Craig McLachlan and Richard O’Brien talk Rocky Horror
What do you get when you put two newlyweds, a mad scientist, some crazy cronies and the epitome of perfection in a room together? No need to wait for “survey says” – It’s Rocky Horror.
Since its 1973 West End premiere, The Rocky Horror Show has been thrilling audiences globally, being performed in over 30 countries, translated into more than 20 different languages, adapted into a feature film, simulcast, and live-broadcast remake. And now, it’s once again returning to Australia, with none other than the fabulous Craig McLachlan in the title role.
True-blue, fishnet wearing, Gold Logie winning Australian legend Craig is no stranger to The Rocky Horror Show, having played Frank-N-Furter in the 1993 Australian production, before returning 20 years later to reprise the role in the 40th anniversary production in 2014, and subsequently repeating it in 2015 for an extended season. However, a man of many talents, Craig’s career extends beyond the stage and onto the screen, where he is frequently flitting across primetime television dramas such as The Doctor Blake Mysteries, House Husbands and The Wrong Girl, among countless other television shows and films over the last 4 decades.
However, it is impossible to talk about The Rocky Horror Show and its legacy without bringing up its creator (and theatrical legend) Richard O’Brien. To try and summarise Richard in few words would be nearly impossible. A man of incredible skill and versatility, he has dabbled in stage, screen and voice acting in addition to broadcasting and, of course, writing. What started out as a fun way to keep himself busy has evolved into is an entire entity of its own, with an insane cult following and thousands upon thousands of dedicated fans. The Rocky Horror Show is much more than just a pastime – there’s something for everyone to love, whether it’s the phenomenal rock’n’roll score, witty book and lyrics, hilarious choreography or stellar costumes. Featuring in both the stage show and the film himself, the show is his piece de resistance and is truly something that everyone should experience in their lifetime.
Naturally, when presented with an opportunity to interview both Craig and Richard, I had to ask the pair all about the show. Well, after I freaked out a little. Rocky Horror was one of my first forays into the kooky, wonderful world of musical theatre, and it was a true honour to chat to not only a famed Australian actor, but a practicing theatre maker in one sitting. It was hard to try and include all the singing, laughing and guitar playing in this article – there was so much of these two that it couldn’t all possibly be put into words.
Richard, What brought you to write the show?
Well I was an out of work actor. I’d been in a musical called Jesus Christ Superstar, and they’d let me go. Paid me 300 pounds because they were in breach of contract, so they sent me home. The thing about Superstar that annoyed me was that it wasn’t really rock. It called itself a ‘rock opera’ but there was no real rock and roll in it, there wasn’t even any soul in it. A good soul riff raises you up, but the riff in Superstar takes you down. And I was thinking “Why doesn’t someone write a rock-and-roll musical with real rock-and-roll music? Not pastiche, not pretending to be or writing ‘in the style,’ but actual rock-and-roll? And why don’t I write it?” I’m not saying there aren’t great songs in Superstar, there are. It’s a damn good show, very brave show to have done with some very beautiful songs – “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is wonderful. But it doesn’t make you want to get up and dance. I wanted to do that. And being a transgender/transvestite-y kind of mixed up human myself, why not make the character, the lead, somebody like myself? It is formulaic, all the themes [of the show] have been around for years in B movies – the old dark house, the young couple coming together, “whatever you do, don’t leave the room.” And what has she done? she goes and lights a candle, takes off her clothes and puts a nightie on and walks down the corridor. So that’s how it started… and that’s how it finished up!
Craig, where did your Rocky Horror journey begin?
