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background and analysis by Scott Miller

The Rocky Horror Show, that great cult phenomenon with music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien, and a script by O’Brien and (uncredited) by director Jim Sharman and the original cast, was really not all that ground-breaking in 1973, and yet it was also utterly unique. Certainly, at its core it tells a tale we’ve heard many times before, back even before Shakespeare, of braving a wilderness, of surviving lost innocence, of sexual awakening, about acceptance of difference, about birth and death, forgiveness and redemption, about the fall from grace of a transgressive god. And yet there is something special here, born as it was in the midst of the alternative theatre movement and at the beginning of the punk rock era. Of its first production in London, Jack Tinker wrote in the Daily Mail, “Richard O’Brien’s spangled piece of erotic fantasy is so funny, so fast, so sexy, and so unexpectedly well realised that one is in danger of merely applauding it without assessing it. That would be a pity. Because…I believe Mr. O’Brien has something quite nifty to say.” Rocky Horror explores American sexual hang-ups, the excesses of the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, and the sometimes cruel myth of the American Dream. And because the show was created entirely by British artists, it has the advantage of genuine objectivity in its exploration and satire of these mostly American phenomena. And also, because it was created by Brits, we can see its cross-dressing elements as just one more example in a long tradition of cross-dressing, from boys playing girls in Shakespeare’s original plays to men playing women in British pantomime to the later androgyny of British glam rockers like David Bowie, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry, Boy George, and others. The cross-dressing in Rocky was perhaps the least subversive element when it opened in London.

But interestingly, many of the people involved with the first productions of Rocky Horror have said in interviews that they believe the subsequent American productions in Los Angeles and New York and the film version lost much of what’s important about the show, its grit, its rawness, its confrontational directness, its relationship with its audience – a relationship quite different than what the film has with its audience. The original Rocky confronted and challenged its audience. Like Hair, Rocky was born out of the alternative theatre experiments of the 1960s. When it was mainstreamed (to the extent that Rocky Horror can be mainstreamed), when it was made slick and expensive, when the sets got better, when the score was orchestrated, some believe it lost its soul, its politics, its pre-punk sound, its edge. One listen to the original London cast album from 1973 reveals a very different show than many of us know today. Those who know only the film may not really understand what Rocky was in an upstairs, sixty-seat theatre.

All this may explain why it is that the original production in London got such positive reviews and all subsequent productions and the film have gotten such negative reviews. The material was not changed in any substantial way, but its presentation was changed greatly. Perhaps the reason Rocky Horror has not been embraced by the critical community since 1973 is that they haven’t seen Rocky as it was meant to be.

Still, the Beast is Feeding

People may ask how The Rocky Horror Show can be taken seriously today in a world in which AIDS and HIV make Rocky’s sexual high jinks may seem curiously quaint, at best, and at worst, dangerously irresponsible. How can this musical about sexual promiscuity and abandon, written eight years before AIDS first surfaced, speak to contemporary audiences? Is its appeal merely a longing for a time when sex was not deadly, when sexual experimentation was a symbol of hard won freedom rather than gross irresponsibility? Or does Rocky Horror still have something of substance to say?

Perhaps it’s Rocky’s underlying condemnation of America’s sexual puritanicalism and hypocrisy that makes the show still relevant. Rocky satirizes sex in America by personifying in Brad and Janet the two responses American society had toward the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which is in turn personified by the gender-vague, pansexual Frank N. Furter. Half of America – Brad – responded by fighting even harder than before to stop the progression of sexual freedom, to demonize homosexuality, to condemn sexual independence in women, to blame all of America’s ills on sex, to brand (or re-brand) otherwise healthy expressions of sexuality as dirty and inappropriate. The other half of America – Janet – responded with an almost manic sexual celebration and a kind of aggressive experimentation that today may seem outrageous. Both reactions probably made the early stages of the AIDS pandemic worse than it should have been. And Rocky Horror rightly criticizes through satire both reactions. Both sides went too far. Perhaps today we can see Frank’s death in Rocky Horror as the death of the Sexual Revolution, “murdered” by the onset of AIDS, even though Richard O’Brien couldn’t have possibly known that was coming.

The over-reaction to the sexual revolution by the conservative side of America is responsible for the horrific inaction on the part of the government to react and respond actively to AIDS when it first surfaced. More than twenty thousand men, women, and children had died of AIDS before President Ronald Reagan even said the word “AIDS” in public. Virtually nothing was done because the disease was perceived to be a “gay” disease and most Americans didn’t like talking about – or even acknowledging – gay issues in the 1970s and 80s. America has been weirdly uptight about all things sexual since its founding, but this time it cost us the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Americans.

But the manic celebration of sexual liberation practiced by the more open-minded side of America shares the blame as well. After decades of serious and sometimes deadly oppression, gay Americans were experiencing genuine sexual freedom for the first time. Finally, gay men and women could meet in public, could date (relatively) openly, could see themselves represented in movies and books. They were no longer required to live their lives in the closet (although many still did). Their reaction to this newfound freedom was to go crazy. Some gay men had sex with thousands of strangers. And they were determined that nothing would stand in the way of this new freedom. Even when the Centers for Disease Control discovered that AIDS was being spread in gay bathhouses, the gay community fought hard to keep them open. Even when the CDC discovered that AIDS was unquestionably a sexually transmitted disease, gay men continued to have unprotected sex. Early in the epidemic, when the spread of AIDS could have been slowed down immeasurably, the gay community believed their sexual freedom was more important.

The Rocky Horror Show is about a time in America when our nation stood at a crossroads. Sexual oppression was ending (or at least, beginning to fade) and America had to decide how it would move forward. But neither the people who celebrated this new era or the people terrified by it acted responsibly. Neither side caused AIDS, but both sides helped it spread.

Rocky Horror is not about AIDS. It was written in 1973. But it is about sexual politics in America. And watching it now, we can see a moment in time when it wasn’t yet too late, when the devastation of a generation of innocent men and women should not have been inevitable. We can love the music, laugh at the jokes, and sing along with “The Time Warp,” but we should never forget that Rocky Horror is about something.

It Was Great When It All Began

The Rocky Horror Show began its life called It Came from Denton High (in an homage to the sci-fi film It Came from Outer Space),then later The Rocky Hor-ROAR Show. With just a few songs finished (and none written down), and the narrator’s dialogue, Richard O’Brien took the project to director Jim Sharman, who immediately decided to produce the show in the experimental theatre upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in London, whose artistic director George Devine believed totally in his motto, “Here we give you the right to fail.” The Royal Court was the center of new work and experimental theatre in London, playing home to up and coming “bad boy” playwrights like John Osborne and Joe Orton. Rocky was born out of the experimental theatre going on in London in the late sixties and early seventies, street theatre, guerilla theatre, political theatre, confrontational, rule-breaking alternative theatre. Many of the show’s creators had worked on both Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. O’Brien had been in Hair and had understudied Herod in Superstar. With music director Richard Hartley’s help, the Rocky score took shape and was arranged for a four-piece rock band. With the help of Jim Sharman and the assembled cast, the script was developed, almost as a group creation.  The role of Columbia was created specifically for “Little Nell” Campbell, a street performer, and “The Time Warp” was written both to give the servants something more to do, but more than that, to give Campbell a tap solo in the midst of this crazy revisionist rock musical. Originally the show used a framing device of a kid watching sci-fi movies on TV, but that was scrapped early on.

Sharman took the cast to see the camp classic film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and told them that was to be their stylistic inspiration. On the other hand, Sharman made it very clear that the characters were to played completely sincerely, that the stakes had to be high, that it was a fight of Good versus Evil. Like the musical Little Shop of Horrors, which came much later, Rocky only works when it’s played sincerely, despite its inherent craziness. Barry Bostwick, the film’s Brad, says of the acting style, “There was a slight over-the-top acting that was required, yet it had to be grounded in reality and very real. Sort of fifteen percent hyper-ness that had to be added on top of every character’s reality.”

