Fox’s Rocky Horror: queering the mainstream or mainstreaming the queer? Is one better than the other? Which did this anticipated remake achieve?
Last Thursday October 20, Fox aired a remake of the cult classic as a continuation of the trend of creating musical events for television. With the success of Grease: LIVE this past February, it makes sense that Fox would want to follow up with another musical event.
Yeah, it didn’t do too well. Let’s take a look at what went wrong, but also at what they did right.
First and foremost, IT. WAS. NOT. LIVE. I guess I didn’t read up on it as thoroughly beforehand as I should have, because I expected a live event, not a bad lip syncing one. Immediate disappointment. I had to do a quick search to confirm that yes, nowhere did it say that it would be sung and recorded live. A pity, really, considering the talent on board. (I’m mostly referring to Annaleigh Ashford, originator of Lauren in Cyndi Lauper’s musical Kinky Boots. What a sweetheart.)
All that to say that you’d think that Fox would have learned its lesson from Grease, that a live event as well as a live audience can absolutely make a show. The whole TV movie was begging to be live: there was even a band in the room for most of the film. A missed opportunity, unfortunately.
Of all the TV musicals so far, Rocky Horror had the worst ratings. Which is really unfortunate, because I had a good time watching it. But there’s a very simple explanation for this, and it honestly comes down to the choice of the musical.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as mentioned above, is a cult classic. This means that it not only has a large fan base, but a very dedicated and passionate one. However, this production was not made for them: it was cut down and cleaned up. Touching the property of such a loyal fan base is dangerous, and changing it at all means implosion. In attempting to make it more accessible, Rocky Horror alienated its fans.
So who was this created for? Not families, it’s too sexy for that. But anyone who isn’t a fan of the original and doesn’t know what to expect will be totally shocked if they do watch it, but here’s the thing: very few of them didn’t watch it at all.
The thing is, Rocky is too eccentric for the casual fan. Either you’re die-hard, or you’re left feeling slightly uncomfortable and confused. Where families were often a target for these past events, Rocky just doesn’t jam with those demographics. I believe that one of the main reasons that this production in particular flopped was for lack of a target audience.
HOWEVER, I do feel like I should defend this production, as I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit watching it. I don’t want to make this too long, but I do want to address some of the complaints that other reviews had. The main one being that this version was too sanitized, too Disneyfied by director Kenny Ortega, most well known for directing the High School Musical movies (what were you thinking, Fox? HSM and Rocky should be as far from each other as possible). While this version was cut down quite a bit – skillfully I might add, as the original plot is pretty messy – this production felt almost as radical and shocking as the movie, and that’s thanks to our lady and saviour, Laverne Cox.
If you’ve never heard of Laverne Cox, she’s a literal angel and transgender actress most known for her role on Orange Is the New Black. In the original movie, gender identity isn’t really a factor – Frank N Furter is a cross-dresser, yes, but he’s still considered a man. What was truly shocking at the time was the fact that he – a man – was creating another man as a sex object. I read a few articles criticizing the choice to cast Cox in the role, as the story isn’t as radical if it’s a woman creating a male sex toy. How hetero, these articles said.
But let me ask you this: when was the last time you saw a trans actor on mainstream television? Take a minute to think about it. Done? Yeah, that’s right: trans actors are rarely hired, even to play transgender roles. The simple fact of having a trans woman in a lead role is incredibly radical as it is. By including transness in the conversation, Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show brings the story into the present. What was radical in the 70’s isn’t as radical now, but Fox succeeded in altering the conversation with only a casting choice, and for that reason I absolutely respect this most recent attempt at a TV musical.