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How the musical 'The Rocky Horror Show' became a cult hit

Silke Wünsch
June 19, 2023

It was 50 years ago today that "The Rocky Horror Show" was first seen on stage in London. Despite its wild and enthusiastic audiences enticing rats and mice into movie theaters at one stage, the show has gone on.

A still from the film 'Rocky Horror Picture Show': a character dressed as parody of doctor with two women looking up at him, wearing face masks.
The show was a trailblazer in how it portrayed sexual identityImage: Imago/ZUMA Press

There's a wedding on the screen: Moviegoers throw rice in the theater.

In the film, a blonde woman gets out of her car. She holds a newspaper over her head to protect herself from the rain. Meanwhile, in the cinema, water guns spray water all over while others hold newspapers over their heads too.

The woman then starts singing. When she sings, "there's a light," hundreds of cigarette lighters are held up by the audience.

The woman and her boyfriend then enter a castle where a party is taking place. On screen, people are dancing the "Time Warp": moviegoers join in.

When Dr. Frank N. Furter's creature Rocky is unwrapped from its bandages, moviegoers throw around toilet paper while singing the film's songs. 

After the movie, the theaters always look like a mess. Still, the next screening will start soon enough.

A still from the film 'Rocky Horror Picture Show': People dancing with their hands up
  A wild party on the screen — and the audience often joins inImage: Imago/ZUMA Press

No other film has been accompanied by such cult rituals. No other film has been known to attract mice to the cinema either. After a few months, vermin started invading theaters because of the rice thrown during the screenings.

In the early 1980s, people were crazy about "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." They loved the characters, the music and the happenings in the theaters. They dressed up as Frank N. Furter or as the maids, Magenta and Columbia.

The film still runs in a movie theater in Munich, which found its way into the Guinness World Records for exactly that reason.

Breakthrough as 'midnight movie'

The cult musical's beginnings were more humble. "The Rocky Horror Show" premiered to 63 people on June 19, 1973, at London's Royal Court Theatre. 

Actor Richard O'Brien wrote the script while he was bored, waiting for a job in his London apartment. He wanted to create a parody of trashy American B-movies of the 1950s such as those directed by Jack Arnold, the master of monster, horror and sci-fi classics, including "Tarantula" and "It Came From Outer Space."

Although the budget of the production was very tight, audiences and critics loved it.

Originally planned to run for five weeks, it was shown for seven years without interruption.

Fans started to turn the theater show into a happening. The musical was also presented by other theaters, including one in New York. It kept attracting more and more people in costumes, who'd throw around rice and other props.

A year after the premiere of the musical, O'Brien got together with film director Jim Sharman to write the screenplay for the film "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." It premiered on August 14, 1975, in London.

In 1977, the film started to run in Germany.

At first, it wasn't particularly successful. But soon, some cinemas got the idea to market the film as a "midnight movie." That attracted a lot of party goers — and the rest is film history.

The musical stage show has remained in continuous production to this day. Fans still participate by throwing around rice and toilet paper.

A remake in 2016

The cult film inspired a remake in 2016, produced by US television broadcaster Fox. It was directed by choreographer Kenny Ortega, who also choreographed the dance scenes in "Dirty Dancing," as well as dancers for Madonna and Michael Jackson and the Michael Jackson documentary "This is it" (2009). 

The mad scientist, Dr. Frank N. Furter, was portrayed by transgender actor Laverne Cox, known as the jailed hairdresser Sophia Burset in the TV series "Orange is the New Black." 

Singer Christina Milan took on the role of housemaid Magenta. Adam Lambert, who has sung in the rock band Queen since 2011, plays the unlucky fellow Eddie who is murdered and ends up as part of a dinner.

The original Frank N. Furter, actor Tim Curry, was also part of the remake — this time in the role of the storyteller.

Musical still strong at 50

As one of the first hit musicals to depict fluid gender identity, "The Rocky Horror Show" remains a highlight in the history of sexual liberation movements. 

Whether in Australia or in the UK, the musical is getting new stagings to mark its 50th anniversary.

According to the UK's Mirror newspaper, "The Rocky Horror Show" has been seen by 30 million people around the world so far. 

"It's astonishing it's still going strong. I never assumed it would appeal to a wider audience than friends, and some like-minded people, and I thought we'd exhaust that potential audience very quickly," writer Richard O'Brien told the paper. 

Fifty years after the premiere of the show, O'Brien would like to see his musical conquer even more stages around the world — but not for commercial reasons: "There are plenty of countries where I'd love to see it go, authoritarian countries which still have this shutdown on gayness," he said. "I'd love to go to Poland for instance, or Russia. In fact I'd give the licence for free to anyone who wanted to do it there."

This article was originally written in German. It updated to mark the 50th anniversary of the musical "The Rocky Horror Show."