Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Forty Wild Crushes - Rocky Horror Abundance!

Few works of pop culture hold a devoted fan base like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its original stage version, The Rocky Horror Show. Months before its October airdate, the Fox TV adaptation is riling fans and critics based on a few publicity photos and a one-minute trailer. My own connection as part of a shadow cast of the famous midnight film screenings is documented in fictionalized, and not so fictional, versions in my two latest books.

Just a sweet trans...gender?
First, the Fox controversy. The network will air their "adaptation" of not the stage script, but a version of the classic film. Playing the lead role is notable transgender actor Laverne Cox, known for outstanding performances in the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

LaVerne Cox and Ben Vereen in the Fox Rocky
Already, rumors of a censored version being produced have ticked off fans of the film and stage play. Despite its innuendo-laden wacky script, the sexuality of the show is farcical and the sex scenes are traditionally done behind screens. How will that translate to a network broadcast?

Recent live broadcasts of classic musicals have also been criticized for casting and production values, but more for not remaining reverent to the original sources. And comparisons have been made to the "cleaned up" and abbreviated version of Rocky performed on the hit Fox TV show Glee

But that episode specifically dealt with the issue of censorship, making for another, in my opinion, "meta-theatre" take on repressive high school morals. The gay character Kurt (played by openly gay actor Cris Colfer) refused the role of Frank N. Furter on the grounds of typecasting, so it went to Mercedes Jones (robustly played by Amber Riley).

Glee's Rocky Horror

One wonders what could have happened if the musical had been taken on later in the show, with actor Darren Criss in the cast. He, of course, wore gender-blending drag with aplomb on Glee, and later went on to star to much acclaim in another transgender-themed favorite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in the second-to-last cast on Broadway. Criss will return to the role in San Francisco and Los Angeles productions this fall.

In my October 2015 interview with Criss, after the show's addition to the 2016 Shorenstein season had been announced, but not the cast, I asked him about his possibly returning to the role in his own home town. He expressed interest, but it was only announced last week.

Shiver with antici...pation
While we don't hear complaints about straight and gay men playing a transgender role in Hedwig (including its creator and original star, the openly gay John Cameron Mitchell), already some are complaining that the difference between playing trans and being trans are conflicting in the casting of Laverne Cox as Frank N. Furter.
Ray of Light's 2nd Rocky Horror, in 2015

Known as an advocate for transgender rights, Cox's role as Furter is rumored to have inspired lyric changes, such "sweet transsexual" instead of "sweet transvestite" in the character's first song. This change, according to critics, exemplifies the confusion some people have about the difference between the two.

A Washington Post article focuses on transgender activists' support of the film, but points out how the difference between 'transgender' and 'transvestite' may become more confusing to the uninformed, given Cox's portrayal of Frank.

Of course, Richard O'Brien's show was written decades before transgender rights and  struggles came into mainstream media and politics. Even now, companies like Target are being protested by screeching fundamentalists over the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms and the only people invading women's bathrooms are straight non-trans men attacking women. North Carolina, Tennessee and other states are pushing forth bills to force people to identify their birth gender in order to use a toilet. The issue has even hit the cover of Time magazine.

Bigotry has found a new target, transgendered people, and it's risen to a federal level, with President Obama issuing a decree that patrons in businesses and students in schools should use the bathrooms of their choice. 

In response, rightwing governors and elected officials have rebuked the President (no surprise there) and the issue has led to a flood of lawsuits and even assaults against transgender people. Worldwide, at least 100 transgender people have been murdered in 2016 so far.

But some in the gay, or GLBT, community have criticized the focus on trans-specific rights as having undermined gay rights equality by focusing on an issue that excludes "cisgender" gay and lesbian and bisexual people. Teenagers and children are coming out as trans at younger ages, and while many applaud parents who support gender variance, others claim that drugs and surgeries used at a young age can be preemptive and dangerous. 

But is a 40-year-old musical a basis for role models? What relevance does Rocky have for the much less amusing struggles that transgendered people have today? And what does it matter who plays what role? Laverne Cox may not be a transvestite, but she's also not an alien who reanimates corpses. It's a story. It's fiction, people!

Openly gay singer Adam Lambert was offered the role of Frank N. Furter. He turned that down, but will instead play Eddie, doubtlessly with panache and vocal chops that will rival Meat Loaf at his best. More casting news is on Deadline.

The rest of the cast looks cute, in a way that differs from the original. Penny Dreadful star Reeve Carney as Riff Raff brings a sleek sexiness to the often slightly repulsive character. Ben Vereen breaks the usual standard as Dr. Scott. And Tim Curry, the original Frank of stage and screen, will play The Narrator. Despite any predicted flaws, that alone will be worth watching.