The show’s original three week run was extended to five weeks, then it was transferred to an old movie theatre destined for demolition. After the cinema was demolished, it moved to the King’s Road Theatre. It was named Best Musical of 1973 in the London Evening Standard's annual poll of drama critics and ran for 2,960 performances. Critic Irving Waddle wrote, “This is theatre made out of the rawest and crudest ingredients, and forming a charge strong enough to obliterate anything standing in its tracks.” Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, “But this show won me over entirely. It achieves the rare feat of being witty and erotic at the same time.” Naseem Khan wrote in The Evening Standard, “O’Brien has created a satirical and affectionate send-up that, unlike Rocky, remains well within control.” The New Statesman wrote, “The intention of course is to celebrate such freaks of pop culture as Hammer films, Alice Cooper, and the sci-fi of Michael Moorcook; and the result has tremendous invention, energy, and glee, right up to the final paean to bisexuality.” The show has since been translated into over a dozen languages and played more than twenty countries.

According to some accounts, Rocky Horror created the punk movement in London; according to other accounts Rocky merely helped fertilize the very earliest seeds of the movement. Either way, Rocky was there at the beginning and its look was the look of a new London subculture that would change the look and sound of rock and roll. Sue Blane, the original costume designer, says, “I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for inventing punk! The Rocky Horror Show was definitely a big part of that build-up. It was happening at a time when the King’s Road [the bohemian section of London] was boiling up to something. I think certain elements of punk – for instance, ripped fishnet tights and glitter, and the funny-coloured hair – a lot of those aspects of it were directly attributed to Rocky.” The biggest surprise for Blane, O’Brien, Tim Curry, and others was the reaction women had to the corseted, fish-netted Frank N. Furter. No one would have ever guessed in 1973 that straight women would consider a man in a corset, platforms heels, and ripped fishnet stockings to be sexy. But they did. Many women, to their own surprise as well, found Frank incredibly sexy and desirable. Maybe it was the times. Maybe it was that our overly delineated boundaries between “male” and “female” aren’t as normal or as natural as we’d like to think.

Cards for Sorrow, Cards for Pain

After unprecedented success in London, the show was brought to the Roxy in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t the same there – flashier, slicker, less sincere, less innocent – and it didn’t do as well. The producers then took it to Broadway, set up with the audience cabaret style at small tables, and for whatever reasons – some thought it was New York’s critics’ resentment that the show had opened in L.A. first – the show was panned and was a dismal flop, running only forty-five performances. It received one Tony Award nomination for lighting design but lost.

Patricia Quinn, the original Magenta, says, “The show lost a lot of its naiveté. It lost its gritty appeal. These people improvised and made it glitzy.” Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, “It was unexpected, unpretentious, and the cinema itself [in the original London production], from the peeling walls to the grubby seats, provided it with the perfect ambiance. It now looks flashy, expensive, and over-produced. Why did not someone understand – before the Los Angeles paint job – that the entire point of The Rocky Horror Show in London was that it was tacky?” But those who did not know the original stage version could not see the show’s strengths beyond its over-produced spectacle in New York. Martin Gottfried wrote in the New York Post, “The Rocky Horror Show is simple-minded, however beautifully it has been produced.” And some critics were still fighting the idea of rock musicals themselves. In the previous six months, two ill-conceived rock musicals had crashed and burned, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, based on the songs of the Beatles, and The Night That Made America Famous, based on the songs of Harry Chapin, reinforcing their prejudice. One of the anti-rock brigade, James Spina, wrote in Women’s Wear Daily, “Rock is an approved forbidden fruit, the required final course for those theatre majors already well-graded in transvestitism, bisexuality, and gore.” He found the show “tacky, boring, and highly forgettable.”

A film version was made and it too was a big flop. Until enterprising movie theatres started running the film at midnight. Some say it first happened in Austin, Texas, others say it was at the Waverly Theatre in New York (immortalized in Hair’s song “Frank Mills"). Within a few months, a cult hit had been born. Stage and screen director Jim Sharman and designer Brian Thompson based the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the film version added the word Picture to the title) on another small film they’d made, Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens. They consciously made the film more gothic, less punk than the stage version had been.

The 2000 revival tried to emulate the film in too many ways, most notably by encouraging audience participation and even selling ten dollar “prop” kits, but most reports suggest that the show wasn’t very successful in that respect. Most of the $80 seats were filled with older theatre patrons who either did not know the film (and therefore the jokes) very well or folks who couldn’t afford the extra ten bucks on top of the ticket price. Variety wrote, “This new production isn’t so much a revival of the original stage show – a huge hit in London that flopped quickly on Broadway – as a theatrical transcription of the 1975 screen version. . . Energetic participation is all but demanded.” But the question arises: why just do the movie on stage when the movie already exists and can be viewed on home video for far less than $80 a pop? Apparently, only a few audience members participated at any given performance, and unwilling audience members were often pestered by chorus members at certain points in the show until they submitted. So director Christopher Ashley actually paid actors to sit out in the audience and be the participatory audience the real audience would not be. But it’s fair to ask why the show’s producers thought the audience participation from the film would work with the stage version, which has a fairly different script, different lyrics, and most important, timing that changes from night to night, unlike the timing in the film, which interactive audiences can count on to make room for the same jokes every night. More than that, the original creators of the stage version didn’t write it to incorporate audience participation, and the film’s audience participation happened spontaneously, so any attempt to force it with a stage production was probably doomed from the start. Certainly, if the director has to pay actors to do the audience participation, something has been lost. Obviously, audience expectations walking into a Broadway theatre with an $80 tickets in hand are very different from expectations while seeing a midnight show at a seedy movie theatre for $7.50.

The results of the revival’s misguided attempts were that critics blamed the misfires on the material, rather than the approach – material that was universally praised in London when done with respect and the right aesthetic sensibility. Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Why would anyone want to stage a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, an artifact as mired in the 1970s as a pet rock? It surely can’t be because it’s a good play.” New York’s Daily News wrote, “Ashley, rightly, doesn’t even pretend that the original musical can stand alone.” Production designer David Rockwell was praised for capturing the “contemporary zeitgeist” with his Rocky Horror designs, but apparently on one noticed that Rocky isn’t about 2000; it’s about 1970. In a chilling example of all that was wrong with the revival, director Ashley said in an interview with Time Out New York, “I decided to take the 70s out of it.” And, just as when Walter Bobbie took the 1920s out of the Broadway revival of Chicago, everything collapsed. Just as Chicago’s central themes and its satire rest entirely on the time period in which it’s set, so too is Rocky’s satire inextricably linked to the 70s. The show is satirizing events of the 1970s, so to take the 70s out of the show emasculates it. Similarly, no one seemed to noticed that the leather and S&M themes in the costumes went exactly opposite to O’Brien’s original intentions of innocent, campy, goofy sexuality. Rocky Horror is not soft porn – it’s a satiric cartoon of sexuality. But director Ashley and his designers didn’t understand that. Only the Wall Street Journal could still see Rocky’s smarts behind all the distractions, and its reviewer Amy Gamerman wrote, “The carnival atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Show is so enveloping that it takes awhile before you notice how clever the show itself is – a smartly calibrated blend of salty, sweet and sarcastic, with its pierced tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.”

These days, the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show has eclipsed the stage version, with its wildly transgressive, vocal audiences. One commentator wrote, “The mantra of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was ‘Don't dream it, be it,’ and it hit the G-spot of the sexually omnivorous and opportunistic 1970's. Glam met rock, cross-dressed it, slept with it, and taught the audience all the tunes.” And perhaps the film has taken on its life of audience participation precisely because Rocky Horror is and must be an inherently shared, live experience. Many of those involved with the original stage versions lament the loss of the material’s meaning and impact through the shouted responses of the film audiences, but maybe the magic on stage could only be replicated on screen with an analogous live component. Sue Blane, Rocky’s original costumer, says of the audience participation, “It is funny, but on the other hand, it doesn’t allow you to see what a damn good piece of theatre it is. The script is really tight, very funny. The music is sensationally good. You will never witness the original again because of the audience participation.” Of course, that’s not true; theatres all over the world produce the stage show more or less in its original form, and most of them don’t encourage audience participation. Susan Sarandon, the film’s Janet, says of seeing the film, “You couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. It was just obscenity. Chaos. So it had lost what it had before, what made it clever. Though it may not be true of the stage show, the film no longer belongs to its creators; it belongs to the audience. It’s their show now.”

