The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

September 26, 1975,  Fox   100 minutes
Here's the very definition of a cult movie. But is it a cult musical? It came up--as these sort of shows do--thru the underground in London --landing in a long running West End venue (1973-1980) clocking in more performances than My Fair Lady. Record impressario, Lou Adler imported it across the pond, but first to LA, where it proved a hit as well, and was snapped up by 20th Century Fox in a quick sale ahead of its Bway bow--in expectation of a blockbuster. Only it fizzled completely and was gone in six weeks. The show played a derelict cinema in London and a nightclub in LA; but was staged in a legit house on Bway (the Belasco), which was perhaps more fatal than anyone realized. Even Clive Barnes suggested it should've been thrown into a filthy old East Village cinema. He was probably right. The anticipated Bway "smash" was also meant to cross pollinate with the movie--which was filmed in England between runs in LA and NY. Fox released it in 8 cities on Sept. 25, 1975, but aside from its Westwood run (adjacent to UCLA) the film did alarmingly poor business. So much so, that Fox held back any broader release, cancelling its Halloween premiere in NY. After experimenting with screenings in college towns, Fox settled on a strategy of weekend midnight showings--starting in NY on April 1, '76 at the Waverly in the West Village. It quickly clicked with the downtown crowd, as repeat customers brought friends. Within months groupies developed and people began attending in costume, talking back to the actors and eventually performing live in front of the screen. Along this niche marketing, the movie gained a following all over, and has never gone out of theatrical release (somewhere) since then. There are at least 33 recordings of the show, with no less than three different Icelandic cast albums (!); along with Polish, Peruvian, Korean, Mexican, South African and Phillipine discs. Few Bway flops (Ethan Mordden in his volume on '70s Bway fails to even mention it) develop into such global phenomena.

The aptly coined "brainchild" of this cultural troll doll, is Richard O'Brien, an unemployed actor who put his grindhouse obsessions to use in his spare time to whip up this kidney pie Grand Guinol musical--and write himself a role in the bargain. O'Brien was fortunate in enlisting Jim Sharman, an Australian director who staged several international productions of Hair, and redid Jesus Christ Superstar for London--making it a much bigger hit than it was on Bway. Sharman produced & directed Rocky Horror--and found the right buttons to tap into the (very '70s) Zeitgeist. This time he was originating an international success. Sharman & O'Brien rode the show thru its LA and NY productions as well as the movie. But much credit is also due Tim Curry, who took the silliest role ever and made it into a cult figure and springboard to a real career. (He's since accrued 213 credits in film & TV according to IMDB). He also returned to Bway thrice, in the musicals, Spamalot and My Favorite Year, and as Mozart in Amadeus--and was Tony-nominated each time. I don't think I previously appreciated how fearless and inspired his performance is. Mixing Mick Jagger & David Bowie with Joan Crawford and stirring in a good deal of Monty Python, he concocts a drag performance for the ages. It doesn't hurt that he has plenty of quotable lines, eye-rolling closeups, and tacky lingerie to work with. Still there is a certain goofy charm that has proved over the years to be uniquely Tim Curry's. From London to Hlwd he anchored the show with his Frank 'N' Furter. But it's the movie that made it iconic.

