Sorry readers I have taken so long to get back to my blogging. I was in Melbourne doing interviews for the National Library: hard work and lots of fun, mostly some of the folks who had been involved in the early days of the Pram Factory. More interviews required and I hope to give you a report on this work soon given the appearance of a new book on the subject by Gabrielle Wolf published by Currency.
Then a case of undiagnosed tonsilitum (fake Latin for one tonsil only) which almost got to the point of having my neck chopped out. I’d never had this illness before – did not know what is was and put off seeking help. No wonder sufferers complain, if they can get any words out at all. I couldn’t get any out onto a keyboard!
Then I had an ex-boyf (separated two years ago) crash back into my life, overdose on whatever, to be found by moi lying half-dead across the front door of my apartment block. This took up several weeks of tumult while I was dragged unwillingly into a crisis in seach of resolution. Pace ‘C’: I hope you get better!
Then I had to hide under the doona for a few days as I was now in no mood for Mardi Gras! Despite guests from overseas hoping to be entertained. Pace ‘R”: I’m sorry I wasn’t really there for you!
In the meantime, and more to the point, there was my visit to the opening night of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show, which opened at Star City Casino on Thursday 21 February. Since that date, I have been trying to work up a balanced and reasoned response.
Go to Jack Teiwes’ review on this site if you wish for a report on the night: views with which I basically share. Thirty-five years later, the show still offers a lot of fun and this is a particularly strong cast. I wasn’t mad for it, but my association with Rocky goes back a long way, I have followed its progress closely over the years, collecting or at least viewing documents and recording memories from participants involved in various productions over the years.
Here is my concern. In none of the written material that has been published in association with the Sydney production, from endless pr gunk to reviews in newspapers, magazines and on websites - not even in the official program - are any of the names of the original key co-creators - apart from one - ever mentioned. Not in passing, not even as a matter of courtesy, or even in a nod to theatre history: that being Australian theatre history and/or the history of the modern musical world-wide.
Writer, Richard O’Brien’s name is everywhere. But the names of the original director, set and costume designers, and the musical arranger are nowhere to be seen. The current owners of the work may have all the legal cards in their hand to do so. I don’t doubt it. But it seems to me somewhat mean-spirited, given the collaborative atmosphere in which the work originally emerged. It skews the history of theatre too.
The names I was looking for in the program were those of the original director, Jim Sharman; the original set designer, Brian Thomson; the original costume designer, Sue Blane; and the original composer/arranger, Richard Hartley.
Let’s take a comparable example. Anyone with half an interest in Oklahoma knows that Agnes de Mille created the original choreography. If they did not know that when attending Trevor Nunn’s hit production starring Hugh Jackman, which opened at the National in 1998 (transferring to a long West-End run), they would have found out because she gets a credit in the program: “Dances for the Original Theatre Guild Production by Agnes de Mille." Press responding to the work, also defer back to de Mille, time and time again.
This latest production of Rocky claims to be the first to be totally new in concept, which justifies credits for sets (Dale Feguson) and costumes (Julie Lynch) going to local designers. Just as the choreographic credit for the National’s production of Oklahoma goes to Susan Stroman – and rightly so. She got raves that placed her in the pantheon with Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.
But, in that case, so too is mentioned the original work of Agnes de Mille, not just in some casual way in a brief ‘history’ of the work, but in the actual official credits. I did not see this production, so I do not know if Stroman drew on any of de Mille’s work for her version. But the point here is that no matter how ‘new’ this current Sydney version of Rocky is, it still has the stamp of the original set-and-costume designers all over it. Surely only good would have come from acknowledging, however casually, the initial involvement of Thomson and Blane.
Over the past decade, the names of many involved in the original 1973 London production have been excised from, not only the credits, but what we might call the ‘official’ or authorized history of the musical. And this matter took hold of my mind as I sat through the opening night at Star City which, however different it might claim to be, the best bits shoot one’s mind back straight – if anything – to the hit film. For which Sharman gets a co-writing credit as well directing credit, and Thomson, Hartley and Blane are also appropriately acknowledged for their contributions.
