It’s just a jump to the left and then a step to the right, yet it’s turned into so, so much more.
When Richard O’Brien authored The Rocky Horror Show for the stage in 1973, he didn’t anticipate that the obscure little musical responsible for “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite” would blossom into a hit 1975 film and a midnight movie-slash-musical theater phenomenon. 40 years later, it’s the modern definition of a cult classic — and O’Brien is right back where he started, having returned to the stage earlier this fall as the omniscient Narrator in a London production of the show. A two-hour taping will premiere on BBC America at midnight on Oct. 18, and again on Halloween.
In addition to EW’s exclusive first look at the showstopping number from the production (featuring, among others, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton as a guest narrator), we chatted with the original Riff Raff about the origins of the stage show and why “Time Warp” remains such an enduring, well, time warp.
EW: Why did you decide to get involved with this production? Surely you’ve been approached dozens of times over the years.
RICHARD O’BRIEN: Two reasons: we had the window of opportunity, and we wanted to have another fundraiser for Amnesty International. Putting the two things together seemed the perfect kind of combination. We thought we’d strike when the iron was hot, and it paid off beautifully.
Was there any trepidation for you, or is revisiting Rocky Horror akin to riding a bicycle?
No, no [trepidation]. I had done the Narrator in Australia recently. A friend had been playing Frank over there and I went over as the Narrator in Adelaide for a few weeks, so I was used to being back on stage and used to the role. Most of our guest narrators interact with the audience through that celebrity fame that they have…I don’t have to do that, I just come up on the stage and add a bit of pretend gravitas to the proceedings.
Do you have an immediate snapshot memory of the original 1973 production?
It was a very tight show: very tight budget, tiny little room, no understudies, one microphone, and a four-piece band behind a piece of curtain. It was very primitive, but it was packed every night with people laughing. The fear that I felt when we did a preview for the first audience, I’ll never forget that. Sweat running down my back. I was just waiting for the first laugh and as soon as they did, I kind of felt we were all right.
This show obviously made a strong translation to film. With BBC America airing this version and Fox developing their own TV adaptation, how does Rocky Horror slot into the medium of television?
I actually have no idea how it’s going to work! The movie was seen on television several times. I don’t know about this new Fox venture. I’ve been marginalized by the producers for so long now, I don’t even bother to go there. There’s no incentive for me to do so, so I just stay away from it. But I’m really looking forward to this explosion because what we had on the stage in London was an explosion and I think there’s a dynamic that will be missing [on television]. It was even missing from the movie! When I first saw the movie, the first cut I ever saw, I thought, ‘My God, it’s slow.’ It’s almost sleepwalker slow. And we didn’t pick up the cues that were there onstage — it was tight and fast, but the film seemed to have this dreamlike quality to it which, over the years, has proved beneficial, once again, by happy accident. I actually have fans come up to me and say, ‘Mr. O’Brien, did you leave the gaps between the lines so that we could put our lines in there?’ [laughs]
As the author, what do you look for in a production?
What we do is try and stop people skating on the surface. It is such a wonderfully childish piece of theater, and wonderfully puerile and wonderfully juvenile, and what you have to do is stop people treating it like that. Even in the midst of all this silly nonsense, there has to be a real serious actor onstage and you’ve got to stop people just treating it like frothy stuff. It doesn’t work that way. The more seriously it’s played, the funnier it becomes.
This London production had its share of bright, colorful design — is that an exception?
This is where the paradox comes in. It is bright and fast and rock-and-roll, but that’s all the more reason for the actors to find an imagined depth. The very thing we parodied with Rocky Horror from day one was the B-movies, which were funny by default, unintentionally so because there was clunky dialogue and actors who weren’t A-list actors who were trying to show the world that they actually had more depth than the producers and the casting directors thought they had. Consequently, because of their pretentiousness and seriousness delivering clunky dialogue, it became very funny and that’s kind of what we have to do here. Again, we have to treat it like it’s a real serious play, and the more seriously you treat it, you’re eating up this underlying comedy.
“Time Warp” is the biggest success from your original score. Where did that fall in your writing process? Was it among the easier or more difficult songs to write?
I was thinking about all those dances that became popular dance crazes for five minutes. The Twist was the perfect example of that. The Hucklebuck — I don’t know how you ever did that. The Locomotion. And I was thinking about these and I wanted to parody them and have a funny dance, and I had no idea that it would actually become the dance to play at weddings and bar mitzvahs. It’s a bit weird!
Did you ever float other names for the dance title?
There were these little magazines from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s called Astounding Tales, and they were little pamphlet-sized magazines with nice drawings on the front. Maybe a girl in the arms of a monster, that kind of stuff. And it was lying on the table and it said Astounding Tales and I just looked down at that and said, “Oh, it’s astounding.” It started simply as that. And the next line just came and I don’t think I had any title for it until I wrote, “Let’s do the Time Warp.” Ooh, that’s it! What else are we going to call it?
Also, by sheer coincidence, there’s a Queen album with Astounding Tales on the cover with a robot holding a girl in her hands. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was even the same copy that gave me that idea. Freddy would have made a wonderful Frank-N-Furter, wouldn’t he?
The Rocky Horror Show airs at midnight on Oct. 18 on BBC America.