Quite a few Rocky Horror stage cast members over the years have gone on to stardom. In addition to Tim Curry and Meat Loaf, Russell Crowe appeared as Eddie, Dr. Scott, and the Frank N. Furter understudy in Australia in 1987, Tracy Ullman played Janet in London in 1980, and Jerry Springer played the narrator in Cincinnati in the early 1980s. And the film cult continues. On July 11th, 2001 over 2,500 people attended Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado, to watch the film in the biggest Rocky gathering on record.

Commentators are always at a loss to explain the show’s endless popularity but, at least in America, maybe the answer is just too obvious. America is still largely both obsessed with sex and terrified by it. Rocky’s heroes, Brad Majors (originally named Ricky) and Janet Weiss represent that aspect of America’s sexual history. They embody pre-Pill, pre-Sex Ed American innocence. They are America in the twentieth century. This story dramatizes for us the enforced innocence and sex-only-thru-metaphor of America in the 1950s as it meets the sexual openness of the 1970s (Frank, et al.), resulting in either new sexual freedom (Janet) or renewed repression and fear (Brad). Even the film audience’s nicknames for the heroes – “asshole” for Brad and “slut” for Janet – bear out this interpretation. Brad reacts to Frank’s open sexuality the way half of America reacted to the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, recoiling in fear, retreating into 1950s Puritanism; and Janet reacts as the other half of America reacted, diving head first into the excesses of free sex, reveling in her sexuality, exploring fearlessly the limits of human sexuality.

Rocky Horror is not just about sex and rock and roll. It’s not just mindless entertainment. Rocky is about things, issues that need discussing, questions that need answering, maybe more now in this cyber-age than before. Richard O’Brien once said, “We have a contract with life: the more intelligent you are, the more responsible you are. The more intelligence that’s given to you as a gift, the more you have to give back to society, the more your responsibility to make change, to improve things, is incumbent upon you. That’s the deal.” David Evans, co-author of Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult, writes, “I remember how I felt, coming out into Sloane Square on that first night in June 1973. I felt such surging joy, such euphoric elation. I know I must have been grinning from ear to ear for hours. I felt empowered, validated, and no longer alone.”

Give Yourself Over to Absolute Pleasure

It’s not surprising that the Sexual Revolution burst upon the American scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and an understanding of Janet Weiss can be found in American sexual history. America had gone through a very strange time in the twentieth century, first with World War I, then the insanity and sexual excesses of the Roaring Twenties, then the Depression, and then World War II.

In the 1950s, women were expected to be mothers and wives first, and women second. Their worth was often judged in terms of how happy their husbands and kids were. But it wasn’t easy. Women were told to be involved in their children’s lives but not to smother their sons for fear of turning them into homosexuals. If women paid too little attention to their kids, they were told the kids would turn into criminals. If they paid too much attention, their kids would supposedly wind up gay. The television show Queen for a Day taught women that housework was their highest calling and that if their lives were miserable and sexless, it was all for the best anyway. At the same time, Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show thrusting his hips provocatively, inviting women across America to acknowledge their sexual desires, even though they could never act upon them.

And the women who had learned during the World War II that they could work, that they could participate actively in society, that they could have lives outside the home while their men were away, were all now thrust back into the roles of wife and mother after the war. After having discovered genuine independence and freedom, they were now put back into their old repressive roles. A newly repressive government, cranking out new enemies and fears every day, tried to forge a parallel in a renewed sexual repression. After decades of social chaos and after profound freedom during the war, the already puritanical American society became even more repressive to try to restore the pre-war social order, desperate to find some kind of calm, some kind of safety and predictability, trying to return to the Victorian moral standards of the previous century, putting women back in the home, back in the kitchen, back in proverbial chastity belts, and back on repressive pedestals, all of which was, of course, impossible. The genie could not be put back in the lamp. As there had been during other times of social upheaval (like the turn of the century and the Depression), there was a real friction between the demands for conformity and conservatism, versus the instinctive human need to express oneself, made even worse by the taste of freedom women had gotten while their husbands and boyfriends were off fighting the war.

Nowhere was the role of women more evident than in the person of rock and roll’s first female superstar, Janis Joplin, a fiercely ambitious, independent, ground-breaking rock artist who rejected old-fashioned definitions of beauty, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles. Joplin represented one of the biggest changes in America – women’s independence. After women found out during the war that they could work and make money, they also discovered that gave them profound independence. They no longer had to get married to survive in the world. They no longer had to have sex with a man they didn’t find attractive in exchange for him bringing home a nice, regular salary to pay for food and clothes and shelter. They found, in short, that they didn’t need men, and as a corollary, they could play with men. Their financial independence brought with it sexual independence. There ceased to be a punishment for sexual promiscuity. An affair no longer meant the loss of security. None of this was being talked about yet, but it was happening. By the 1960s even something as seemingly trivial as women’s role in social dancing had changed, morphing from the ballroom dancing of the 50s in which a woman needed a man, to the Twist in the 60s in which a woman could dance with herself if she wanted, where independence was the norm, where men were optional.

In 1948, Alfred Kinsey published his world shattering Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which declared that more than 90% of American men had masturbated, more than half had had affairs, 69% had used prostitutes, and 39% had reached an orgasm with another man. Not surprisingly, his book was an overnight bestseller. Kinsey hadn’t changed sex in America; he had just told us what we were all doing, especially the things no one talked about. Suddenly, almost overnight, Americans were talking about sex – in detail – over their kitchen tables. Politicians immediately denounced all this as immoral and shocking and announced that it would mean the end of The Family – just as religious extremists in the 1980s and 1990s declared that gay marriage would destroy the American Family. Needless to say, none of these folks were happy when Kinsey published his next book in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This study revealed that 33% of American women were not virgins when they married, 13% had had sex with more than six partners, and 69% of unmarried women who’d had premarital sex had no regrets about it.

Inspired by this new sexual honesty in America and in response to the reinforced efforts at sexual repression and demonization, Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, with a then unknown Marilyn Monroe on the cover and naked inside. In 1962, Harper’s Bazaar published a full page color ad featuring the famous model Christina Palozzi, completely nude. Perhaps the Powers That Be could have tamped all this down a bit had it not been for the explosion of rock and roll which took America by storm in 1954 and the years following.

Teenagers became more promiscuous than ever but had not learned enough about birth control. Twenty percent of teenage girls who had sex were getting pregnant. But in 1960, the world changed forever with the invention of The Pill, the first oral contraceptive. For the first time, women had control over when they got pregnant, which allowed them to enjoy sexual experimentation outside of marriage with no dire consequences. Though condoms and diaphragms already existed, the pill was much more easy, safe, and convenient, and it changed the way women had sex. Within its first six years, five million women began taking the pill. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown wrote her great, subversive sex manifesto, Sex and the Single Girl, also a bestseller, which said it was okay to have sex outside of marriage and, even more subversive, that it was okay never to get married at all. In Rocky Horror, Janet’s famous lines, “Toucha toucha touch me, I want to be dirty!” represent a whole generation of woman desperate to explore and celebrate all the things their mothers had condemned as dirty and disgusting, as improper and un-ladylike. The conventional wisdom on sex and the female body was being called into question in big ways. And at the same time, Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique persuasively and controversially attacked the myth of the “happy homemaker.” In 1966, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two sex researchers, published Human Sexual Response. Until then, many people honestly did not know what the clitoris did. So Masters and Johnson told them (most notably in a 1969 Playboy interview) and it changed everything yet again. By the end of the 60s, many states had stuck down their adultery and sodomy laws, and eight million women were taking the Pill.

Another interesting phenomenon of the 1960s was a sudden renewed interest in the ancient Indian text, the Kama Sutra, which became a runaway bestseller. This ancient religious text, describing in great detail every possible sexual pleasure and position, was a blatant and joyful rejection of everything our repressed, sometimes fanatically Christian nation thought about sexuality. American was a nation born of Puritans, a nation that believed that sex was for procreation only (if that), and Kama Sutra challenged all that.