Shot over six weeks in the autumn of '74, Sharman (co-wrtiting the script with O'Brien) made simple, but clever cinematic changes; designing the film in the style of the cheapie, gothic horror flicks from the British Hammer Studios--even filming at Oakley Court, a Berkshire manor often used in Hammer films. Fox was generous in giving Sharman leeway but insisted on American actors for Brad & Janet (hence: Barry Bostwick, who'd starred in Bway's Grease, and a 28 year-old Susan Sarandon who was just breaking out of TV soap operas into roles in Hlwd.) O'Brien & Curry were retained, as were Patricia Quinn, and Little Nell (Campbell)--both original London cast members who did not play LA or Bway--both Brit actors previously unknown to me, each with fascinating bios. One other stage carryover was Meat Loaf, a rock musician with acting experience who played Eddie and Dr. Scott in LA & NY. For the rocker, this bit of notoriety helped to launch his Bat Out of Hell album into stratospheric sales--and recognition of his work with songwriter Jim Steinman as rock classics. A quarter of a century would pass before Bway attempted to remedy its resistence to the show. A starry revival (by NY standards) in 2000 had Raul Esparza, Alice Ripley, Jarrod Emick, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lea DeLaria, Joan Jett, Dick Cavett and Tom Hewitt as Frank 'N' Furter, in a freewheeling production that encouraged audience participation. It did well enuf to run a year--only to fade away in the aftermath of 9/11. It was with this recording that I first paid any serious attention to the musical. The score can only be taken half seriously, but it hits enuf licks to keep the ear intersted and a few numbers do more than that. The story is another matter; yes, a mashup of schlock sci-fi, and horror movies, with a mad scientist, and a beefcake monster--but none of it really makes any sense; nor would it matter if it did.

The 20th Century Fox theme is played by the musical's band over the studio logo, before Patricia Quinn's giant red lips mouth the words to "Science Fiction Double Feature" while Richard O'Brien sings and the credits roll. What's surprising is the song's languid pace--a problem that recurs periodically thruout the movie. We must first get thru a superfluous wedding scene before "Damn It, Janet" sets the tone of parody to follow. The backup chorus is a handful of Mormon sister-wives, with their "American Gothic" farmer patriarch--a curious choice. An interesting touch is Sharman's use of Nixon's resignation speech on the radio as Brad & Janet get a flat in a rainstorm. The movie picks up speed as they arrive at the castle, meet Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia, do "The Time Wrap" and get a Star entrance from Frank in wig, fishnets, and bustier drag. Nominally the show's hit song, "Time Warp" isn't much more  than a  ditty; and  isn't  even  performed  with 
any sense of precision--all the more inviting of easy audience participation. Up in Frank's pink lab we get the modernized monster maker--and a creature in the mold of a blonde porn star (Peter Hinwood)--buff & cute even in a '70s haircut. Rocky comports thru-out in a gold lame box cut; and Brad & Janet are both inexplicably stripped down to their underwear--Brad in a high-waisted tighty whitey--
which underlines the distance we've traveled since Calvin Klein ("What charming under-clothes you have," smirks Furter). I still don't know what biker Eddie has to do with the story--nor the out-of-nowhere homicidal rage that Frank inflicts upon him--the film's only reach into splatter horror (tho his ice pick rampage suggests Crawford in Berserk more than Hammer.) Less gory is turning his guests into statues, "It isn't easy having a good time," he pouts in one his best line readings. Oh, there's a dinner party for some unknown reason, that is funny only because the turkey is sliced with an electric knife. The so-called "Floor Show" is a sort of East Village "Loveland" sequence (ala Follies) with the principals in burlesque garb "performing" at Frank's command. He himself is the star of the show, lamenting "Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?" before morphing into a pool-sized production number. It's entertaining but not really great. But what follows, Curry's true eleven o'clock number, "I'm Going Home" is strangely moving. Sitting on the  stage  lip,  ala'  Judy at  the  Palace,  he  sells  the  song 
with brio. His adversaries are erased, replaced by an audience of high-toned seniors in full regal attire giving him a standing ovation. Tim's beatific face taking it in is my favorite moment in the movie. 
The final ten minutes are almost entirely devoid of interest. Along with its camp ethos, the musical's connection to the Zeitgeist was its glam-rock gender bending. O'Brien entwines transvestism with Translyvania; but his idea of transexualism seems to be merely bisexuality. (Or is Frank a woman changed into a male, who likes to dress as a woman?) The musical was a rarity in that it captured the confusion and energy of the post-'60s youth, reasurring them with the message: "Don't Dream It, Be It." Above all, Rocky Horror gave anyone who wanted it, license to fly their freak flag. Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll. Oh my.
Indeed. And so it was for me as well in '76; the year I came out of my protective shell (the one my parents had so thoroughly built) to challenge my understanding of myself and my world. As winter slowly melted away, I was finishing my play, Strange Enthusiasm, and ready to hand it off to Saint Subber. Frankly, I was over it. As a California boy, I was also over winter. Spring was especially welcome that year. Early in April my room-mate, Bill, got hold of some marijuana. Under the sway of my abstinence (and after a bad experience at Altamont) Bill had given up drugs for several years. Drinking, of course, was socially condoned; but pleasureable as it was, liquor was never my muse. (To this day I can't fathom how anyone can function, let alone write or be productive when drunk.) I had been around plenty of potheads in college, but was not interested in (and no doubt a bit frigthened of) the stuff at the time, content to let alcohol unleash my inner sentimentalist, if not my active libido. I had taken a puff or two to no particular impact--and as a non-smoker disliked the method of delivery. But that April when Bill offered me a toke off his joint, I thought why not? After my impoverished, cold, lonely winter, I was in need of something completely different. I was glad I had waited until age 23--as my mind & body were just now ready to open new doors of perception revealed by the psychoactive propertires inherent in cannabis. My world suddenly shifted into Hi-Defintiion. From the beginning, listening to music was transformative. We'd put on records: Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn, Jefferson Starship's Red Octopus Rick Wakeman's Myths & Legends of King Arthur, Ravel's Bolero, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper (of course); and sink into the sofa, listening to entire albums lost in some brain fuck universe. I'd been no slouch as a listener before, but I was riding a whole new sonic wavelength; listening to music was now more than a pleasure or pastime, it was an experience. No less so for the cast albums I'd always loved than all the new sounds I was hungering for. The laser focus marijuana gave me heightened movies and TV as well. My biggest discovery that season was Alec Guinness's Ealing comedies, running on PBS. Two films in particular illustrate what makes him my favorite of all film actors. He plays 8 different members of a family--long before Eddie Murphy--in the satiric Victorian masterpiece, Kind Hearts & Coronets. (And hats off to those who pulled off its musical incarnation--A Gentlemen's Guide to Love & Murder--staying true to its source while defining its own musical identity: a feat that I wouldn't imagine possible.) The other is The Ladykillers--a black comedy with the most delightfully annoying old lady inadvertently bringing down a gang of crooks, master-minded by a fangled Guinness--it's sheer perfection. Tho I was still Poverty's Plaything, staying in was now as much fun as going out--and Saturday nights were golden: a full course of music before the stellar CBS lineup of comedies ending with an hour of Carol Burnett. Afterward we'd blast a few tracks of Grace Slick (why no one ever complained about our volume, I'll never know) and then walk to 79th St. to get the Sunday Times and pick up treats at Zabars. We were like an old married couple.