There is actually one scene in the Star City version, a kind of Last Supper towards the end, which was created specially for the film. Whilst owning the rights to the stage version, I did wonder if these rights extended to plundering material that exists only in the film?
Let me make it very clear, I have no dispute with the notion that Richard O’Brien has somewhere along the line acquired the legal right to have the musical re-titled from, simply, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ to ‘Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show’. Nor have I any dispute with a claim to exclusive legal ownership of the entire work by O’Brien, co-producer Howard Panter (Joint Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director) and others belonging to the UK’s Ambassador Theatre Group. There may be others slicing off percentages. Good luck to them.
My concern is with the spirit of collaborative theatre making, and that, in 1973, The Rocky Horror Show was a rare and outstanding example of what can emerge from a group of like-minded heads getting together and giving a barely formed idea full shape.
A classic theatre question is raised: what is the text? When is it the words on the page alone; and when is it the work on the stage to which others alongside the writer have contributed?
The original creators of a work only have rights over it for a certain time, depending on whatever the terms are that have been hammered out in various contracts and other legal agreements over time. Obviously rights lapse. But, having no argument over that, isn’t it still, in the very least, a bit mean spirited for the immense contributions made by Sharman, O’Brien, Blane and Hartley to the premiere production – and many versions that followed - to have been so efficaciously, indeed relentlessly - over time - written out of the history of the origins of the work.
This team worked with O’Brien from the very beginning with no more than fragments for an idea he initially titled, ‘They Came From Denton High’. Even if he can claim to have created every line of the script (which some dispute) there is no way he can escape the fact that the handwritten notes he first presented to Sharman were less than 20 pages long, possibly somewhere between 12 to 14 pages; and all sorts of ideas were offered to O’Brien from a variety of people involved as he worked up the script to completion. No doubt many ideas he declined, but - as I will show - some ideas by other people he took up.
That what O’Brien first presented to Sharman was flimsy, to say the least, can be found in an examination of those hand-written notes. The last three plot points are as follows:
“4. Janet’s Room
5. Dr Everett Scott
6. The Story Resolves Itself”
No one else helped grow these fragments into a full-blown musical? And we are talking here about a musical which, with Oklahoma, Guys & Dolls and Hair, must be regarded as one of the most important and influential of the past fifty years. Even if that judgement, among those who don’t care for the show, is based exclusively on the number of people who have paid to see one or more productions, or the same production many times over; and/or the cult hit film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show – again once, or many times over.
The original stage version was born, humbly, like Jesus in his manger, in the 60-seat Upstairs Theatre at London’s Royal Court Theatre (first preview 16 June 1973). The budget was modest: somewhere between two and five thousand pounds (depending on who you ask). After a four-week season, it moved to the rickety Classic Cinema on the Kings Road (an apt setting but, unfortunately awaiting imminent demolition); and then to the Kings Road Theatre (a converted old cinema), where again the setting was ideal and the show really took off.
The work, involving new cast members, later transferred to the Comedy in the West End where it broke all existing box-office records, playing continuously for the next seven years; almost 3,000 performances.
Sue Blane’s low-budget costumes for Tim Curry’s original Frank N Furter. Note the even lower-budget set!
Within a year of the London Royal Court premiere, productions opened in Los Angeles and Sydney. And a year later the great movie was born using a cast that featured not only key members of the London cast, but Meatloaf who had been playing Eddie in Los Angeles and starring, a newcomer to the work, the exquisite Susan Sarandon as Janet.
The show’s success story came to a jarring halt when a stage version opened in New York to murderous reviews. The mistake was to open in a conventional Broadway theatre, not a run-down cinema. The run-down cinema environment was central to the identity the work – part of what some might now call its hyper-text, of which O’Brien played no creative part). Also, works transferring from LA to NYC are often destroyed on principle by the New York critics. And east-coast v west-coast hate game that leaves the ongoing Sydney-Melbourne squabble at the starting line.