But Puritans weren’t the only ones who thought the sexual revolution was a bad thing. Others disliked the sexual revolution because they felt this new movement took all the mystery and magic – and most important, the romance – out of sex. In Rocky Horror, Eddie’s song “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?”(also called “Hot Patootie”) addresses this issue of how the hippie movement and the sexual revolution (here mockingly referred to as “cosmic light”) ruined everything. Eddie sings:

Whatever happened to Saturday night,

When you dressed up sharp and you felt alright?

It don’t seem the same since cosmic light

Came into my life, and I thought I was divine.

[A joke about the hippies’ search for alternative spirituality…]

I used to go for a ride with a chick I know,

And listen to the music on the radio –

A saxophone was blowing on a rock and roll show,

And you climbed in the back and you really had a good time.

There’s even a reference to the change (for the worse, in Eddie’s opinion) in American pop culture and music, away from the romance of 1950s rock and roll, and toward the politics and disenfranchisement of 1960s rock —“Buddy Holly was singing his very last song.” Far from the pointless interruption of the show that someone people accuse it of being, Eddie’s song is a pointed commentary on the way the sexual revolution (in the person of Frank) was ruining romance in America, a last (metaphorical) stab at stopping the tide of the sexual revolution and final proof as the show’s first half comes to a close that Brad and Janet’s world is gone. Frank and the sexual revolution are too strong, and they silence forever the simplicity and purity of 50s rock and romance through Frank’s act of murdering Eddie, and in effect also shut the door forever on Brad and Janet’s old-fashioned world of sexual innocence.

I’ve Been Making a Man with Blond Hair and a Tan

But though no one was supposed to talk about sex in the 1950s, America had another sexual outlet during that time, which takes center stage in The Rocky Horror Show. Bodybuilding and its accompanying “muscle magazines” became in the 1950s not only an “innocent” way for gay men to ogle beautiful, mostly naked men, but also the birthplace of gay soft porn. Richard O’Brien takes all the “innocent” sexual metaphors of the past, all the ways of talking about sex without talking about sex, and makes them all explicit in Rocky Horror, showing how silly they always were, not the least of which is Charles Atlas muscle ads and “fitness” magazines.

The first muscle magazine to acknowledge (though subtly) the connection between bodybuilding and sex was Joe Weider’s Your Physique, which debuted in 1938. Many magazines followed, and even today’s muscle magazines make no secret of the muscle-sex connection. Damion Matthews wrote in 2000 for Salon.com:

Available at most any newsstand, muscle magazines are homoerotic pornography for the masses. Their appeal seems to cross sexual orientations. Straight, gay and bisexual men have been known to enjoy them. In their pages, they eroticize both the flesh and the culture of men. To read them is to be sexually seduced into a fraternity to which all men are invited. They unite their readers in a kind of sexually charged adulation of masculinity. To the cult of testosterone in America, they have an almost biblical authority.

Since the beginning, magazines and films ostensibly copying the mainstream muscle magazines were convenient ways to get around censors and postal inspectors while still providing soft porn for closeted gay men. In fact, the original iconic Muscle Beach, in Santa Monica, California, in the early 1940s, quickly became a meeting place for gay men, who enjoyed watching the performing body builders, then sneaking off for a quickie, and people of both genders and all sexualities soon turned Muscle Beach into a hotbed of illicit sexual activity. One denizen of Muscle Beach, Les Stockton recalled that “There were places where the kids would go – dark, secluded areas – and have sex in the middle of the day. Then they’d go back to the beach and play some more.” A mysterious suntan lotion created by Bob Hoffman was widely used and gave bodybuilders at that time that strange dark tan that we see in all the period photographs.

The first muscle magazine was published in Germany in 1893, followed five years later by two American magazines, Physical Development and Physical Culture. And until the end of the 1950s, most of the magazines that followed were convenient outlets for men who wanted to look at pictures of other men, either nude or semi-nude, while remaining in the closet. The text accompanying the magazines’ images were filled with coded gay language that the uninitiated wouldn’t recognize. Even today, how many straight men know that the modern muscle magazine began as soft core gay porn? Well, the U.S. House of Representatives had a clue when in 1952 it condemned “Nudist magazines and those which pander to homosexuals by depicting the male body as beautiful.” By the late 1950s, the muscle magazine industry split in two, half continuing and developing the gay erotic market and half clearly defining itself as dedicated to “real” bodybuilders. Today the distinction has become fuzzy again.

Though the appreciation of male strength and muscle goes back as far as Samson and Hercules, and though the modern bodybuilding culture began in America in the early 1900s, today’s popular muscle culture wouldn’t exist if not for a very few pioneers like Jack LaLanne and Vic Tanney, and most notably Charles Atlas. Atlas established a mail order business at the beginning of the twentieth century but had little success. It wasn’t until 1929, when Charles Roman joined him that business took off because Roman suggested advertising their products in comic books. The Charles Atlas “Dynamic Tension” (mentioned in Rocky Horror) program sold millions of copies, becoming the most successful mail order business in history, and is still advertised in comic books today. The ads declared, “In just seven days I can make you a man!” Surprisingly, Atlas’ plan did not include weightlifting, but instead consisted of stretching, calisthenics, isometrics, and daily affirmations. It made a lot of weight trainers angry, but no single man did more to popularize bodybuilding in America. He earned the title (though how and from whom is still unclear) “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” According to the CharlesAtlas.com website, Atlas’ measurements are “on file” (who knows where) as the “ideal male specimen for twentieth century man” – and the obvious choice as a model for Frank N. Furter’s experiment.

The other bodybuilder mentioned in Rocky Horror, the very handsome Steve Reeves, brought muscle mania to the silver screen, most notably in the not very good but very popular Hercules (1957), a film not even intended for U.S. release until its producer saw Reeves’ star power and changed his plan. Originally filmed in Italian, it was quickly redubbed in English and released in America. Reeves quickly became a gay icon. Interestingly, Charles Atlas always claimed a statue of Hercules in the Brooklyn Museum is what inspired him to begin his own bodybuilding. So, of course, Frank N. Furter’s blond creation, Rocky Horror, is the pop cultural offspring of both Reeves and Atlas.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Rocky Horror’s opening number pays tribute to and frankly acknowledges the contributions of many science fiction B-movies. It’s perhaps interesting to note that, while the song references several movies from the 1950s, two from the 1930s and one from the 1960s, there is nothing there from the 1940s. Sci-fi films were virtually non-existent during World War II. Also, most of the movies cited are short, generally running only about eighty minutes. True to the song’s title, most of these films were intended to run as part of a double feature and the theater owners wanted to get two of them in, along with a cartoon and a newsreel, in under three hours. The movies references in the song include The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Flash Gordon serials, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came From Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Curse of the Demon, When Worlds Collide, and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Specifically, Rocky Horror references When World Collide, through both an older male character in a wheelchair – Mr. Stanton in When Worlds Collide and Dr. Scott in Rocky – and the promise of a trip to another planet in a rocket ship. Dr. Scott also has a parallel character in Professor Deemer in Tarantula. The theme of science gone too far, a central theme in Rocky Horror and a common theme in 1950s sci-fi, shows up in  Tarantula, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein. Rocky shares several parallels with Doctor X – a strange, murderous scientist doing experiments in his lab, a doctor in a wheelchair, a maid and butler (in tails, no less), and a prominent shot of a grandfather clock striking midnight. And of course Doctor X owes a lot to Frankenstein (which was released one year earlier), the clearest model for Rocky Horror, though surprisingly not mentioned in “Science Fiction Double Feature.” Also, Frank goes crazy with power, just like the Invisible Man.

The one reference many Rocky fans miss is the one to Curse of the Demon. The relevant lines in the song go, “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, and passing them used lots of skills.” In Curse of the Demon, psychologist Dana Andrews is investigating the mysterious death of a colleague. Over the course of his investigation a curse is placed on him by a dangerous cult leader, and it turns out the method of placing the curse is to pass into the victim’s possession a piece of parchment covered with ancient runes – but it must be done without the victim’s knowledge, which explains why passing those runes “used lots of skills.”

