Horror: The show that rocked Glee

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Halloween is approaching and we revisit one of the all-time favourite horror classic. Nearly 40 years have passed since The Rocky Horror Picture Show was on the big screen and after countless live productions it was recreated for TV. We delve into Ryan Murphy’s transformation of the cult musical into an episode of Glee.

“Velvet darkness of the blackest night,” Glee’s Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) tiptoes her way onto the stage. Wearing a pink pinafore under a pastel cream cardigan she sings the opening line of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film-musical produced by Michael White and Lou Adler in 1975. Bringing the famous cult musical to mainstream television was more than “just a jump to the left and a step to the right”. Rather, the Glee producers carefully considered the film’s themes and used them to justify the issues discussed in the show. So what happened when Rocky Horror ‘time warped’ its way onto the small screen, and why was Glee the best form for the musical?

In Rocky Horror, American couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) stumble upon the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) when their car breaks down one night. They are ushered in by Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien), a hunchbacked man-servant with patchy blonde hair, and are invited to participate in the evening’s festivities.
Made on a budget of a million dollars, the film was a flop during its release but rose to success with its later broadcast at New York’s Waverly Theatre on 1 April 1976. Around Halloween that year audiences came dressed as their favourite characters and set a trend for future viewers of the show.

Film critic Bruce A. Austin suggests that cult films are defined by their audience and the nature of their presentation. They are “outside the regular viewing hours and typically attract a young, single, high school or college-aged audience”. These audiences develop and unusual level of devotion to the film. Generally non-mainstream, cult films often challenge societal ethics and push the boundaries of what can be shown on-screen, and that’s exactly what The Rocky Horror Picture Show did.

While exploring themes including horror, science-fiction, aliens, appearance vs reality, and gender and sexuality, the film brought ‘transgender’ to the big-screen. Frank-N-Furter, a “Transvestite from Transylvania”, has discovered the secret to life and is unveiling his creation to his dinner guests. He has made a man and called him Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood), a muscle-bound perfection in gold trunks. Muscial theorist Graham Wood claims: “Gender and sexuality issues often surface within the musical genre because it was a place where performers could express themselves with less fear of discrimination.” Frank-N-Furter is lonely and seeks companionship. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he encourages Brad and Janet, but instead to take the time to get to know his ‘sweet’ nature. Rocky Horror pushed the boundaries of its time, but it encouraged viewers to be more accepting and open to the sexualities emerging throughout American society and the world.

Following the journey of McKinley High School’s glee club New Directions, Glee had earned a prime-time television slot. The show had nearly completed its second season and was on the verge of filming a third. It had reached a worldwide status in just three years of broadcast on the small screen.

This was not the first time that pop music was performed by the characters of a television show. BBC producer Dennis Potter had already recognised its ability to generate deep sentimental feeling and applied the technique in his 1986 mini-series The Singing Detective, which, 18 years later, was used in Peter Bowker’s Blackpool.

In 2010, Glee producer Ryan Murphy incorporated Rocky Horror into the program, through coach Will Schuester’s (Matthew Morrison) decision to stage a performance of the musical. Thus The Rocky Horror Glee Show was born. Early in the episode Will pronounces: “Oh I’ll probably have to make some edits here and there.” A number of scenes were either removed or altered to suit its familial target market.

Take the sequence ‘Sweet Transvestite’ for example. The original Rocky Horror featured Curry dressed in a tight black leather corset and suspenders. Emerging from the elevator Frank-N-Furter speaks with an upper-class English accent. He is draped in a black cape and draws resemblance to Dracula. His singing tone is low and flamboyant, like his speaking voice. As he descends from the top floor in the elevator, his white, diamond encrusted heel is featured in a close-up shot and he can be seen stamping his foot to the ground in time with the beat.

The track still contains the same message of acceptance as the original did, but Mercedes encourages the others to accept her race, gender, appearance and singing ability

In the Glee version, Doctor Carl (John Stamos) believes that dressing up in drag is “a little inappropriate in a high school musical”, leaving Shuester in doubt about what to do. Providing a solution to the problem is Mercedes (Amber Riley). As the only African-American in the group, she recognises an opportunity to play a lead role. Dressed in drag, Mercedes performs ‘Sweet Transvestite’ in a fiery gospel tone. The track still contains the same message of acceptance as the original did, but Mercedes encourages the others to accept her race, gender, appearance and singing ability. This performance allows her to take her place within the spotlight.

In her analysis of Glee, researcher and theatre director Barrie Gelles of the City University of New York describes Glee’s use of song as ‘recontextualisation’. “When Glee takes a show tune from its original play,” she says, “it becomes de-integrated from that play, and then must be re-integrated into the episode.” Each song presented in Glee then contains new meaning according to the context of the episode’s story.

Compared to the original, Glee’s version is still “all kinds of crazy sexy”, as Mercedes puts it, but is re-interpreted to “make it more modern”. The dialogue within the songs were also altered to make the music suitable for the younger crowds, as well as to make it politically correct in the modern day. “Sweet Transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” became “Sweet Transvestite from sensational Transylvania”.

Richard O’Brien, who created and starred in the original Rocky Horror, expressed disappointment with Glee’s “diluting down” of the major themes of the musical. He couldn’t understand why they didn’t use the word ‘transsexual’, saying it was “just another term like boy and girl”. The episode faced criticism from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for its use of the word ‘tranny’ to describe Frank-N-Furter. GLAAD stated: “The word ‘tranny’ has become an easy punchline in popular culture, and many still don’t realise that using the term is hurtful, dehumanising and associated with violence, hatred and derision against transgender people – a community that is nearly invisible in media today.”

Not everyone is a Glee fan. The Season 4 finale drew an audience of only 5.86 million in the US, compared to the 7.41 million tuning in for the premiere in September last year. But for its loyal fans, Glee’s message is simple: the power of music can heal these injuries and difficulties and can bring people together.

What Glee relies on is a continuous relationship with its viewers. Like any other media form, it seeks to keep its followers engaged with the program and to challenge them to continue watching the show week after week. Every episode, Glee’s faithful audience watch on as their much-loved characters overcome the adversities in their lives. They deal with issues of race, health and disability, religion, marriage, divorce, gender and sexuality. Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris) deals with her naivety, Quinn Fabray (Diana Agron) manages an unwanted pregnancy, Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) adapts to life in a wheelchair. The choir room unites these characters, who would otherwise have to deal with these issues on their own in high school.

The support within the group is shared among all its members: including those of alternate sexualities. Fans followed the journey of openly gay member Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and his relationship with Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss). They cried with Santanna Lopez (Naya Rivera) as she faced familial struggles in coming to terms with her lesbian sexuality. They supported newcomer Wade ‘Unique’ Adams (Alex Newell), the show’s controversial transgendered character, who transferred to McKinley High in Season 4.

Perhaps the Rocky Horror story was always destined for a return to the screen. Re-branding it for television had enabled the producers of Glee to not only keep viewers engaged and entertained, but also to introduce the classic cult-film to a whole new generation of viewers. Both the film and show use music to bring taboo topics to the mainstream and instigate public discussion and consideration among its viewing audiences. They wanted to change the thinking of their audiences and make them more accepting and open to all people. They iterate the simple message that the power of music can heal these injuries and difficulties and can draw people together.

A new Australian production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Craig McLachlan is currently touring Perth, Adelaide and Melboure until 24 April, 2014. For more information click here.

Writer’s note: A version of this article was first published in Grapeshot Magazine Issue 7, 2013: Music.

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