I was still barely making ends meet but got to some theater, starting 1976 off on a high note with Ellis Rabb's enchanting revival of Kaufman & Ferber's Royal Family, starring Rosemary Harris and Eva La Gallienne. Other excellent revivals followed: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Ben Gazzara & Colleen Dewhurst; Richard Foreman's bone-chilling Threepenny Opera with Raul Julia & Ellen Greene; and a 20th anniversary recreation of My Fair Lady that was unimpeachable--yet unable to regenerate the furor it initially had on either me or the Zeitgeist. Revivals were increasingly more necessary as newer shows were fewer and hits fewer still--especially musicals. Sadly, that spring crop was more disheartening than usual, as the talents behind them were Golden Age giants. Rex, by Richard Rodgers & Sheldon Harnick was a dreary Henry VIII  succession drama.  1600 Pennsylvania 
Avenue was a collosal elephant from which diamonds could be seen in the shit (sparkling in Leonard Bernstein's score, and Patricia Routledge's performance) but which fully justified Saint Subber's move to exit stage left. But veteran filmmakers were flourishing: John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock  and Ingmar Bergman had terrific new movies, along with current A-listers Paul Mazurksy, Martin Scorcese and Alan J. Pakula. Pacific Overtures teemed with theatrical exoticism, but wasn't anywhere near as haunting as The Man Who Would Be King. Taxi Driver was visceral in a way even live performance couldn't duplicate; All the President's Men was a thriller of recent historical import; Next Stop Greenwich Village recreated downtown Bohemia at the time of my birth, utilizing a bevy of NY theater actors: and Family Plot (aside from being a worthy & delicious slice of Hitch) starred Barbara Harris. 'nuff said. Every one ultimately more satisfying than anything on Bway--and available to anyone today and for all forseeable tomorrows. Despite the writing on the wall, I still aimed my sights on the The Big Street.