Rocky Horror’s roots can also be found elsewhere. Richard O’Brien says Frank N. Furter is based on Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I and on Disney’s Cruella DeVil. The “Time Warp” dance was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande à part (1964). The words “love” and “hate” written on Eddie’s knuckles was taken from Night of the Hunter (1955). Dr. Scott is at least partly based on Peter Sellers’ masterful comic character Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-bound German scientist in the film  Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Also, interestingly (and in a break from its sci-fi roots), Rocky parallels Mutiny on the Bounty, with Frank as the crazy, abusive, power-mad Captain Bligh, and Riff Raff as the kinder, saner Fletcher Christian. Frank/Bligh mistreats those under his command (though for different reasons) until Riff Raff/Christian can’t take it anymore and commits mutiny. Parallels range from the fact that both sets of characters are on long journeys, to the fact that both captains are sadists who whip their underlings. There’s even a little taste in Rocky Horror of the 1930s “scare” film Reefer Madness, which tried to convince audiences that just one puff on a marijuana cigarette turns the user into a sex-crazed, homicidal maniac; certainly a possible target of O’Brien’s satire, when one whiff of Frank’s LSD-like spray turns Brad, Janet, Rocky, and Columbia into sex-crazed glam rock performers.

Rocky Horror also follows in the footsteps of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, using its metaphors to express our anxieties about our culture and our sexuality. Even the aliens’ home planet in Rocky, usually the metaphor for the roots of whatever evil was coming at us, is called Transsexual. And like Dracula, Rocky Horror deals with issues of alternative expressions of sexuality (including scenes of group sex in both sources), advances in science, women’s independence, and foreigners. In Dracula, Stoker was thinking about the changes in women’s roles in Victorian England, their changes in clothing and social independence, as well as widespread fear of the implications of Darwin’s new theory of evolution, the greatly increased influx of foreigners into England, and perhaps even his own (suspected) homosexual relationship with actor Henry Irving. All those things scared Stoker and his readers and he gave them an outlet for those fears in his mysterious Count. In Rocky Horror, O’Brien was thinking about the sexual revolution and how it was changing western society, the women’s liberation movement, nuclear proliferation and the paranoiac fear of communism, growing drug use among mainstream society, and again, his own very fluid sexuality.

Usually sci-fi films of the thirties expressed through metaphors (either explicit or not) the American public’s anxieties about advances in science and technology, and sci-fi films of the fifties expressed the American public’s anxieties about communism and the atomic bomb. It was in the 1920s, after World War I, that the first science fiction feature films appeared, films like Metropolis (1926), cautionary tales about the excesses of science. In fact, we can see parallels between Metropolis’s mad scientist and the beautiful, seductive robot he creates, and Rocky Horror’s Frank and Rocky. The parallel is even more striking today because in 1984 this classic silent film was re-released with a hard rock score. Frank N. Furter and his fellow aliens victimizing the poor, dumb humans, find their earliest ancestors in the many space/alien movies of the 1930s and 1950s, like The Things from Another World, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, This Island Earth, and others. Aliens were often metaphors for those damned, un-American, godless Communists. But there were also alien films that took the opposite point of view. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien was a peaceful visitor with an anti-nuclear war message. There were also sci-fi films throughout the 1950s that warned of the dangers of man playing God, of science going too far, inspired primarily by panic over advances in nuclear science. Films in this genre included The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and These Are the Damned.

Just as Rocky’s film audience appropriates Rocky Horror and becomes a part of the performance themselves, so too does Rocky Horror appropriate dozens of other works of art, not just pop culture works like Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Frankenstein, but its film version also appropriates masterpieces of art – DaVinci’s David, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, American Gothic, Whistler’s Mother, The Awakening of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, and others. It takes those masterpieces back from the museums and gives them again to the masses. Art is not for the elite, Rocky tells us; it is for everyone. And entertainment should not be passive, it also tells us; it should be active. And so Rocky Horror the film transforms from simple entertainment into ritual and public event. It becomes a religious experience in a very real sense, from the audiences’ invocations of the disembodied lips at the beginning (“Let there be lips!” they scream) to the ritual eating of flesh (Christ’s in church, Eddie’s in Rocky), from birth to crucifixion, with Rocky Horror as Christ the son and Frank N. Furter as God, all infused with a subversive, radical new moral imperative, one just as radical as Christ’s was in his day.

In Just Seven Days

But there are more explicit Biblical references as well. In “The Charles Atlas Song,” Frank promises, “In just seven days I can make you a man,” echoing the actual promises of Charles Atlas’ comic book ads, but also making a clear God reference, which also references then to Frankenstein. Of course, Rocky is the result of a virgin birth. And Frank plays the role of serpent in the Garden of Eden (“innocent” pre-Sexual Revolution America), suggesting to Janet’s “Eve” that she taste from the tree of “knowledge,” and Janet in turn corrupts Rocky as an innocent “Adam” figure. (This interpretation is supported by the album cover of the original London cast album, which pictures a serpent winding around Frank’s body.) Later, after “the fall,” Brad sings “Take this dream away,” in parallel to Christ’s plea to “Take this cup away.” Also, in the film, the pool orgy takes place above a reproduction of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and there is a kind of twisted “last supper.”

Rocky Horror followed in the footsteps of many sci-fi films which contained sometimes very subtle Biblical references, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, whose peace loving alien Klaatu has come to Earth to bring a message of love and peace, takes the name “Mr. Carpenter” and then dies and is resurrected.

Where There’s a Will…

Rocky also has surprisingly strong parallels to Shakespeare’s plays in general, and The Tempest specifically. This shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone since the show was created by classically trained British actors and director. And if anyone thinks it’s sacrilege to compare Rocky Horror to the Bard, let him not forget that Shakespeare’s plays were full of dirty jokes, improbable plots, supernatural events, and lots of drag. Will Shakespeare was writing for the masses and he peppered many of his plays with jokes about penises, vaginas, erections, and sexual positions, peculiarities, and dysfunctions. Who can forget in Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio;s famously dirty joke to Kate, “What, with my tongue in your tail?”

Rocky Horror employs the Shakespearean theme of innocent young lovers going off into the woods (or an exotic island) where rules don’t apply, where sex and gender roles are fluid, where characters are changed, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. It’s all about transgression, crossing lines that normally cannot be crossed, but doing it all away from polite society, out in the woods, where the rules don’t apply. And as in many Shakespearean comedies, Rocky Horror uses the devices of gender-bending, surprises at the end, arrogance deflated, and the idea of servants becoming masters. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, Rocky blurs the line between sanity and insanity, good and bad, love and lust. There are even similarities, most notably, between Brad Majors and the earnest but not too bright Orlando in As You Like It. And the LSD-spray that Frank has Riff Raff spray on nearly everyone in the lab before the Floor Show has its parallels in the drops that Oberon has Puck drip onto the eyelids of the four lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a drug to make them lose their inhibitions and arouse their desires. Also, we should remember that when As You Like It and Twelfth Night were first performed, in each play a boy actor played a girl pretending to be a boy. Sounds a bit like Rocky Horror, doesn’t it?

The classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet frankly acknowledged its debt to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the parallels extend to Rocky Horror as well. The themes shared among all three pieces include the opposition of reality and illusion, untamed nature versus civilization, and ideas about performance of gender and identity. Specific parallels between Rocky and Tempest abound. The Tempest starts with a shipwreck amidst thunder and lightning, while Rocky begins with a car breaking down amidst thunder and lightning. Frank N. Furter and Prospero both act as magical ringmasters manipulating everyone around them. Caliban and Rocky serve as the untamed, primitive creatures controlled by Frank/Prospero; and there is the attempted rape of Miranda by Caliban and Janet’s seduction by Rocky. Prospero sics his dogs on Caliban, just as Frank sends the dogs after Rocky in the film version of Rocky Horror. Prospero also puts on a small performance, the Masque of the Goddesses, in parallel to Frank’s floor show. Both Prospero and Frank make plans to return home at the end, though only Prospero of his own will, and Prospero must give up his powers in order to return, just as Frank’s power is taken from him. Frank and Prospero both even indulge in metaphors about death. Prospero says, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Frank sings, “But I realize I’m going home,” an unwitting prediction of his imminent death, when he will return to the earth. It’s also noteworthy that The Tempest has more songs than any other Shakespeare play (even though it’s fairly short), as well as references to some instrumental music. If any of his plays was ripe for making into a musical, this one was it.

