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The Job he found was writing a Hit

November 5, 2000
New York Times


he Rocky Horror Show," the 1973 musical that served as the template for the 1975 cult film version ("The Rocky Horror Picture Show"), opens Nov. 15 in a new production at Circle in the Square on Broadway. The cast members, under the direction of Christopher Ashley, include Dick Cavett as the Narrator, Tom Hewitt (Frank 'n' Furter), Lea DeLaria (Eddie and Dr. Scott), Joan Jett (Columbia), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Magenta), Raul Esparza (Riff Raff), Alice Ripley (Janet) and Jarrod Emick (Brad).

Here, the author of the original book, music and lyrics, who also portrayed Riff Raff in the stage and movie versions, describes how he created the show.

LONDON -- I HOLD the secret to life itself!" Thus spake Frank 'n' Furter. As the person who put that line in Frank's mouth, I'm not as confident as he. I have a theory, however, that the "trick" of life is recovery.

Most of us who have spent more than a year or two inhabiting the real world know what it's like to suffer the slings and arrows, etc. Some of us go under, some survive damaged, others rise like the fabulous Phoenix. It could be argued that the adversity the latter encountered was a blessing in disguise.

When I'm asked why I was compelled to write an off-the-wall entertainment like "The Rocky Horror Show," my glib answer is "unemployment." I had been "let go" (dreadful euphemism) from the London production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in 1972. Consequently, an unemployed actor with a newly born son found himself home nights with nothing on his hands except an oven mitt.

One evening the doorbell rang, and there stood Gentleman Caller. (Incidentally, and apropos of nothing, he's now a rabbi.) We fell into a conversation of the disaffected, lamenting the impoverished state of the West End theater and how we would like to improve it. In other words, we were having an embittered moment, when I said something or other about wanting to write a rock 'n' roll show that combined the unintentional humor of B movies with the portentous dialogue of schlock horror.

G. C. said: "That sounds great. Let's write it." And then went off to open a recording studio. We each tread our separate paths, do we not?

Christmas came around and I was invited to do a 15-minute spot for the workers at EMI Film Studios, to be held in the staff canteen. For this historical moment I penned a little ditty entitled "Science Fiction, Double Feature," which was received by the tumultuous crowd of the 50 or so gathered with great warmth and approbation. Returning home encouraged, I began work on my first major opus, the song I just mentioned becoming its prologue.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself employed in a Sam Shepard play, "The Unseen Hand," the director of which was a young Australian named Jim Sharman. I told him I was working on a project that was amusing me — which wasn't necessarily a recommendation — and one night he found the time to visit and listen to the bits of script I had scribbled and the few songs I had written. He was accompanied by a young man named Richard Hartley, who had groaned on the way over: "Oh, no! Not another rock musical?" Sad to say, the answer was, "Yes," but glad to say he liked it; he became our musical director.

Six months later, Gentleman Caller had finished building his emporium of sound and said, "Right, let's get to work on that musical," to which I replied, "It's finished and we start rehearsals next week." I don't think he was too disappointed, as we formed a publishing company on the back of the show and recorded the album in the new studio, something we had intended to do regardless of the show's being a success or not. Didn't we get lucky?

Since those humble beginnings, this joyous concoction of adolescent trash has played in more than 20 countries, been translated into at least a dozen languages and, 27 years later, in spite of me and in spite of itself, still continues to bemuse.

So, if you have recently been made redundant and have time on your hands, why not pull out the note pad and start writing? It worked for me.

The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996