The first Rocky Horror experience I had was as a youngster, a music student. My guitar teacher said that once I’d done all my scales in the lesson and could do them proficiently, that we’d spend the last 10 minutes of the lesson learning any song that you picked from a record at home. My brother, who is almost 9 years my senior, had this awesome record collection. So as an 8/9/10 year old kid, I’d be going to guitar lessons, doing my scales, and at the end of the lesson I’d suggest these rock-and-roll songs like “Honky Tonk” by the Rolling Stones. The most outrageous songs I’d ever taken would have probably been “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. At home, I’d drop the needle on ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’ and just think how much I loved these songs. And compared to the rock-and-roll I’d been learning in my guitar lessons, to my ear, a song like ‘Science Fiction’ was just like a great Buddy Holly song but with a very different lyric. Some of the lyrics I understood, you know, “RKO pictures” and “Fay Wray,” I knew who she. So I listened on and got to ‘There’s A Light (Over At The Frankenstein Place)’ and then… ”Sweet Transvestite came on. And I just thought that it was one of the greatest rock-and-roll songs I had ever heard as a young kid. I had no idea what the f**k it was talking about, but it spoke to me musically. ‘The Time Warp’, of course, as soon as anyone hears that song to this day, even if you don’t have a musical bone in your body, you’re up and you’re jumping to the left and stepping to the right and you’re thrusting. So can you imagine the day I go in to my guitar teacher and said “I worked really hard on my scales so that this week, and I was wondering if we could look at this song… Sweet tr..trans… is it Transvestite?” And he completely deflected to a different song that day. As a youngster I wasn’t understanding the show lyrically, or what it was about necessarily, but musically I loved it – just imagine 10 year old me walking around the house singing ‘Toucha-Toucha-Touch Me’ and having my mum tell me off. From the youngest age it was that music that spoke to me. You know, kids would always go into music stores and play “Smoke On The Water” or “Hotel California” on guitars in the store to the point where there were signs in these stores asking them not to do it. They never had an issue with me playing the guitars, because I’d walk in and pick up a guitar and play the entire show. The guys at the music shop would sit down and go “Craig, do the Meatloaf one! The rock-and-roll song!” and me, as a 14 year old kid, would be there playing the whole thing.
Richard, how does it feel knowing that The Rocky Horror Show is just as alive and well as it was when you wrote it?
I am continually in astonishment. And it was only meant to run for 3 weeks originally, we transferred 3 times while in London over the ensuing 7 years. And a 7 year run at that time was phenomenal. There weren’t many shows running for that length of time. Then the movie opened and bombed, in fact, I stood with Tim Curry on 44th St and I said to him, “well that’s it Tim, looks like it’s all over,” 3 years had gone by, we’d bombed on Broadway, the movie had bombed, and he said “yes, but it’s been a wonderful ride, hasn’t it?” and I said “a fantastic ride, 3 years long.” But here we are, 45 years later, and still the show goes on, and still people laugh, and still new young people turn up and discover it for themselves. I sat with Sir Howard Panter (the CEO of the Ambassador Theatre Group,) when we’d went to Germany together, and we were sitting in the front row and there were two little girls, probably 12 or 13 sitting at the end of the row. And whenever a song started I’d look over at them and they knew the words to all the songs. This is in Germany, 13 year old girls, they knew the words to all the songs. And that’s not unique, that goes on and on, and it’s just astonishing. It gets to 10 years and you’re shocked, 20 years, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 years. It’s one of the longest running movies in cinema, we’re in the Guinness book of records, the screenplay is in the Smithsonian Institute, it just never ceases to amaze. You know for yourself, it’s probably the best money spent as a theatregoer! Because you know you’re going to leave thinking “I got my money’s worth.”
Craig – What keeps bringing you back to the show?
I don’t even know where to begin. It’s not like work… we sometimes joke about how we can’t believe we’re getting paid to do this. Because it’s so much fun, and for me as a kid who started to play guitar to rock-and-roll records as a 7 year old, to get up and enjoy these great rock-and-roll songs night after night. When Richard and I first met in the late 80s/early 90s, we did a charity performance of Rocky Horror together, a midnight performance at the Picadilly Theatre in London. Richard was playing Frank, and I was actually Eddie, and we had a great night. And it was there that Richard predicted, he saw a look in my eye. It was just extraordinary. It was the first time that I experienced an audience reaction like that. And i’m talking about an audience reaction that was unlike any rock concert I’d ever been to, nothing came close to the electricity of the audience. It was just unbelievable. And Richard was right, I came home thinking “ooh, I’d like to taste a little bit more of this.”