One could also argue that Frank is a kind of archetypal Shakespearean tragic hero, brought down by his own fatal flaws, in this case, arrogance and hedonism. When it’s all too late, he has his moment of (relative) clarity in the song “I’m Going Home,” but it’s too late he still meets with a tragic end.

Perfectly Frank

Vampires sucking blood has always been a metaphor for sex, since before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, through to Rocky Horror’s Frank N. Furter and beyond. Of course, once again, Richard O’Brien made explicit with Rocky Horror what was only metaphor before Rocky. Frank dresses like a vampire, but he actually has sex with his victims, rather than drinking their blood in metaphor. And like many of the vampires throughout literature, Frank is a personified Id, acting on all urges – sex, murder, food, performance – connecting as well to the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet. In Rocky Horror’s Floor Show, Frank turns everyone into himself, dressing them all in his costume and make-up, in the ultimate act of narcissism. Frank N. Furter’s motto, “Don’t dream it. Be it,” is a slogan once used by Frederick’s of Hollywood, but here, it’s not just about dressing sexy, but also about sexual and gender transgression.

Frank creates his own realities, based on the false realities of past Hollywood films and muscle magazines, and he forces everyone to “perform” within those newly created realities. He builds Rocky in the vision of muscle magazines and dresses his servants, Riff Raff and Magenta, as movie servants, Riff Raff in tails and Magenta in a French maid’s uniform. Blurring the lines between performer and audience (of the stage version), Frank performs for Janet and Brad as audience, and they all perform in a show within a show during the floor show. In Tim Curry’s original performance, he also brought the artificiality of an upper crust British accent to the role of Frank. The idea goes even further with Rocky’s movie audiences dressing up in costumes and performing in front of the screen, becoming both audience and actors. In the film version of Rocky Horror, Frank goes even further in creating a false reality, decorating his mansion like a movie set, with fake masterpieces, curtains, and stages. He is determined to make his fantasies real – “Don’t dream it; be it” – and we have to wonder if Frank and his fellow aliens’ strange appearances are because they’ve learned about Earth only through old sci-fi and horror films, muscle magazines, and photos of 70s glam rockers and punks? Are these their only perceptions of Earth and the reason why they dress and act as they do?

One of Frank’s more interesting traits is his ability to charm others. He has a preternatural sense of what each person needs to hear and he provides it. Even though Brad and Janet are cold and angry at the beginning, even though Janet is scared, Frank kisses her hand, says, “Enchanté,” and Janet is won over. She giggles like a school girl and is on Frank’s side for the rest of the show. Frank has already seduced Columbia and Eddie, and who knows how many others who have already been disposed of.

Frank certainly shares the arrogance of his model, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, but his motives are far more selfish. Whereas Frankenstein was chasing scientific knowledge, Frank is chasing sexual gratification. Both have a God complex, but Victor Frankenstein is a much grander God than Frank N. Furter. And significantly, though Frankenstein’s monster is a murderer, Frank’s monster is a gentle, kind creature and Frank is the murderer. Though Victor Frankenstein feels remorse when he realizes what he’s done, Frank doesn’t do remorse. When the chips are done, Frank tries to charm his way out of his punishment. Of all the characters, Frank is the only one who doesn’t learn anything, which of course means he can’t be the protagonist he appears to be. Everybody assumes Frank is Rocky’s main character – he’s certainly the one who gets the most fan attention – but he can’t be the protagonist since he doesn’t go on any journey or learn anything, and he can’t really be the antagonist because he actually helps Brad and Janet learn what they’re supposed to learn. In his role as the personification of the sexual revolution, maybe it’s most accurate to call Frank an experience or maybe even a force of nature that Brad and Janet must endure.

Still, in some ways, Frank acts like a protagonist. In many stories, plays, movies – and the majority of musicals – the central character begins the story at odds with the community, and he must either conform to and join the community or he must be removed. In The Music Man, Hello Dolly, Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Kiss Me Kate, Anything Goes, and other musicals, the central character decides to conform to the community’s rules, and so he or she is allowed to join that community. Harold Hill decides to quit his life as a con man and settle down to get married. Dolly Levi gives up her life as an independent business woman to become “the First Lady of Yonkers.” Curly McClane and Billy Crocker gives up youthful wild times for the stability of marriage. But in Carousel, Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors, Floyd Collins, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin, Man of La Mancha, Hair, and other shows, the central character will not conform to the surrounding community and so he or she is removed, most often by death. Likewise, Frank N. Furter refuses to conform to society’s rules – or even the rules the aliens have brought with them from the planet Transsexual – and so he must be removed.

Frank fails in the role of Mad Scientist (and don’t they all?) in two ways. First, it doesn’t even occur to him that when he creates his perfect man, his perfect plaything, that man may turn out to be heterosexual. It’s more evidence that Frank acts on instinct, without much forethought. He doesn’t ever consider the ramifications of his actions. Likewise, it doesn’t occur to Frank that if he continues to abuse his servants so grossly they may at some point turn on him. That he can’t see the possible results down the road of his excesses, that he can’t see beyond the next ten minutes, beyond his own personal gratification, is his great tragic flaw.

Rocky Horror asks an important question still relevant today: Can we be Fully Id, even more now than in years past, by experiencing and performing our transgressions through new technologies? Do today’s electronic internet porn, phone sex, and murderous video games give us an outlet to act out our fantasies just like Frank N. Furter but without harm to ourselves or others? Or does that hurt us? Are we virtual-screwing and -killing all the time to exorcise those demons or does it make them stronger? Similar questions are raised in the 1999 virtual reality film The Thirteenth Floor.

Riff Raff

Riff Raff may be the most interesting, most subtle character in Rocky Horror, which could be because author Richard O’Brien was cast in the role before the script was really fleshed out. Riff Raff is the ubiquitous employee who’s smarter than his boss. He’s clearly smarter and more in control than Frank. He’s miserable from the beginning of the story, and he tells us in “Over at the Frankenstein Place” that his only escape is through drugs, in this case, morphine, to dull his pain and frustration. “The Time Warp” describes how much Riff misses his home planet and wants to go back. He sings, “I remember doing the Time Warp, drinking those moments when the blackness would hit me and the void would be calling.” Is this drugs or the intoxication of the dance? After all, many human cultures include rituals where people dance themselves into a frenzy or to the point of collapse – an experience much like that of hallucinogenic drugs. Is that what he’s talking about?

Also, in “The Time Warp,” Riff Raff sings, “I’ve got to keep control.” He knows he should be in charge. He knows Frank is about to spin off into disaster. And also he has to keep control of his emotions, not let his mounting frustration and anger explode. Yet of course they do, at the end, and he kills Frank. But the message is not that sexual freedom must be destroyed (after all, Janet survives); it’s the abuse through sexuality (Frank) that must be destroyed.

Riff Raff has to take responsibility for everything because Frank won’t. Richard O’Brien says he thinks Riff actually built Rocky but Frank takes credit for it. There is a continual resentment boiling under the surface in Riff, but he keeps it in check, tries to maintain dignity, tries to keep things running and not spinning out of control (sometimes through drugs, apparently), and finally he can’t control himself or the circumstances any more – the floor show is the last straw – and Riff loses it.

The one question that remains is this: is the usually stoic Riff Raff jealous of Frank? Does he resent the attention Frank gets? Or the attention Frank gives? After all, Frank seems to seduce everyone around him, but apparently, not Riff Raff. After Riff kills Frank, Magenta chides him and Riff screams, “He didn’t like me! He never liked me!” What’s going on there?

