Back in 1973 I went to this musical I’d heard about that had just transferred from the Royal Court to a semi-derelict cinema. It was a strange year – I was trying to finish my BLitt thesis and was starting to think that I wasn’t a very good poet. (In 1973 this was true – made worse by the fact that my ex-flatmate Chris Reid clearly was very good indeed. I have told elsewhere the story of how my thesis became someone else’s significant novel and a rather good article of mine but also led to my leaving academia for good.) I’d been hanging out with the trans woman community in Manchester for years – at Oxford I had had the serious talking to by a senior feminist academic about how transexuality was a False Consciousness and had made the mistake of listening to her.
But on the other hand, it was the year I got obsessed with Cabaret the movie and with Bowie – it was the year I saw the Stardust tour. And in that cinema the third high-heeled shoe dropped because I saw the Rocky Horror show for the first time. Can you imagine? I was unhappy and dysphoric and full of self-doubt. And here were Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry and Nell Campbell and Pat Quinn and the others all telling me it was OK – dom’t dream it, be it.
I was, I guess, one of the first kids – OK I was 24 but still – to feel able to normalize my gender socially among my actual friends by just saying Sally Bowles, Frank’n’Furter, Ziggy and flicking a black boa at them. It was a cowardly short-term compromise but I had guilt and fear and was not quite prepared to commit by taking black-market hormones. Charing Cross was John Randall and all his demands for hetero and cis normativity and I was young and wanted to have fun…
So there’s that – going to see the gala tonight was an act of continuity to my younger self in the same way as kissing Richard thankyou was when I met him at a party some years ago and duetting on Science Fiction Double Feature with Pat Quinn was at a more recent party.
Good times, bum times – I’ve had’em all and my dear, I’m still here – to quote a different favourite musical.
So, obviously seeing Stephen Fry, Anthony Head and others share the narrator role with O’Brien was funny. David Bedella does a great impression of what Tim Curry would have been like with an even better voice – generally the cast were better singers than any in the original show. It was musically tight in a way I didn’t expect – it really is a very fine piece of music theatre that uses 50s rock and late 60s antheming to create something brilliant and new.
Like many other thick texts – and I really should have written about it in that article – it has got thicker as it has crossed forty years and acquired a canon of performance that includes canon audience participation and endlessly accreting and changing heckling. There are songs that no longer make sense because the things they refer to no longer exist – Charles Adams In Seven Days I Can Make You A Man ads are no longer on the back of comics and we don’t watch science fiction double features in the back row of cinemas any more. We know about these things BECAUSE THEY ARE REFERRED TO IN THE FILM OF THIS SHOW.
I worried in advance that the scenes where Frank pretends to be Brad, then Janet, to seduce the pair of them would leave a nasty taste – as well as pubic hair jokes – in the back of the throat and they are 70s rape culture and rather worrying in terms of trans panic…Except of course they are more – Frank is a predator and a murderous one as well as someone leading life on their own terms and both admirable and a monster. Frank’n’Furter is – and I am absolutely sure O’Brien knew this back then before the likes of me ever told him – one of the great morally ambiguous protagonists of musical theatre – along with Mackie Messer, Carmen and Don Giovanni. The scene where Magenta and RiffRaff transform into their true alien selves and announce Frank’s execution really does remind me of the Statue calling for Don Giovanni – and the abortive intervention of Doctor Scott has parallels in Mozard as well. The show starts with a metatextual comment and ends with a reprise that places what we have seen in the genre that comment describes – it is a science fiction double feature show – just as The Threepenny Opera starts with the street ballad of Mack the Knife and ends with a reprise that puts us back in the alienated darkness. And Carmen? I kind of threw that in because I need to think about it, but I’ll know the parallel when I get a chance to make it up.
And it’s a show that plays around with the idea of decadence and actually says – boring people think this is decadence and there is something amoral and dangerous about it – but being normal was equally imposed and sucked worse. Rocky is the Creature but is hot and has a tender soul; Frank is not killed for his actual sins but for being an incompetent leader. And the final duet between Brad and Janet is a chastened one which the narrator takes over to talk of ‘crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race/ lost in time and lost in space.’ How’s that for Brechtian alienations children?
Status – as they say, happy and singing old songs in my heart. But also devoted to the idea of having my seventieth birthday party in four years time be a Rocky Horror karaoke.
Or possible a Threepenny Opera one.