I do not want to take anything away from O’Brien’s achievement which, on viewing 34 years after my original encounter, is as impressive as ever. The lyrics in particular are absolutely brilliant, and so is the music for which he created the bulk of the basic melodies. But to wipe Hartley’s name off the credits, however legal, is in spirit a bit like removing Hammerstein or Hart from that of Richard Rogers of their many co-creations. Hartley made a massive contribution, if nothing else, to the orchestration of O’Brien’s tunes. And some would say more than that. Is the music of the current version so different from, say, the cast recordings of the first Australian production or for the film (both of which credit Hartley), to justify not mentioning Hartley’s name somewhere in the program.
The only name to survive from the original ‘creatives’ credits is Richard O’Brien: who not only ‘wrote’ the work, but also played Riff Raff (wonderfully) in both the early London stage versions and the hit film. So who is this guy. I defer to the authority of Wikipedia where, if O’Brien had not been happy with the entry, he could have reworked it himself. So I presume reference to this summary is safe.
“O'Brien was born Richard Timothy Smith in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England. In 1952, O'Brien emigrated with his family to Tauranga, New Zealand, where his father had purchased a sheep farm. After learning how to ride horses, a skill which provided him with his break into the film industry as a stuntman in Carry On Cowboy, and developing a keen interest in comic books and horror films, he returned to England in 1964. Upon launching his acting career he changed his name to O'Brien, his maternal grandmother's name, as there was already an actor named Richard Smith.”
“After taking a few Method acting classes, O'Brien joined several stage productions as an actor. In 1970 he went into the touring production of Hair for nine months, and spent another nine months in the London production. May 1972 saw the birth of his son Linus by Kimi Wong, and that summer he met director Jim Sharman who cast him as an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sharman then cast O'Brien as Willie, the alien in his March 1973 production of Sam Shepard's The Unseen Hand at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, and would help make O'Brien's draft of a gothic-themed, schlock-horror comic-book fantasy romp into a reality. Sharman suggested changing the working title from They Came from Denton High, and The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Theatre Upstairs in June 1973.”
Now you now know more than you need to. But if you want to know what O’Brien did after Rocky, well, have a snoop around the net, it’s all there somewhere. Basically it’s not a lot. Certainly there’s been little of artistic significance, and nothing in the same league as Rocky. He was a successful quiz show host on UK television for some years; he was cast in a few small stage and screen roles; and he was involved in a few more musicals that never got very far: including The Stripper, which premiered in Sydney in 1982 at Kinselas, but made little impact.
Instead, if I might put it this way, O’Brien appears to have clung to Rocky like a life-raft. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact in a number of interviews with the media, O’Brien has expressed his delight in following the show around – enjoying what comes with that: both money and fame.
O’Brien’s keenness to be seen (and remembered) as the supreme creator of pretty much all that adds up the totality that is Rocky, in my view, goes against the shared creative spirit out of which the original work was born. While other early players feel somewhat hard-done by, Jim Sharman takes a different view: happy that the show has created so much fun and pleasure for so many for so many years. For him that’s the end of the story. That’s that.
For more on this, look out for Sharman’s autobiography which will be published by Melbourne University Press in a few months. It’s not quite the right time to steal his thunder.
But I do want to cover some past history, as briefly as I can. Sharman and Thomson flew to London to create the West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar, after the success of their production in Sydney. That production breaking all previous West End box-office records until Rocky came along. Sharman and Thomson were at the height of their powers, and are remembered for their work that followed at the Royal Court Theatre at Sloane Square. It was during this time that O’Brien turned up with the handful of pages that were to become The Rocky Horror Show.
While O’Brien may be able to claim every line of the official text is his, and Sharman supports him in this, he cannot do the same for every idea from which this dialogue was to emerge. For example, the plot outlined in the hand-written draft first presented begins thus:
One: “Brad” and “Janet” in car explain relationship, reasons for traveling, - - puncture.”
But the stage production begins with an usherette, one of those long-lost ice cream and lolly vendors who used to wander the aisles before the screening and at interval.