Mr. and Mrs. America

Rocky Horror dispenses entirely with the notion of “normal.” Brad and Janet, two people who’d be considered normal under almost any other circumstances, are in this case the weirdos, the outsiders, the unusual ones. The yardstick for what is and isn’t normal is shattered, just as the same thing was happening in America. What was normal in the 1950s – Ozzie and Harriet and the like – was no longer the norm. As the 1970s began, the hippies of the sixties were having children and starting families. Now parents were smoking pot. Adults were having wife swapping parties. Normal wasn’t normal anymore. And what was even more frightening to certain people – the idea of normal wasn’t just changing, it was falling apart entirely, in some parts of the culture.

Brad and Janet come to Frank’s castle as two entirely different people and they will have two entirely different experiences, Janet’s ultimately positive (in some ways), Brad’s clearly negative. It’s clear that both are looking for something as the story begins, both hoping for something they can’t quite name. The narrator’s second monologue describes metaphorically what is to come:

It seemed that fortune had smiled on Brad and Janet and that they had found the assistance that their plight required – or had they? There was certainly something about this house… that made the both of them uneasy. But if they were to reach their destination that night, they would have to ignore such feelings and take advantage of whatever help was offered.

Though this paragraph seems straightforward enough on its surface, it’s easy to see below the surface. What is Brad and Janet’s inner plight and their inner destination? What feelings will they have to ignore? And what kind of “help” will be offered? Janet will find Frank’s assistance a lot more helpful than Brad will.

As early as “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” Janet is prepared to some degree for what’s to come, for her sexual “coming out.” She sings:

In the velvet darkness

Of the blackest night.

Burning bright,

There’s a guiding star,

No matter what or who you are.

Though she may or may not know it consciously, she’s using somewhat sexual language – velvet and burning – and we might wonder if she’s been listening to the hippies more than Brad has, as she trusts that life will take her where she’s meant to go. It’s interesting to note that the last line of the chorus is, ‘There’s a light in the darkness of everybody’s life.” Everybody’s life.

Brad’s verse (left out of the film) shows us that he’s hoping for something as well, but though Janet is sure she has a guiding star, Brad only hopes, maybe even tries to convince himself, that good things are ahead. He sings:

I can see the flag fly,

I can see the rain.

Just the same,

There has got to be

Something better here for you and me.

Also, notice that Brad clearly references the two of them as a couple, but Janet does not. Janet is ready for an individual journey, while Brad is hoping for a joint journey. Janet is ready for sexual experiences, and she clearly revels in the experience she has with Rocky during “Toucha Toucha Touch Me.” Then later, in the floor show she declares her new life:

I feel released,

Bad times deceased.

My confidence has increased.

Reality is here.

The game has been disbanded;

My mind has been expanded.

It’s a gas that Frankie’s landed;

His lust is so sincere.

In contrast, Brad sings in the floor show:

It’s beyond me.

Help me, Mommy!

I’ll be good, you’ll see.

Take this dream away!

There’s a role reversal in the floor show. Janet and Brad have traded places. Whereas Janet was the “weak” woman who needs protection at the beginning of the story, now she is the strong one. She has gotten power from expressing her sexuality so freely. She’s in charge of her life now. (Although one could argue that her newfound strength and freedom in the floor show are the result of the LSD-like drug spray used on her in the previous scene.) And just as Janet has gained power, Brad has lost all his. He has gone from the being the dominant, hunter-gatherer-protector to calling for his mommy. He is lost in this world, the same world in which Janet is finally finding her way. Just as real American women did during and after World War II, Janet has discovered there’s more to life than being a housewife, and she can never again go back to the way things were before. This changed dynamic is explored more fully in O'Brien's Shock Treatment.

Of course, that reversal of traditional gender roles is most obvious in the cross-dressing of Frank and other characters, but its real import is felt in Brad and Janet’s relationship. What is “naughty” and transgressive in one context brings about the disintegration of an engaged couple in another context. What is funny and ridiculous in the form of a transgendered alien is sad and tragic when Brad and Janet sing “Super Heroes” and we see that their lives have been devastated.

Brad’s lyrics in his big torch song “Once in a While” (unfortunately and carelessly cut from the movie) reveal more about him than any other moment in the show. He believes in love just as innocently, just as passionately, just as fully as Frank believes in physical pleasures. Brad tells us that Janet’s infidelities have broken his heart, and have ended their relationship. And yet, despite the fact that Janet’s behavior goes against every moral precept in which Brad believes, still his love for her is stronger, and he knows that if she just apologizes, if she still loves him, they can be alright again. All she has to do is “phone my place [and] it’ll be okay.” He’ll take her back, apparently no questions asked. We have to understand just how huge that is for this very straight-laced guy who sees the world entirely in moral black and white. Perhaps it’s his own transgression (passive though it was) that has mellowed him, humbled him, that has taught him the world isn’t as black and white as it once seemed. Unfortunately, Brad seems to think that once the apology is made, once forgiveness is granted, he and Janet can go back to the way things were before all this happened. Of course, they can’t. They’ll never be the same again. They’ve lived in blissful ignorance – metaphorical darkness – all this time, blind to the dark side of life, of sexuality, of lust, of betrayal, but “there’s a light over at the Frankenstein Place” and once it has been turned on in their lives, once they’ve seen this side of themselves and each other, they can’t hide in the dark anymore.

So what will Brad and Janet be like when they get home? Will they stay together? Will they get married? Brad seems to be destroyed by his experience, but Janet is empowered by hers. Is this telling us that we can choose how we react to the excesses of our culture, that the culture itself is not dangerous, but merely how we interact with it?

Their last words, in the song “Super Heroes,” tell us a lot about what they’ve gone through and offer some insight into where they go from here. Brad sings:

I’ve done a lot

God knows I’ve tried

To find the truth

I’ve even lied.

But all I know

Is down inside

I’m bleeding.

But without definitive punctuation in the script, this section offers two related, but different readings. Is Brad saying, "I've done a lot; God knows I've tried. To find the truth, I've even lied"..? Or is he saying, "I've done a lot. God knows I've tried to find the truth -- I've even lied"..? Brad has tried to live the life he was expected to live, tried to find the right wife, get the right job, plan the right future. Like most Americans, he believed that some deceit was justified in the climb up the social and corporate ladder. But even though he’s done everything he was supposed to do, his life has now taken an unexpected turn and nothing he was taught prepared him for this. Polite adults just didn’t talk about homosexuality, about drugs, about “experimentation,” so he came to this adventure completely ill-prepared.

Janet regrets her actions to some extent, but she will not deny her feelings. She sings:

And super heroes

Come to feast,

To taste the flesh

Not yet deceased.

And all I know

Is still the beast

Is feeding.

Her sexual appetite can not be set aside, ignored, denied in favor of living a “decent” life. Janet has been sexualized and she will not refuse these new feelings, even though they scare her, even though they go against most of what she was taught about “proper young ladies.”

Rocky

Unlike Rocky in the film version, the stage Rocky actually speaks, and is a very different character. Rayner Bourton, the original Rocky from the first London production, hates the film presentation of his character. He says, “Rocky is the noble savage, the feeling beast. The beast within everyone. Rocky is the character whom we all either want to be or take care of or advise or have as our best friend. Something untamable.” Bourton sees Rocky as a Pinocchio figure, a good boy who is tested. He doesn’t like that Rocky was reduced to a nonverbal “thing” in the film, rather than the fully formed character he was on stage. Bourton says, “My Rocky had an incredible amount of truth, and an immense amount of naiveté.”

Considering Rocky Horror’s obvious parallels to The Tempest, Rocky is a strange mixture of Caliban the savage and Miranda, Prospero’s innocent daughter, while Frank is both Prospero and the violent Caliban. But Caliban can also be seen as the unwilling slave, just as Rocky is slave to Frank. Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda is often interpreted as a brutal act, but it can also be seen as his innate – and yes, primitive – desire to “be fruitful and multiply,” to people this island that belonged to him long before Prospero showed up. We can see Rocky’s attraction to Janet in somewhat the same way.

