Rocky Horror Revisited

I love musical theater, but I hate— H-A-T-E—when Broadway dirties its prissy little mitts with rock and roll. Even as a youngster, I recognized that so-called rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were as milquetoast as Helen Reddy. I’ve heard the goddamn kids from Fame sing ditties that rocked harder than anything in the Andrew Lloyd Webber catalog. Sure, contemporary musical monstrosities have become dumping grounds for washed up studs like Sebastian Bach, but I’d sooner crawl on my hands and knees up Aurora Avenue to Parker’s Casino—where such has-beens belong—than throw away money to see The Scarlet Pimpernel.

So when I learned that the New York revival of The Rocky Horror Show was doing well enough to spawn a cast recording (on RCA Victor), I imagined the indignities heaped upon its kick-ass score and twisted story by a bunch of apple-cheeked chorines who’d been sacked from Footloose. But mercifully, I was wrong.

I’m not normally overprotective of Broadway shows. Back when I worked for the estate of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I was always the guy on staff who felt guilty when we dispatched the jack-booted storm troopers to shut down unlicensed parodies like Oklahomo! But Broadway didn’t welcome Rocky Horror when the stage version opened in New York in the mid-’70s, after successful runs in London and Los Angeles. In fact, the show bombed the first time it played the Great White Way. Rocky Horror wasn’t nurtured by moneyed Long Island matrons and tourists from Idaho, but by twisted suburban brats—like myself—who saw the equally unsuccessful film version, Rocky Horror Picture Show, over and over at midnight screenings till we’d memorized every line and lyric and dance step.

Surveying my packed shelves now, it’s almost impossible to imagine, but in my freshman year of high school my record collection consisted of less than a dozen albums. The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack was among them. I pored over that LP with a fervor my textbooks would never inspire, as “Science Fiction Double Feature” prompted me to investigate the films of Claude Raines and Fay Wray, and “The Sword of Damocles” sent me scurrying for Bullfinch’s Mythology. Before I saw that movie for the first time I didn’t even know what a transvestite was, and now I was up in my bedroom strutting along with Tim Curry in a pair of Mom’s cast-off heels. By the time I was 16, “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night” (i.e. “Hot Patootie”)—friggin’ Meatloaf’s big number!–was a highlight of my band’s set list at talent shows all over the county.

I have to let that sink in for a minute: I willfully sang a Meatloaf song in public. Repeatedly. That’s how much I loved Rocky Horror.

Alas, somewhere along the way (I think it was shortly after my hundredth viewing), I tired of Rocky Horror Picture Show. I began to suspect that many of my fellow devotees were little more than The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy in fishnet stockings. By the time the flick was available on video, I’d put my sequined tap shoes in the back of the closet. I’d never dance the “Time Warp” again. Or so I thought.

From the opening notes of the new Rocky Horror recording, it’s evident that the producers got it right; Usherette Daphne Rubin-Vega (who doubles as Magenta, the maid) wails “Science Fiction Double Feature” like she’s possessed by Ronnie Spector. The new arrangements preserve the Chuck Berry-esque simplicity of the songs, and the cast takes obvious delight in rendering those same delicious Richard O’Brien lyrics that challenged my adolescent noggin in the halcyon, pre-Internet days when a boy had to work to figure out what Janet means when she belts out, “God bless Lily St. Cyr” in the climactic ” Floor Show.”

I didn’t think it possible to find a pair of actors whiter than Susan Sarandon and Barry (“Mmm, he looks good in those briefs”) Bostwick to portray squeaky-clean protagonists Brad and Janet, but Alice Ripley and Jarrod Emick sound so clipped and uptight on “Damn It, Janet” you’d think it was Mulder and Scully serenading each other, not a pair of Broadway vets. Lea DeLaria’s way with “I Can Cook” (from On the Town) impressed me when I caught her on a PBS special last year, but her gender-fuck turn in the dual roles of Eddie and his uncle, Dr. Scott, is hilarious and strangely touching at the same time. And as cross-dressing mad scientist Frank N. Furter, Tom Hewitt manages to put his own stamp on the role that made a million disgruntled punks rabid Tim Curry fans. Inspiring—it’s enough to make a boy go out and buy a new pair of high heels all his own.