When The Rocky Horror Show premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre to about 60 people on 19th June 1973, the cast used to rehearse with a broomstick handle and rope so they wouldn’t trip anyone up on stage with the microphone wire. Their set was simply a pretend film screen with a ladder behind it, and a black box, with the rest completely mimed.
The musical also had no interval and started at 9:30pm. These things have all changed, of course, but the acting of it, and the storytelling, are exactly the same, creator Richard O’Brien tells RadioTimes.com.
Rocky Horror is now in its 50th year – making it the longest running contemporary stage musical in the world, seen by 30 million people in more than 30 countries.
The B-movie parody/tribute is Frankensteined together from pantomime, Hammer House of Horror and Carry On, and has become a cult classic. It’s about Brad and his fiancée Janet, who end up at a creepy castle during a storm when they get a flat tyre. They’re taken in by scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) and his motley crew, including butler Riff Raff (O’Brien, who originally wanted to play Eddie).
When the crystal maze presenter O’Brien was appearing in the musical Hair in 1970, a regular audience member who worked at EMI Films asked him to provide some entertainment for their Christmas party. He did a stand-up comedy set and sung a song about the movies he enjoyed, which ended up being Rocky Horror’s opener, Science Fiction/Double Feature.
As a teenager, O’Brien loved writing rock ‘n’ roll songs, including ones that, unbeknown to him, would later be used in Rocky Horror – I’m Going Home, Once in a While and Super Heroes. “They seemed to fit in quite nicely. The only song that’s problematic is Brad’s song, Once in a While, because it’s the only reflective one, but it gives us a bit of breathing space before all the madness and killing at the end.”
O’Brien adds: “Comedy and entertaining was the way I could make my mark in the world, because I certainly wasn’t going to make it in sport or academically, especially growing up in New Zealand with great big farmers’ boys who played rugby – and then there was eight stone me.
“Comedy is difficult stuff, but the strange thing is it’s not seen as important as tragedy. Comedy is seen as the country bumpkin of good theatre. It’s so easy to go out and cry on stage. When you’re an actor leaving drama school, you can’t wait to go and show the world how you can emote and how sensitive you are, but to go out and actually make people laugh is very difficult.”
In 1972, O’Brien appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar in London and was meant to take over the role of King Herod, but producer Robert Stigwood fired him, because he didn’t like how he played it, which was in the style of Elvis Presley.
The show’s director, Jim Sharman, took him under his wing. Not long after, O’Brien asked Sharman and composer Richard Hartley to listen to a musical he’d been working on. Sharman asked O’Brien to write three or four more songs and then rehearsals began for The Rocky Horror Show.
O’Brien originally wanted the title to be They Came From Denton High. “I liked the play on words, as if they’ve [Brad and Janet] been smoking dope or something or other, but Rocky Horror is better. It describes what’s on the tin.” It’s briefly referenced in the musical when Frank-N-Furter asks Brad how he knows Dr Everett V Scott, and he replies: “He was a science teacher at Denton High.”
Time Warp was written in one night, and O’Brien took inspiration for the first line, “It’s astounding…” from a magazine sitting on his table at the time called Astounding Science Fiction from October 1953, with an illustration that Queen would eventually use a version of for their News of the World album cover.
What about the iconic Time Warp dance? “The dance was just because dance songs are always so silly – do the Twist, the Hucklebuck, the Madison, the Loco-motion, the Funky Chicken, they went on forever. The Time Warp was to laugh at and enjoy the dance crazes.”
The movie version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, premiered in 1975, and it nearly took a very different creative direction – Mick Jagger initially wanted the film rights and his people even spoke to O’Brien about it, but Sharman said: “Don’t do that, or we won’t be able to make it!”
20th Century Fox provided $1.25 million (about £1 million) to make this “fringe theatre event” a film with most of the original creative team, including stage director Sharman as director, and Tim Curry and O’Brien reprising their roles. “They said, ‘Here’s the key to the sweet shop, go and have some fun!’” O’Brien laughs.
The audience participation that Rocky Horror has become so famed for started when the film was shown during midnight screenings. O’Brien believes the very first one was, “Why don’t you buy an umbrella, you cheap b***h?” when Janet (Susan Sarandon) puts a newspaper over her head when it’s raining.
“Shouting things at the screen wasn’t unheard of when I was a teenager going to the late-night movies.” The parody then came full circle, and dressing up as the characters followed – traditions that are still upheld in cinemas and theatres today.
In 1988, O’Brien did pen a film sequel that never got made called Revenge of the Old Queen. “I thought, ‘Well, this time I’ll make Riff Raff the interesting character. If we’re gonna go out with it again, why don’t I take the lead?’” he says. The other plot point is Janet becoming pregnant after the events of The Rocky Horror Show with… Frank’s baby. “It had some mileage, but it’s probably better to leave it alone.”
Reflecting on Rocky Horror turning 50, O’Brien acknowledges that if he had taken the role of King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, his iconic musical never would have been written. “It should act as a sign of encouragement to people, because it’s not necessarily a bad thing when a door closes,” he says. “It may well have been the best thing that ever happened to you.”
The Rocky Horror Show tours the UK until October 2023. For tickets, visit www.rockyhorror.co.uk
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