After my writing sabbatical I resumed my letter-writing campaign to Bway producers, but production was getting ever leaner and the best I got was a few odd jobs from a sympathetic Fritz Holt (another Hal Prince protege) and firm advice to get backstage experience working in the weeds; a sentiment echoed by Saint Subber after reading Strange Enthusiasm, my ill-conceived "boulevard" comedy--that was so unoriginal, I could cite the source of every plot thread, character and line. And so, from penthouse to basement I went. Answering and ad in Backstage, I got hired first by a fledging company; Actors Alliance, to run their box office, of all things--of which I'd had no experience. They were a rather sad lot of actors looking to feature themselves in showy roles to lure talent agents. William Newman, a tall, gaunt faced character actor--who had been the Narrator in Bway's Rocky Horror Show--was their apparent leader. They ran two weekends of George M. Cohan's creaky melodrama, The Tavern, followed by a deservedly forgotten '50s marital comedy, Lullaby and Noel Coward's Hay Fever, played in the rundown  Provincetown  Playhouse on  MacDougal  Street. 
Overlapping this gig, I was hired along with a similarly green apprentice (Chad) to re-cast, direct and stage-manage an off-off Bway trifle, Line by Israel Horowitz--an abstract/absurdist 50 minute piece that had been running for so long its maintenance was simply handed over to willing hands. In this case, ours. Casting was equal parts fun and heartbreak. We were double-casting so Chad and I got to choose our own favorites for each of the five roles. One woman intrigued me and we became casual friends. I was so brainwashed by Hlwd that Gale Pike was my Fran Kubelik from The Apartment. I would fantasize us falling in love, while listening to Barbra Streisand singing "He Touched Me"--and just about everything in that sentence sounds horribly wrong. She picked up a new boyfriend before I could act on my misplaced desires. He was, of course, a bit rough--a bad boy; and she was an early proponent of the punk sensibility--in other words: a perfect mismatch for me. Still we remained friends into the '80s. My Line cohort, Chad, was as nerdy and green as I, but I couldn't relate to him, or his taste--being as devoted to Debbie Reynolds as I was to Shirley MacLaine. As it happened both had nightclub revues opening on Bway that summer. I didn't gloat but I can't say I wasn't thrilled when Debbie's  act  at the  Minskoff  withered  and  folded  early, 
while Shirl's at the Palace was a victory lap on the street that gave her her start. I made sure to be in the orchestra on opening night. And her closing. Summer, aside from being in Hi-Def was exceptional in other ways. It was the big Bicentennial year, and the weekend of July 4th was unlike any other I'd ever seen in NY--a sort of nonstop carnival. Something like a million people crowded along Riverside Park--our regular backyard--to watch the Tall Ships sail up the Hudson and fireworks to beat the band; an impenetrable sea of bodies, moving inches at a time. It took over an hour to get back to our apartment which was but 50 yards off of Riverside Drive. That very same weekend my close college friend, Laura Lanfranchi arrived to pursue her dream of acting, and camped in my bedroom for several months. Life became a great deal more social.