Columbia

Columbia is a rock groupie, the kind of young girl who would follow rock bands around, sleep with the musicians, worship them from either far or near. Frank picked her up at some point in the past and “collected” her just like he did with Eddie, Brad, and Janet, just one more toy, one more playmate (or is it “plaything”)? in Frank’s collection. Unfortunately for her, she fell in love with Frank, as groupies often do. She loved him and he grew bored with her pretty quickly (as he does with all his playthings), and moved on to Eddie. Then, when Frank tossed Eddie aside in favor of Rocky, Columbia tried to love Eddie – in one of the show’s saddest lines, she sings, “I very nearly loved him.” Very nearly. Maybe if she had actually loved him, the two of them could have left the castle together. But as much as she wanted to love him, she didn’t. She only nearly loved him. It’s interesting how much we know about Columbia and Eddie, despite how few words are said about or by either of them. We know Columbia tried to rescue Eddie – at least emotionally. In another of her very telling lines, she sings, “I said, ‘Hey listen to me. Stay sane inside insanity’.” In the midst of the craziness of this freakish commune of aliens and humans, Columbia tried to keep Eddie from falling apart. Apparently, it didn’t work. Of course, we don’t know if she tried before or after Frank removed half of Eddie’s brain…

The Floor Show

And what of the floor show? Is it just a time filler? Did Richard O’Brien run out of plot and have some more songs? When the floor show begins, whether on stage or in the film, audiences all wonder what on earth is going on. What is happening? And some of the characters in the show wonder the same thing. But that’s exactly what much of America was wondering in 1973. Far from being filler, the floor show is perhaps O’Brien’s most entertaining piece of satire in the whole show.

The floor show is not only the culmination of all the themes in the show, it’s also a little capsule history of the sexual revolution in America. It can be taken two ways. Is it a comment that “free sex” is unnatural and can only be maintained when participants dress up “in costume” and “play a role”? In other words, were the sexual revolutionaries of the sixties and seventies “performing” this new freedom, in contradiction to what they really wanted, which was a deeper human connection, intimacy, trust? Or is the floor show a stripping away of the rules of “polite society” that demonstrates humans in their most natural, unencumbered sexual selves?

Columbia’s verse begins the history lesson with “It was great when it all began.” That’s clearly what the hippies thought in the early and middle 1960s when they began to throw off the sexual hypocrisy and manufactured morality of the fifties. But Columbia tells us, “it was over when [Frank] had the plan to start working on a muscle man.” As the sexual revolution grew and spread, it evolved in some places out of its original, relatively innocent roots and its sense of discarding oppression, into a kind of Bacchanalian orgy. People experimented for the sake of experimentation instead of in search of their heart’s desire. False images and expectations were manufactured that were just as oppressive as those they replaced. So in reaction, Columbia sings, “The only thing that gives me hope is a love of a certain dope, rose tints my world, keeps me safe from my trouble and pain.” There’s great debate about whether “a certain” dope means Frank or Eddie or drugs. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that it means drugs, since Eddie is dead and Frank has discarded Columbia, so neither of them would probably offer any solace. And it’s not hard to see Columbia’s name as a marijuana reference. Again, Columbia is standing in for American society. Free love led to massive drug use. And though the hippies had originally intended drugs to be only a way to expand the mind, to find Great Truths, to touch God, drug use in the late 60s and early 70s evolved into a way to escape, subverting the original aims of the drug culture, an escape from “trouble and pain,” rather than a way to find Answers. Likewise, Rocky’s verse following Columbia’s tells of how the only thing he trusts is his sex drive, that sexual desire has become his only motivating emotion. The same was true of many people caught up in the excitement of the sexual revolution, and they were finding little genuine satisfaction in serial anonymous sex. There’s an argument that America needed the sexual revolution to move the country forward in certain cultural respects – could feminism and gay rights have flourished without it? – but then we have to ask if AIDS was the only thing that could stop the revolution before it went too far? And if Frank, the wild and untamed thing, represents the sexual revolution, does his death at Riff Raff’s hand eerily foreshadow the way AIDS would put a brake on the sexual revolution a decade later? Is AIDS going to be the “bee with a deadly sting”? Of course O’Brien couldn’t have thought of these things when he wrote the show in 1973, but the parallel is uncanny.

As the floor show continues, Brad and Janet more explicitly explain their responses to the events of the night, once again mirroring the two halves of America at that time. Notice that Brad’s feelings of sexuality are overwhelming to him, uncontrollable, and decidedly mysterious and unwelcome. He doesn’t want to feel this way, but he can’t turn back this tide. Once he has become sexually active (and more to the point, bi-sexually active), he can never go back to being a virgin again. This has been Brad’s rite of passage into adulthood, however unconventional, and no matter how loudly he cries for his mother, he cannot go back to being a boy again. He can never undo the sex he has had with Frank, just as America could not undo and/or forget the sexual revolution once AIDS hit and it came time to pay the price for the freedom we had enjoyed. On the other side of the equation, Janet is reveling in her newfound sexuality, and even offers a prayer to the stripper Lily St. Cyr. Janet is a long way from Denton, and like Brad, she can really never go back to her old life.

The floor show continues with the anthem “Don’t Dream It, Be It,” a slogan once seen in Frederick’s of Hollywood ads in movie magazines. But as they will all see, a mixing of dream and reality doesn’t always end up happily. They can ignore reality, they can live in their sexual dream, intoxicated by Frank’s magic drug spray (an unfortunate omission from the film), hypnotized into becoming Frank’s very own rock show, but no one survives long by living in a dream, and neither will these characters. Frank will die. Columbia will die trying to save him. Rocky will die the same way. And a part of Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott will die as well.

So what is the message of Rocky Horror? Is there a statement beyond its very smart satire of America’s insanity? What of the kids who devote their lives to the film, hanging on desperately to the words, “Don’t dream it, be it.” Are they missing the dark underbelly of those words?  Do they just ignore the three deaths only minutes after those words are sung? Or is the lesson of the story that freedom is good and sex is healthy, but mindless gluttony (of whatever sort) is dangerous? Both Brad and Janet experience sexual freedom and they both survive, though it’s unclear in what state. Maybe if we knew how their story ended, we’d know better what Rocky Horror is saying. Maybe Richard O’Brien’s proposed sequel will give us some clues, although it’s interesting that in several interviews he has admitted that he has no idea what happens to Brad and Janet after this story ends.

And if Rocky asks all these questions, can there be any doubt that it’s far more than the silly, oversexed rock musical that too many people believe it is? This is smart, insightful satire, that asks us to think about our culture, our appetites, our relationships, and the way we live our lives. In its way, it ranks comfortably with the best issue musicals, Company, Assassins, Cabaret, Chicago, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Rocky Horror Show is about sex and death. And what could be more important, or more central to the human experience, than that?

Other Resources

There aren’t a lot of resources that are relevant to the stage version of Rocky Horror. The new book Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult is mostly just transcriptions of interviews, but there is a fair amount of conversation about the various stage versions. There are several cast albums available on CD, including the very first London cast, the first American cast, a strong 1996 British studio cast recording, and the cast album of the recent Broadway revival, which is entertaining but not at all faithful to the original. The DVD of the film version contains lots of extra materials and interviews, including some that deal with the stage version. The muscle magazine culture from which Rocky Horror takes inspiration is dramatized quite well in the film Beefcake, which is on video. The British glam rock era, which Rocky helped to launch, is dramatized in the film Velvet Goldmine, which is also on video. Richard O’Brien is working on a stage sequel, tentatively titled Rocky Horror: The Second Coming (continuing Rocky’s religious imagery), in which Frank N. Furter comes back from the dead, with a song called “Frankie Phoenix.” And Fox Television Network announced plans in July 2002 for an all-star re-make of Rocky Horror, starring Alan Cumming, Britney Spears, and Lea DeLaria, with a slightly reworked plot and at least one new song by Richard O’Brien, to air in February 2003.

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Copyright 2002. From Scott Miller's next book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musical Theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, and From Assassins to West Side Story.