Pat Quinn as the Icecream Girl – before and after she is unveiled - in the premiere production of The Rocky Horror Show, Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, 1973.
The idea of opening the show with such a character singing a homage to the era of ‘late night picture show’ was born of a visit by Thomson and Sharman to a rather run-down cinema not a great distance from the Royal Court in the early stages of rehearsals, where such women (a rather ancient one) was noticed by Thomson plying her trade. It was while watching her at work that Thomson suggested the idea of opening the play this way, but it was here too he got the idea of setting the entire action in a run-down cinema.
Here is a precise example of what I am trying to say in this piece. For all the credit due to O’Brien in the creation of what we now know as The Rocky Horror Show, including the magnificent lyrics to the opening song, he did not come up with the idea of opening the show with an Ice-Cream Vendor. Not the idea – core to what we think of as ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ – the derelict cinema setting.
Clearly, Rocky was not a show that arrived at rehearsals complete in everyway, which – when that happens - gives the first production credit only for that first staging. In the normal way of things, if that version is literally remounted elsewhere, then the original creators continue to be recognized for their ideas and usually maintain some percentage of royalties.
But what has made Rocky so popular over the years is more than the witty brittle dialogue and the brilliant lyrics. Original design elements created by Thomson (stage design) and Blane (costume design) are built into the very heart of what audiences, even today, expect when they purchase a ticket.
Take another example, Frank N Furter’s costume – corset, fishnet stockings etc. Have we ever seen him dressed in anything else – A Sister of perpetual Indulgence perhaps? That tacky ‘Goth’ look was created by Blane. In fact so little money was available, Blane took the corset she had designed to fit Tim Curry for a production of The Maids they had both recently worked on at the Glasgow Cits – and roughed it up a bit.
While there is no question that Julie Lynch, the designer for this current Sydney production deserves credit for her work on this production (and my complaint here has nothing to do with Lynch’s contribution), it seems to me bad manners in the very least for iOTA to arrive on stage in a corset and fishnets – and Blane’s name is nowhere to be found in the program. In all the words for which space is found, the names of Hartley, Blane, Thomson and Sharman are totally absent.
What I don’t like about this is that we have here a version of history reconstituted in such a way as to eliminate one of the most exciting and seminal moments of biographies of two of Australia’s most significant theatre artists: Sharman and Thomson.
Secondly, it denies them a second credit for kick-starting a new era in musicals. Before Sharman and Thomson worked on the London version of Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber was not well known. He had perhaps completed three works, the most successful of which had been Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat. Superstar put Andrew Lloyd Webber on the map. And it led, inevitably, in time, to his relationship with the greatest independent producer of musicals of all time, Cameron Mackintosh. All the stuff we see now, musical after musical – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are born of the twin 1970s’ successes in London of Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show.
After lapping up some of the success of creating the two longest-running musicals to ever play concurrently on the West End (Superstar and Rocky), superseded since by Phantom, etc, and bored with the global packaging of numerous versions of either or both in cities as far apart as Boston and Tokyo, Sharman chose to return to his roots. He flew home to Australia and began work on another phase of his creative life.
After some coming and going between London and Sydney, Thomson also eventually settled back here. They have worked together on some excellent productions in Australia including the Benjamin Britten opera, Death in Venice; and more recently Stephen Sewell’s The Three Furies. They have also worked separately, Thompson creating some excellent work with director Neil Armfield, in particular. While Sharman is currently on working on new production for the Australian Opera, to be designed by Ralph Myers, to appear in next year’s season.
As for what I think of the current production playing at Star City Casino, that’s another story. If I think it has problems, I would not be shooting the blame home, unmediated, to director Gail Edwards and the cast. The arrival of O’Brien and others from the Ambassador group, including Howard Panter, late in the rehearsal phase led to a lot of changes being insisted upon. All I will say is: so much for a new version. Sadly what we have here is a production that sets out to be new and is pulled back, time and again, to the familiar. As a consequence it falls between to stools. Can I be Frank (just for a moment): someone should push the flush button for solids.