Richard O’Brien was an unemployed actor living in London when he came to write They Came From Denton High, later called The Rock Horroar Show, soon to be famous as The Rocky Horror Show (1973).
"Rocky started as a way for me to spend winter evenings shen I was an out-of-work actor," remembers Richard O'Brien. "To me, it was just like doing the crossword or making a collage. I just wrote some songs that I liked. I wrote some gags that I liked. I put in some B-movie dialogue and situations. I was just having a ball." Allied with musician Richard Hartley (who thought “oh no, not another rock musical!”), O’Brien made a demo tape and approached Australian director Jim Sharman – for whom the New Zealand actor had recently performed, briefly and ignominiously, as Herod in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar - with an idea for a musical B-movie spoof with a bit of sex thrown in. Sharman loved it, and the show was soon on the boards for a limited run at the experimental 75-seat Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.
Read more about the origins of The Rocky Horror Show, and why this seminal piece of rock theatre is now lost to us forever, after the jump...
The Rocky Horror Show sort of came together rather than being worked out in detail; rehearsals started with a bare-bones script that was embellished by the director and cast. Some of the songs O’Brien had rattling around for years: “Science Fiction Double Feature” was written for a party at an Elstree film studios, “Super Heroes” and “I’m Going Home” were tunes O’Brien had doodled with for ages and “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” was a late addition when director Sharman noted “We need a song here.” “The Time Warp” evolved in rehearsals to give the three household retainers something to do. “Eddie’s Teddy” was added for the move to the show’s second venue, the Chelsea Classic. Though it does not appear on the cast album, it was released on 45 by O’Brien and his then-wife, Kimi Wong (she is the Asian Transylvanian with the long hair) as Kimi & Ritz.
Richard O'Brien sings "Over at the Frankenstein Place."
Director Sharman gave free reign to his team’s creativity. Set designer Brian Thompson – another Australian who, with Sharman, had made a camp sci-fi film called Shirley Thompson Versus The Aliens (1972) - came up with the idea of an Usherette singing the opening song – the original concept was a kid watching TV. Brian Thompson’s ingenious shoestring set consisted of little more than a couple of platforms, an old Coke machine and some tubes and wires for the lab. In a move of pure genius, he erected scaffolds and draped tarps around the space to suggest a cinema in the process of demolition (indeed, after the Royal Court engagement the show moved to an actual cinema, the Chelsea Classic in the King’s Road). The actors clambered over the scaffolds and played in front of a sagging, dusty movie screen, as if the flickering images of a thousand forgotten films had suddenly popped into three-dimensional life. Thompson’s settings put bones into the shapeless body of the work, just as his designs for the film version placed the story in a setting that, rather than mere background, provided context and coherence to the proceedings. But that is in the future.
The original Brad and Janet were Christopher Malcolm and Julie Covington. Canadian Malcolm is now well-known to Brit-com fans as Eddy's ex-husband Justin on Absolutely Fabulous and now walks with a cane due to a near-fatal motorcycle accident.
After angrily turning down the role of Ralph Hapschatt in the film version, he went on to become a successful theatrical producer. He is part of The Rocky Horror Company Ltd, which oversees new productions of the play. Actress Julie Covington had a career acting and as a recording star in the 1970s. Her biggest success came with the original concept album of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Evita, in which she sang the title role and had a #1 single with "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Covington left the show early in the run, and was replaced by Belinda Sinclair, who is featured on the original cast album.
Richard O’Brien originally planned to play Eddie – sing one song and then retire to the green room – but Sharman convinced him to play the sinister Riff Raff instead. Marianne Faithfull was sought for Magenta, but Patricia Quinn snagged the role. She accepted the part on the strength of the opening number, "Science Fiction Double Feature," which she sang as an ice cream-vending Usherette. Her agent warned against taking the role sight unseen - after all, what if there were only four lines? It turned out there were not many more than that - it depends on which iteration of the script, but there are fewer than 20 - but Quinn's turn as Magenta in the play and film is nonetheless indelible. (Surely I am not the only one who sees Riff Raff and Magenta as the descendants of Lolita's Claire Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom, lurking on the sidelines with mocking smiles, planning the protagonist's downfall?) Columbia was a late addition to the story – Little Nell used to clean Jim Sharman’s apartment, and he thought the spunky, tap-dancing Australian deserved a role, so Magenta’s part was split in two to accommodate her.
Richard O’Brien met Tim Curry outside a gym while scouting for muscle-men to play Rocky. Sharman and O’Brien had considered an actor called Jonathan Kramer for the role of Frank, but Curry’s audition blew them away – he ripped through Little Richard’s manic “Tutti Fruitti” and the show had its leading man. Curry's Frank N. Furter was originally a bleach-blonde. His hair later was dyed blue before reverting to his natural brown ‘fro. Curry flirted with a Lugosi-like “Transylvanian” voice, then an American accent, before settling on the familiar posh “Kensington” intonation. The American-accented portrayal is enshrined on the original cast album. When Tim Curry was indisposed, O’Brien would take over the role of Frank – in fact, when film producer Lou Adler saw the show and decided to bring it to 20th Century Fox, it was O’Brien vamping it up instead of Curry. One longs for a recording or photo of O’Brien as Frank to surface!
