Do you think the world needs a new Rocky Horror Picture Show? Wait, sorry, wrong question. Do you know how much money Hot Topic makes every October from selling Rocky Horror swag, and would you like a piece of the pie? To be clear: I don’t know that number, and I’m not certain the powers that be at Fox do, either — but if the Anguished Teen Index (high) and its historical correlation with tutu sales can be trusted, it’s hard to find a much better justification of Thursday’s wan reboot/Laverne Cox vehicle than that.
Let’s back up for a second. The networks have decided that they know what we want, and that thing is live, televised musicals. And fine — maybe we do. There’s been a boom of them over the last few years, beginning with NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! in December 2013; the network has released one annually — Peter Pan Live!, The Wiz Live!, and, in a few months, Hairspray Live! — since, to mostly solid ratings. Their rise makes sense: Live-TV rights are the last remaining holy grail for networks, perhaps the only thing that can still bring aging TV tears to aging TV executives’ eyes. In its rosiest incarnations, live programming is exclusive, marquee, gather-around-your-neighbor’s-television-set-like-it’s-the-damn-moon-landing stuff. Live musicals also have the benefit of being a hell of a lot cheaper to produce than a 22-episode sitcom run, or to procure the rights to than, say, Monday Night Football.
Fox upped the ante with this January’s Grease Live!, adding the element of a live audience; commercial breaks showed cast and crew members rushing to rearrange props and sets for their next scene. In other words, it was a lot like going to a real musical, except it had a bigger budget and bigger stars (Vanessa Hudgens! Carly Rae Jepsen! Boyz II Men![?]), and you could watch it while sitting on your couch in your underwear. Grease Live! also had the distinction of being the first of these events that might truly be described as “good” and not just “containing songs you know the words to” — a distinction that won it four Emmy Awards.
Rocky Horror was pitched by Fox as the next such offering, a revamp of 1975’s classic, übercamp tale of the psychosexual self-discovery of Brad Majors (played here by Disney star Ryan McCartan) and his fiancée, Janet Weiss (Nickelodeon’s Victoria Justice), just in time for Halloween. With Cox slated to reprise Tim Curry’s iconic Dr. Frank N. Furter, longtime fans were put at least somewhat at ease. (Curry, who is recovering from a stroke, plays a small role as well.) The production, in fact, was designed as an homage to the midnight shows Rocky Horror devotees have attended for decades; promos showed a faux in-house audience acting out some of the midnight shows’ participation staples, bedazzled in pleather and hair spray to indicate commitment to the bit.
And it was a bit, because here’s the thing: Unlike its recent network musical predecessors, Fox’s Rocky Horror isn’t live — and yet it still has all the quirks and drawbacks of a live show. The sets are relatively sparse. The spooky mansion where most of the action takes place looks decidedly like a high school gymnasium, which is great, probably, if you need to flip sets around during a blackout. The actors are curiously few and far between. During “The Time Warp,” the assembled dancers — who are meant to stand in for an entire intergalactic convention’s worth of hedonistic aliens, whose quantity and fishnets are ostensibly enough to make one of our heroes swoon on the spot — number somewhere north of “several,” but just barely. A scene at a dinner table has all the guests gathered along one side — an awkward workaround to cater to a studio audience that didn’t exist. The “crowd” at the midnight show feels less like an authentic tribute and more like a half-hearted excuse for the lack of a real one.
So why go through the trouble of making Rocky Horror seem like a live event? There’s a case to be made that the pseudo–liveness is in line with the original: Rocky Horror was first written as a stage play; writer and director Richard O’Brien also penned the 1975 screenplay adaptation, playing Riff Raff in the film. The cult that has persisted around it all these years — my parents, lovely and demented weirdos that they are, more or less raised me on the original — is as much about bringing back a live element to the film as anything else. (O’Brien, whose story royalties have long since elapsed, has said that he “would like to stay detached” from this latest version.)
This is not that. Emmy Award–winner Kenny Ortega directed and choreographed the action here, and it — perhaps unsurprisingly — has the feel of High School Musical, which vaulted him to prominence a decade ago. Ortega’s Rocky Horror is all glitz and rush, as if he’s sitting just off camera and drumming his fingers, a live audience of one.
The project is especially galling with a story like Rocky Horror, whose grotesqueness was all the fun of the original. (There is a reason, let’s say, that the romance of Frank N. Furter and Rocky pops up in fewer drama classes than that of Sandy and Danny.) In the Fox iteration, everyone is a little prettier and a little younger, and their solos a little bit cleaner. Even “Dammit, Janet” — an ode to getting married because you don’t have any better ideas — is repainted as a declaration of deep love, and not resignation to mediocrity. It’s hard not to feel that a film that pitches the odd tattoo as outré is something of a betrayal of the original spirit.
Cox, thankfully, is a delightful exception to this. Where her costars mostly just play more polite versions of the original characters, she makes a point of adding innuendo to every word that can possibly carry a sexual connotation, and many that cannot — perhaps the only wink to the audience that is truly successful. She stands more or less alone in a production that isn’t weird enough, dark enough, or, well, lively enough, to do justice to the original, a suggestion of what this might have been. In the end, the most disheartening thing of all might be the fake midnight show audience — a stiff and scripted stand-in several orders of magnitude more enthusiastic than the real viewers, left watching a production that tried to have it both ways and failed.