A.C.T. MFA program 2016 Rocky cast

It was great when it all began...
Also worth watching was the latest local production of Rocky. Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing an American Conservatory Theatre M.F.A. student production of The Rocky Horror Show, thanks to costume designer and actor Jef Valentine.  

A few of us shouted out the standard callbacks to the script ("Whatever happened to Fay Wray?" ["She went ape shit!"]), mostly, it was a standard version, with clever nods to the film, a cute cast that included a fab Frank N. Furter, a very cute Brad (Alan Littlehales) and Rocky (Matthew Capbarat), and an atypically sexy Narrator, (Matthew Baldiga) usually given to a stolid elderly man.

The show had historical merit, since the film version of Rocky was screened with great shadow casts during the years when The Strand had fallen from its burlesque and classic cinema heyday to a sordid straight porn theatre. In the fabulously renovated lobby, images of the old Rocky shadow cast and a prior student production were shown on the massive LED screen. A.C.T. also has other critically acclaimed performances.

from the Rocky Broadway revival program
Like the many live productions, the script was adhered to and yet given a few improvised bits and changes. Nevertheless, the show itself remains. Like the Broadway revival, which I saw in 2001 (whose cast included Lea DeLaria as Eddie/Dr. Scott, Sebastian LaCause as Rocky and Dick Cavett as The Narrator), and the Amsterdam production -performed in Dutch in 1998 as part of the fifth Gay Games- different takes on the original show were amusing while remaining reverent. And two recent San Francisco productions by Ray of Light, both at the Victoria Theatre, offered different takes on the stage show.

Whether the Fox TV version is a massive flop or a wild success remains to be seen. But pre-judging a show based on a one-minute trailer and a few production stills is presumptuous at best. 

Fans understandably have a close connection to the show. My own focus on whomever plays Brad and Rocky has a personal connection. Will Brad be nerdy, sexy, or both? Will Rocky be muscled or slim? Will Frank pay homage to Tim Curry, or go his or her own way? But I never consider: Will any of the actors not be the assigned gender or race we presume the character to be?

While it's nice to see such devotion to a favorite, one can't demand that any subsequent version mimic the film like a shadow cast. Even they take liberties. In my own experience in my freshman year of college, even I introduced a few props and callbacks that added to the legacy of participation the show inspires.

Whatever happened to Saturday night?
In my fifth novel Message of Love (a sequel to my Lambda Literary Award winner Every Time I Think of You), boyfriends Reid and Everett attend an early 1980s screening of Rocky at the historic TLA Theatre in Philadelphia. 

True to their characters, Reid, a shy, tall botany nerd, dresses as Brad and his boyfriend Everett, a paraplegic, attends appropriately as the wheelchair-using Dr. Everett Scott ("or should I say, Dr. Von Scott!" as the line goes). Their more flamboyantly gay friend Gerard dons a fabulous Transylvanian tuxedo outfit.

In dramatizing their participation, I got to employ both the historically accurate location to their Philly life, along with my own experience of that era, in Kent, Ohio (where screenings recently made a comeback in 2007) during my freshman year. Predictably, madness took its toll.

While still dealing with my gradual coming out as gay, it was ironic that, despite the film being an homage to giving oneself over to "absolute pleasure," I was the only gay member of that shadow cast, playing, ironically, the conservative Brad Majors.
A 1979 Daily Kent Stater feature on the Rocky shadow cast, a month before I joined the show.

After winning a prize in the Halloween costume contest, because no one else dressed as Brad, I was recruited to join the Kent Theatre's shadow cast, where months of shenanigans and fun were had among what became my crew of Rocky pals.

While I'm still Facebook friends with a few cast members, and those who attended from my college days in the Kent State University Theatre Department (which staged the musical in 2012), I've lost touch with most of them, and one muse and mentor from those days has since died.

My version of events, told in the short story "A Toast to Rocky," is one of sixteen tales in my new collection, Forty Wild Crushes. 

In it, I explore the personal aspect of being part of a shadow cast, in comparison to performing in an actual musical theatre production, sometimes doing both on the same night. 

And like many casts that include a hunky Rocky, I, unlike the fictional Brad, longed to make out with that gold bikini-clad man in more than "just seven days."

To find out what did and didn't happen, you'll have to get a copy of Forty Wild Crushes. It's available now in paperback, and on Kindle June 1 (pre-order now!).

And through May 28, you can sign up for a chance to win one of three signed copies of Forty Wild Crushes on GoodReads!

So let's offer a toast to Rocky, and let unusual and controversial productions have their day. The film and stage show will endure.

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