40 years on and still making a Rocky Horrorshow of it

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Rocky Horror

Each of us has that one book, film, song, work of art, that is individually significant. It may relate to our own life in some shape or form, it may have opened our eyes to a further facet of the human condition, or be meaningful in that we shared it with someone special. It could be that one novel which we read annually, and ‘feels’ different each time, or the film we can watch over and over again and never gets dull. I must emphasise that I’m not attempting to sound like some pretentious adolescent ‘wallflower-type’ here, although having said this; my focal point has a relation to said novel/film. The Rocky Horror Show (and the subsequent film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is indeed my ultimate choice. This spring will mark forty years since the original 1973 stage production in the West End; in recognition of this, an anniversary tour is performing around the UK.

But what is so fantastic about Rocky Horror you may ask? Why did (an initially low-scale) rock musical turn into something beyond a cult following, with a legion of corset-wearing, sequined, time-warping fans? Rocky is, on the surface, a macabre, excessive and erotic musical, but it is so much more than this; it is an allegorical jibe at American politics, with regards to sexual hang-ups and hypocrisy. The premise of Rocky Horror is curious: a musical with Buddy Holly-esque rock n’ roll set against a backdrop of a clichéd 1940/50s horror B-movies. Not forgetting, the protagonist is a pansexual psychopathic transvestite. For those new to Rocky, the plot is as follows: a recently engaged naïve young couple, Brad and Janet (who act as a symbol of American puritanical values), happen upon the haunted castle of an insane scientist, Dr Frank N. Furter (a symbol of sexual excess). It is here they witness the creation of a ‘perfect’ artificial man, the titular character Rocky Horror, who is merely a sexual object for Frank. Admittedly, the plot is somewhat typical, but this is the whole point: it is the sharp humour and sensational musical numbers which are of true merit, and indeed lighten the disturbing undertones of the plot. I believe that if the songs had been released as an album, separate and forgetting the musical they were intended for, it would be a best-seller. But despite Rocky Horror’s unique qualities, the themes of the plot are timeless and, in my opinion, somewhat Shakespearean. Here is a piece of literature which draws comparisons to the Bard’s most encompassing work, The Tempest: surviving loss of innocence, sexual awakening, acceptance of difference, birth and death, forgiveness and redemption and fall from grace.

Creator Richard O’Brian’s subtle yet ingenious political satire in Rocky Horror demonstrates to us the manufactured morality of America, and the cruel myth of the American dream through the contrast of the suppressed figures (Brad and Janet) and the excessive figures (Frank, Columbia, Rocky). The show is of crucial historical importance being written at the height of the alternative theatre movement along with the likes of Rado, Ragni, and MacDermot’s Hair. In 1973, the USA was at a crossroads between conservative morals and forward sexual liberalism and Rocky Horror acts as a miniature time capsule for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. The show is also musically significant; some writers have argued it launched British glam rock in the mid-seventies, whilst also being connected to the roots of the punk rock movement.

But how is Rocky still relevant in today’s modern, more liberal society? Has our society moved on beyond the need for seemingly ‘shocking’ art forms to shake-up popular attitudes? To understand why Rocky remains pertinent, we must look at the initial reactions. When Tim Curry first strode on stage in corset, suspenders and heels, some 40 years ago, the audiences, at least in the UK, were not in the least bit offended. The transvestite element of the show which Richard O’Brian argues was never supposed to be important, did not phase British audiences, but was far more subversive for Americans and still is today. Britain has a long history of cross-dressing, from Shakespeare’s plays to David Bowie, whereas in the states the concept is taboo, especially for heterosexuals. The case today is the same, America still has a long way to go before it reaches the liberal attitudes of Europeans. Yet, forty years on, wherever you are in the world, Rocky Horror remains subversive as it asks us questions that challenge our perceptions about our sexuality.

The Rocky Horror Show was, and remains a cultural, political and musical phenomenon. It proclaims sexual liberation, feminism and gay rights, whilst also criticising the hypocrisy of conservative values. However, the ultimate message of Rocky is arguably that sexual freedom is all well and good, but mindless gluttony is dangerous; therefore, freedom, opposed to irresponsibility. Shamelessly, I am a Rocky Horror über-fan, and am horrendously biased. But still, I urge you, get on a bus to Edinburgh, slip into a corset and some heels, and experience perhaps the greatest British musical of the last century, in all its insane, bizarre glory. Don’t dream it, be it!

The Rocky Horror Show is on at the Edinburgh Playhouse from the 11th to the 16th of March.

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