I had met young producer Jeffrey Wachtel during one of my odd jobs that spring, and in September he invited me to come work on his hit play at the Cherry Lane; a comedy by an up & coming Chicago playwright, David Mamet. Sexual Perversity in Chicago had been running to full houses since early June. Already half the backstage crew was leaving and I was hired as half of the sound team. It was a heady group. Onstage were F. Murray Abraham, Peter Reigert, baby-voiced Jane Anderson (who later became an oft produced playwright and screenwriter), and Gina Rozak--the only one I got close to, and of course the only one never to be heard from again. There was a curtain raiser as well, called Duck Variations, that starred two older men, Michael Egan--an acting teacher and lively Falstaffian fellow and Mike Kellin--an actor so unencumbered of pretense, as to make Spencer Tracy look like a dandy. My sound-system partner was a lanky, curly-tousled Jewish kid from Virginia, who was also hired to understudy Peter & Murray--but never had the chance to go on. Tho only 19, Danny Stern was destined for much greater things, not least of which was teaching me to tie my shoelaces--which up to then had a habit of untying themselves. We all knew that Peter was dating Bette Midler at the time, who lived a block away on Bedford St. She took the actors out for drinks on occasion--but they mostly kept to themselves anyway. We ran 7 shows a week, with 5 on the weekend, which meant between 6PM Friday and 10PM Sunday I was pretty much living at the Cherry Lane. The theater staff bonded, and after several weeks a flirtation developed between me and the house manager, Michael. We made a date for Friday night. I didn't tell him it was my 24th birthday. After closing the house we smoked a joint backstage and then went to a midnight movie at the Waverly. Afterward we went back to the Cherry Lane, where we made tentative love on a cot backstage under the ghostlight. It was snowing when we headed uptown to his apartment. He lived, as did others with the show, in a somewhat derelict apartment house on Bway & 78th, they all called The Montana. A lengthy rent strike had left the building in disrepair--the tenants just short of squatters. Pigeons woke me up the next morning, cooing in the lightwell. It all mattered little to me. I was deliriously happy that holiday season. I had a lover! And so enthralled was I with the idea, not to mention the actual physicality, that it came as a rude shock when Michael broke it off after just a month. Only in retrospect did I realize we not only liked completely different things, but I didn't really like him all that much either. Yet what lives on in memory is that perfect birthday; the snow, the Cherry Lane, the midnight movie. Did I mention it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
If I wasn't a convert to the growing Rocky  Horror cult, it wasn't entirely because I was greatly distracted with the prospect of l'amour. I took my musicals seriously and expected them--be they satire or parody--to take themselves seriously, too. Now that I was meeting others, like I, infected by Musicalitis, it was disappointing to discover a contingent of show queens whose perspective on the genre was mainly as a treasure chest of Camp. 
Another resident of The Montana, disturbed me somewhat by his passion for the truly bad: a true flop chaser. Camp, by definition, embraces schlock that some like to elevate to Art. Its mainstream emergence is parallel to the Warhol era--where everything is challenged and questioned as valid Art. As a homosexual construct--and later flaming stereotype--Camp embarrassed me; it made me feel silly--not in a giddy, goofy way, but bubble-headed and irrelevant, girly. It reinforced my deep-rooted, internal shame as a lover of musicals. It tarnished the craft that made the musical a cultural (and uniquely American) institution. I suspect a good many Rocky Horror Picture Show fans aren't really musical fans. The show's self-mocking tone, outré lyrics and rock baseline give license to enjoy a style that would have them otherwise wincing. Still, it's not hard to see why the film flopped, thrown out among the unfamiliar masses. Only word of mouth could sell this movie, for no advertising campaign could convince the uninitiated. And Word, as the pic's opening credits demonstrate has a very big Mouth.

Next Up: New York, New York

Report Card:  The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Overall Film:  B- 
Bway Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Bway:  15
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: "Sweet Transvestite"
     "Time Warp," "I'm Going Home"
Casting:  Definitive
Standout Cast: Tim Curry
Original London Cast: Tim Curry, Patricia 
     Quinn, Richard O'Brien, Nell Campbell
Cast from Bway: Curry, O'Brien, Meat Loaf
Direction: Sometimes clever, sometimes slow
Choreography:  Your Own Thing
Scenic Design: Modern British Horror
Costumes:  Downtown Ready to-Wear
Standout Set: Main hall of Castle
Titles:  Those lips--her mouth, his voice
Oscar Noms:  None

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