For those who still watch MTV, it’s probably doubly annoying to you now to hear that, on top of no longer playing that dinosaur concept of the music video, the network is now going the way of Hollywood and tapping into movie properties that can be remade. Even powerful entities such as MTV apparently can’t resist getting into the lucrative market of remakes when any incentive to create anything other reality shows is slowly slipping away at all cable networks. You have to give credit to MTV, though, for having the sixth sense to tap into a genre that’s been dormant for a while but now making a comeback: The horror musical. A remake then of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” almost seems inevitable in an MTV frame of mind.
That impetus to remake “Rocky Horror” obviously stems from the success of the “Sweeney Todd” adaptation in theatres earlier this year and the increasing popularity of horror musicals on Broadway or regionally, despite some of those being revivals of horror musicals done years ago. This genre is one of the strangest in that it hits its level of popularity in fits and starts with its highest peaks during the 70’s and into the early 80’s. But what is it that made people gravitate to such an unlikely combination of horror and people caught in horrific situations breaking into song?
The secret may lie in the very essence of song itself and being able to convey a mood and deeper feelings through music when the premise done straight would be a laughing stock on the stage. With that thought in mind, I can only imagine what was said in the first pitch for “Rocky Horror Show” before becoming a 1973 offbeat stage musical on the West End in London. “RHS” was really the first horror musical ever done on the stage and was fortunately pitched as tongue-in-cheek rather than a serious musical as most musicals with the most ridiculous premises were.
While that pitch was going on and being produced, it’s ironic that two other horror movies with music numbers were being pitched to studio execs somewhere in Hollywood.
If perhaps the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number in “Young Frankenstein” doesn’t pin it down at that point as a musical, it certainly was asking to be made into a musical eventually by its creator, Mel Brooks. With the movie version of “YF” as a success in 1974, that other above-pitched movie arriving in the same year was a bit more obscure and almost killed the horror musical before it could even get started. It was the Brian De Palma-directed “Phantom of the Paradise” in 1974 that took the well-worn Phantom of the Opera plot and wrapped it cheekily into a rock musical.
Mind you, the rock musical was already thriving by the early 70’s, though it’s certainly possible that “Phantom of the Paradise” was given the green light after word of “Rocky Horror Show” gaining a following in London. Perhaps as a part of symbiosis, the failure of “Phantom of the Paradise” led to the movie adaptation of “Rocky Horror (Picture) Show” the following year with attention to one detail that would be a proven formula when combining horror with the musical genre…
Edgy plots mixed with dark satire…
Maybe it’s just the temperament of the 70’s that was still reeling from uncertainty and still into living more liberally before reality stepped in during the 1980’s. The basic plotline of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is arguably the epitome of the 1970’s psyche, complete with a transvestite vampire, pounding rock score and just general weirdness. Those who didn’t see the film in its original context of time probably don’t quite get the appeal. For people like me who were just an infant when it came out and had to see it on TV years later, the same feelings may apply or the thought drugs played a factor in a certain generation having an emotional connection to it to this day. Those a little more inquisitive would understand it was more than that.
The secret to its success was a macabre, offbeat plot mixed with plenty of satire and catchy songs. You could also call it one of the first movies that could be combined into a party as evidenced by independent movie houses around the country showing it at midnight as some still do to this day. No wonder then that more horror musicals were created in the late 70’s for the stage, including one of Stephen Sondheim’s darkest musicals: “Sweeney Todd” that debuted on Broadway in 1979.
When audiences saw Mrs. Lovett baking the remains of human beings into pies, the harmonically inventive songs by Sondheim were essential to give a sense of dark irony and stop people from heading for the exits.
Musicals of that kind went out of style temporarily after 1982 when the stage version of “Little Shop of Horrors” brought the “Rocky Horror” fun songs and party atmosphere that makes this genre work for most people. Leave it up to Andrew Lloyd Webber, though, to change the genre into taking itself too seriously…plus trying to convince people that a Puccini-like opera score would add luster.
Well, Webber hit on something, and this off-shoot of the horror musical might be even more successful than the more tongue-in-cheek bents. Being swept away by a larger-than-life repressed romantic tale still doesn’t cause any snickers while Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” celebrates its 20th year on Broadway with no end in sight. The stage musical of “Jekyll and Hyde” in the early 90’s kept that tradition going until just recently when a long slate of horror musicals in the vein of the 70’s and 80’s started showing up on the off-Broadway stage again…
The edge gets edgier…
If you think old horror movies such as “The Evil Dead” could never be made into a stage musical, then you apparently haven’t tapped into the psyche of 2008 where the dark, tongue-in-cheek musical has a new resonance. Keep in mind that “Evil Dead: The Musical” is a really offbeat musical playing regionally that likely won’t ever get anywhere near Broadway outside of having a small, loyal following due to its gory content. Nevertheless, it’s a barometer of what might be to come if you go by the musical adaptation of “Young Frankenstein” bringing outrageous horror plots with entertaining music front and center to Broadway again.
It’s been reported that musical adaptations of “The Fly” and “Creature of the Black Lagoon (showcased at Universal Studios of all places) will be entertaining people later this year. And when you consider that television still is the best medium for musicals for those who don’t care about going all the way to a live theatre to see a musical, you see now why “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is getting remade on MTV. This type of musical is resonating again probably because we seem to be dealing with the same problems this country had in the 1970’s when filtering serious fears through a party-like, musical atmosphere makes some people feel better psychologically.
Being MTV, too, you can expect this new adaptation of “RHPS” to squeeze every ounce of macabre debauchery they can muster without getting a fine by the FCC. We’ll have to see whether it’ll become as popular as the 1975 movie version and force MTV to have nightly midnight showings while today’s teens throw confetti at their TV screens…