richard O’Brien as Riff-Raff: Writer of the original Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He won a Special Teddy at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998 and most recently acted in Night Train, currently in post production.
Patricia Quinn as Magenta: A regular in British television series in the 1980s and 90s, her last appearance in film or television was in 1995’s England, My England
Nell Campbell, aka Little Nell, as Columbia: One of the cast members in the original Rocky Horror Show in London, she opened a successful nightclub in London in 1987 and still sings, dances, and acts in movies and television. She is currently a writer for Talk magazine.
Jonathan Adams as Dr. Everett Von Scott: Acted in various television series and B-movies until his death in 2005.
Peter Hinwood as Rocky Horror: A professional model with little acting experience, he has avoided show business and any publicity about the film and is currently an antiques dealer.
Charles Gray as the Criminologist: Known for his role as Mycroft Holmes in 1984’s television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he also acted in two James Bond movies, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever. He passed away in 2000.
Meat Loaf as Eddie: An international rock star after the release of his album Bat Out of Hell in 1977, he had small parts in television and movies such as 1999’s Fight Club. His most recent album was 2002’s Testify.