Sue Blane created the distinctive costumes, which have become as iconic as any in cinema history. Frank’s famous corset was left over from a production of Genet’s The Maids. Magenta was not promoted to housekeeper until the film - in the original show she is just a hanger-on lurking about in naughty underwear. Most of the other costumes are more or less what made it to the film version.
The show premiered on an appropriately dark and stormy night in June 1973, with legendary horror-movie ham Vincent Price in the audience, as if giving his dark blessing. What must have that first audience thought, as masked ushers silently thrust mimeographed programs - with a crude illustration by Richard O'Brien himself - into their hands, then climbed onstage to whip the tarp off an Usherette, as if she were yet another mothballed relic of the cinema's past glories?
The show was an unexpected hit – its run was extended, and it was later moved (appropriately enough) to a converted cinema seating 400. Rocky Horror was the toast of London - a London giddy with David Bowie and T. Rex, a London in the wake of the decriminalization of homosexuality, a London with the Sex Pistols just around the corner. Rocky Horror presaged the 1950s nostalgia boom that took off with Grease and American Graffiti, a wave of Boomer sentimentality that infused pop culture for the next 20 years. Productions in Los Angeles, Broadway and Sydney followed, as well a movie deal…but that’s another story.
The infamous Jonathan King recorded the original cast album in a single marathon session – and it shows. The sound is garage-band crude and the singing more enthusiastic than accomplished. And yet this record is, for me, the definitive Rocky Horror in many ways. It’s rawer, crazier, and just plain more fun than any version that came after. This is Rocky when it was an impromptu labor of love, staged in a dusty old theater on a shoestring budget. You can just hear the relish with which the actors jump into their roles. The band attacks these brand-new songs with a gusto that almost makes the polished movie versions seem tame. “Sweet Transvestite” is sleazier than ever, all piano and cowbell and squawky guitar, with Tim Curry oozing oily charm and Brad’s verse “rapped” in time to the music. "Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me" has an innocence that all other versions lack, and Chris Malcolm's performance of the oft-deleted "Once In A While" has never been bettered. Curry’s rendition of “Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?” on this disc is unequalled, especially his “Whoa-oh-oooh, don’t dream it…!” The pounding Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano on “Wild and Untamed Thing” never fails to get my heart rate up, and Frank’s breakdown in “I’m Going Home” is hilarious. “I - I’m sorry, I can’t go on,” he sobs. This is the Rocky Horror ur-text, and its cheesy charms seduce me every time.
Jonathan King remembers: “I had to preserve that raw, rough and ready, totally fresh and exciting feeling that had come over in the Theatre Upstairs. And that ethos of amateurishness, that thrown-together quality.” Mission accomplished!
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW - THE LOST MASTERPIECE
Why do I call The Rocky Horror Show a "lost masterpiece"? Well, the masterpiece part is obvious. This is Richard O'Brien's best work, and what he will be remembered for. But lost? Isn't Rocky Horror alive and well?
Perhaps, but the fact remains that we can never again see the show that premiered that dark and storm night in 1973. The show's fame and cult following have robbed it of its transgressive, revelatory power. Imagine going to see a show, having no idea what was in store, and suddenly that score comes blasting out of the pit, and Tim-freakin'-Curry storms down the aisle! Imagine seeing a live production and never hearing the audience anticipate every joke or throw back their own comments, but rather being allowed to experience what is on stage. Rocky Horror helped define a moment in pop culture that has resonated through the intervening 30 years - glam rock, goth, punk, gay liberation, Baby Boomer nostalgia, all have made their mark in Rocky's wake, and all have robbed the original of its status as a uniquely fabulous beast. The wild and untamed things that cavorted on stage at the Royal Court are now VH-1 relics and Hot Topic commodities. How transgressive is a sweet transvestite when the malls of America routinely host fishnet-hosed, black-lipsticked baby goths? Don't get me wrong, I am glad to live in a world where such things are commonplace - but I can't help mourn what is lost in the process.
The show itself has become a museum piece, a bit of commedia dell'arte, with stock characters who resist directorial re-interpretation at risk of alienating an audience who thinks they know what they want. An enterprising director can't do a "new" version - despite such intentions, the fans will be reacting to the show they remember, and will be bemused if not hostile to any true originality. Rocky Horror is a victim of its own success, as are many such seminal works - but few works have suffered so much from being mummified by its own fans.
Many of the quotes in this blog entry come from 2002's Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult by David Evans and Scott Michaels. The book contains many fascinating, unvarnished interviews with the creators and stars of Rocky Horror, including Richard O'Brien, Jim Sharman, Richard Hartley, Brian Thompson, Patricia Quinn, and other Transylvanians and backstage crew. Particularly intriguing are the revealing information from Kimi Wong and the elusive Peter Hinwood. It's out of print but available used.
Also invaluable is The Rocky Horror Show Book by James Harding - a large format book focusing on the original show and the touring productions. Most of the pictures of the original London cast in this article are from Harding's book. It's also out of print, but not impossible to find.
And no fan should be without The Rocky Horror Scrapbook, designed by Brian Thompson, which gathers a treasure trove of photos, drawings, press clippings and miscellany into a large-format book. Print quality is a bit fuzzy and low-contrast, but the book itself is a treat. Buy it!
Here is a brief, low-quality video of of O'Brien as Frank in 1990!