The Musical World of Rocky Horror

Reg Livermore "The Rocky Horror Show - 1974"        4,000 views


Harry M. Miller the entrepreneur sniffed a sure thing; not only did he have The Rocky Horror Show's original director for his Australian production, he also had its designer, Brian Thomson. The chosen venue was a tacky old movie house in Glebe Point Road called the New Arts Cinema. Nobody knew anything much about the show; reading the script didn't help, and the scant information dribbling our way only added to the intriguing sense of bamboozlement.

Rehearsals were quite tentative. I think we'd been intimidated by the script initially, not because it was complex, it was ridiculously simple, but we trod warily nonetheless, holding back. Perhaps a measure of control would be necessary, not that we had much idea early on what it was we had to control. Cautiously, we dipped our feet into the murky waters of sleaze and tack, director Jim Sharman all the while ranging about with a glint in his eye; he certainly knew something we didn't, but wasn't letting on. All I knew was I had to plumb the depths of my shallow personality to find the appropriate qualities; essentially I needed to become a convincing debauch.

From the beginning it was difficult to believe Jim wanted us to be so silly, to go so ridiculously over the top, and it's not as if that's territory beyond my reach, but before this moment I hadn't been invited or compelled to go where there were no holds barred, certainly never as enthusiastically. Jim agreed to let me model my Frank 'n' Furter on Hollywood's legendary Bette Davis; it quickly opened the right doors, filling out the performance in ways that had been eluding me. It was the licence to kill; it gave me the walk, the strut, the stance, the voice, the delivery, and I think in the end I took the venerable Miss Davis where even she hadn't dared to go. The gear and other trappings designed by Sue Blane were appropriately tawdry and, once I got used to the idea, fun to wear. My specially constructed high-heels were very high and took some getting used to, the action in them mercilessly demanding. I spent the entire night running up and down things or climbing up and down things, like a rat up a drainpipe; I climbed up everything in sight, including Graham Matters who played Rocky. That was nice, though. Once I had abandoned myself to the role, absolutely, once I let go, I was having such an incredibly good time I felt I should be paying Harry Miller for allowing me to do it. In time, I came to view the weekly pay packet as insufficient recompense for some very considerable effort, but that was down the track a bit.

The role of Frank is obviously a gift for the right actor. I took it with both hands and shook the life into it. For the first couple of months I played it as written, to the dot and comma, but later, when it had become my second skin, I started to take unpardonable liberties with the Richard O'Brien script; I thought Frank so fabulous, such a fascinating creature that I wanted the audience to know more about him; indeed I wanted to know more myself. I started inventing stuff, a line here and a line there, the occasional improvised monologue, an occasional 'excursion' into the audience. I was alert to every opportunity; my performance became totally unpredictable, and like the character himself, sort of dangerous, not only for those on stage, but hair-raising for those sitting out there in the dark, especially so for them. When I revisited my performance in a revival in Brisbane ten years later, I did again the Bette Davis jump into the auditorium which had been a defining moment in the original Sydney show: responding to mocking and derisive laughter brought on by one of Frank's more emotionally charged and self-indulgent moments, I would suddenly hurl myself into the audience, via a flight of conveniently placed stairs, to seek out the offending culprit. I'd push and shove my way along a row of seats until I found a suitable victim, usually somebody I guessed would be willing to go along with the joke, and when I had my pawn I'd lift him up bodily and shake the shit out of him, and not stop until he was man enough to apologise. When invention was flying I just had to go with it; I couldn't help myself most of the time. It was all part of the fun, and for the percentage numbers who came to see Rocky many times over, it meant there was always a surprise no matter how well acquainted they thought they were with the piece. The show has been revived many times, but to my mind never surpassed those first few months in Sydney when it was right with its time and place, and with its original rehearsed cast. It was tailored to fit.

Frank has been played by other actors and singers, most notably in Australia by Max Phipps. My advice to any prospective Frank is this: if you're remotely concerned about whether the audience thinks you're really like that, if you care at all what an audience thinks about you personally, you'd be well advised to take off the corset and head home. Frank is like that; he's worse, and must be played that way. Frank is the fearless embodiment of all that's unspeakable, let alone the unnatural; his antics encourage many laughs, but first and foremost he presents real and terrible threat. Never forget, the audience must be wary of him, they should never take their eyes off him, and if they do it's at their peril. Some years after I'd quit the show, I finally succumbed and saw the movie version; I was shocked and surprised to observe how beautiful Tim Curry was. Nobody ever told me Frank 'n' Furter was supposed to be attractive; I went out of my way to make myself as grotesque as possible.