What do you think makes Dr. Frank-N-Furter such an iconic role?
Craig: Richard and I spoke about the empowering and powerful feeling once you put on Frank’s corset and you go out there. You know, I’ve done Chicago and a bunch of shows where our leads have great entrances, like Velma and Roxie do. But Frank’s entrance… I don’t care if you’re being hydraulically hoisted from the stage, or if you’re being lowered from the rafters, I don’t care if Frank is simply walking through the laboratory doors – Frank’s entrance is one of the greatest entrances of any character in any show ever written. And I’ll tell you, it’s the most addictive thing. You cannot wait to finish sealing your lipstick, put your final bit of powder on and walk through those doors. To hear that “how do you do, I…” Oh, I’ll tell you how I do. It’s just an extraordinary moment. That’s why so many people, dare I say it men and women, would love to play Frank even just once. It’s freeing and liberating for all of us.
Richard: It’s unapologetic. It’s right in your face and that’s wonderful. In the original stage show, The Time Warp used to come after Frank’s entrance. But when we did the movie, we put it before Frank’s entrance, delaying it for another 3 minutes to add to the tension. And of course, once The Time Warp is over and you hear those beats… everybody knows when that drum beat goes that he’s coming on, he’s coming on!
Craig: That’s the thing, isn’t it. Even for Rocky Virgins (newcomers to the show), in that moment they get swept up into this… anxiety. They wonder “what the f**k is about to happen?” when those around them who know are waiting for it. It’s just spectacular.
Richard, do you have anything in common with any of the characters?
Well I think that the whole show was probably a bit cathartic for me, wasn’t it? I think there’s a little bit of me in all of them. I was a typical 50s teenager, so the Brad and Janet couple were known to me. As for Rocky, I used to weight lift when I was about 20, I was in a weightlifting team and I used to compete at the YMCA in Hamilton. So I used to keep pictures of Muscle Men out of magazines and put them in frames and all that wonder of humanity kind of attracted me. And of course, I love science fiction. I was a late night movie-goer, I used to go to the double features. I’d always go to double features. It was only about 10 or 20 of us in the cinema in Hamilton, around 1959, and late at night all the decent people are at home. We were the way-faced youths sitting in the flickering light of the screen. So I loved all that. And Eddie has that love of rock-and-roll… You know, I used to think that it was written especially for me. A new song would come out and I’d think “they wrote that especially for me.” I was walking down the street in Tauronga, about 1958, and a nice little Maori girl that I knew was working at a place that was literally called “The Candy Store.” They had a big jukebox in the middle of the room and she went “Richard, listen to this” and she dropped a sixpence into the slot… and when that rock-and-roll music started I almost exploded with excitement, it was wonderful. And I think that’s what makes the show such a part of me, the fact that a lot of it came from my life and experiences.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Richard: I’m not a musician, I’m just musical. Craig’s a musician. And it’s weird that someone who was musically inept was able to write songs with such musical longevity. They’re very simple little songs, simple tunes, and they were as good as I could do because I don’t really know any chords. I had a way with it, and for over 50 years now, I’ve had this way with it. You can build a song off basic chords if you have a good melody. You don’t need to know all those chords because you just hold the basic root chord underneath. 3 chords go a long way, is all I’m saying. Maybe it’s cheating, I’d go to studios and the real musicians would be there and I’d feel somehow guilty.
Craig: The truth of it is, you don’t have to be able to play guitar like a pro. That’s never going to make you a good songwriter. Richard just has a gift as a songwriter. We celebrated his birthday this year with a concert in New Zealand, and we played a bunch of rock-and-roll songs, some songs from Rocky Horror, a couple of songs of Richard’s that haven’t been formally released. From a musicians point of view, these songs of his that the world hasn’t heard yet, are stunning. His gift for melody is stunning. And he’s right, you don’t have to know a million chords.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened December 28 in Adelaide, before touring through Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne.
Tickets are available at www.rockyhorror.com.au