London 1973: A new rock-and-roll musicial
The Rocky Horror Show, opens in the tiny upstairs theatre at the Royal Court and immediately becomes a runaway hit. The show moves to a converted movie theatre in Chelsea, on to King's Road Theatre, and wins an Olivier for Best Musical in 1973. Stage productions across the US follow, and by 1975 the film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is released, and though initially a flop, it eventually becomes one of the most popular cult films of all time.
Audiences dress as the characters and throw rice at the screen as Rocky Horror's innocent heroes, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, lose their way in a thunderstorm and stop at a convenient castle to ask for help. They fall under the spell of the devious transvestite Frank ‘N’ Furter, and barely escape with their lives. A sendup of campy vampire horror films with a touch of love and lust, the stage show lends itself perfectly to the cinema.
New York 2000: Just in time for the 25th anniversary of the film, The Rocky Horror Show is back, this time on Broadway, in a new production directed by Christopher Ashley, with scenic design by architect David Rockwell, lighting design by Paul Gallo, costume design by David C. Woolard, video design by Batwin + Robin, and sound design by Richard Fitzgerald and Domonic Sack. The eclectic cast includes Joan Jett, Lea DeLaria, Dick Cavett, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Tom Hewitt in the role of Frank ‘N’ Furter.
The Circle in the Square Theatre was transformed for the occasion by Rockwell, principal of Rockwell Group in New York City, who makes his Broadway debut with the show. “We wanted to envelop the audience as soon as they come downstairs to the theatre,” says Rockwell, who draped the walls of the entire theatre with red fabric (look closely and you'll see various body parts hidden underneath). “It is as immersive an experience as possible.”
In collaborating with Ashley, Rockwell found that “the director wanted a piece about personal choice and creating yourself, while taking people on a fantastic journey.” They decided that since it was the year 2000, they would drop all the 1970s references as well as the 1950s science-fiction angle. “We did a lot of research to create a new point of view,” says Rockwell, who admits to having to rent the movie after meeting with the director, having never seen it before. “We tried to create a modern, bizarre, edgy environment.”
The opening of the show is set in an old-fashioned movie palace, complete with a collapsing proscenium arch, curtains, and seated mannequin theatre patrons. A large thrust area in front of the stage starts out with movie theatre seats, which later flip hydraulically into a pit cut into the floor. The movement of the proscenium and the floor was engineered by Showmotion Inc. of Norwalk, CT, which also built, painted, electrified, and automated the show's scenery, using its custom Autocue computerized motion control system for the automation.
“There are three hydraulic cylinders that drive the gear rack-and-pinion system, which rotates the floor,” explains Bill Mensching, principal of Showmotion. “We went with hydraulics, as we needed a lot of power in a very small space. Engineering the floor was one of our biggest challenges. I've never seen a flipping floor on Broadway before.”
Mensching was also challenged by the fact that the theatre has very little fly space, which meant finding unusual solutions for rigging and tucking motors into small nooks and crannies. For example, there is not enough wing space to allow the proscenium sections to move offstage right and left and be hidden from view.
Instead, the sections fold in on themselves, with winch-driven 5hp AC motors hidden in the legs of the proscenium as it breaks apart and the movie theatre gives way to what Rockwell calls “the warped vocabulary of Frank ‘N’ Furter's world. There is a dramatic change to the castle environment,” he says. “I wanted to make the scenic transitions as dramatic and surprising as possible.”
A “wall” made of welded pipe metal unfolds to define Frank ‘N’ Furter's inner sanctum, as if one were looking in through a castle window frame, or a spider's web. “This is a serious structure,” says Rockwell. “The cast climbs on it and it takes light beautifully.” The wall slides out in front of the live onstage musicians, and is set against a backdrop of the same red fabric that wraps the walls of the lobby and the auditorium. The scenic color palette is primarily black, white, and red.
Another set piece is a multipurpose unit, used as a sofa and as stairs, which Rockwell refers to as “actor-driven scenery.” In fact, the actors reshape the sections for different scenes. Once again, the lack of offstage storage space forced Rockwell to be economical in the size, shape, and use of the scenic elements.
For example, the chandelier in the opening-scene movie theatre is also used as a means for entrances and exits, with catwalks built into the ceiling for access by actors. A red Austrian drape on the underside of the chandelier reveals Frank ‘N ‘Furter in his spectacular entrance. The winch-driven chandelier was built by Showmotion as well, and required extra support steel attached to the superstructure of the building. Since there was not enough room for a motor above the chandelier, the lift lines are muled to the backstage area, where a counterweight and motor are tucked in a corner.
Rockwell seems to have had great fun designing an odd collection of bits and pieces for Frank ‘N’ Furter's laboratory, including boiling liquid, cups of dry ice, and artificial arms and legs used as control levers on the equipment. A large oval ring of plastic test tubes that flies in serves as the identifying piece for the lab and remains overhead throughout the performance, with three playing heights at various times in the action (the rigging for this is also located backstage). A 14'-tall laboratory cabinet is another set piece that folds up on itself to be hidden when not in use.
“All of the furniture had to be multifunctional,” says Rockwell, who counts onstage sex among the necessary functions. A motor-driven “snake” of test tubes lowers into the lab scene like a collapsing spiral. “We wanted a double helix, but use a winch to pull up the test tubes at different places to make them look as if they are unfolding,” notes Rockwell. Additional set pieces in the lab appear on side stages, which once again required scenic ingenuity. “They have to be just 2' 10" to fit under the deck,” explains Rockwell, “so they have a built-in mechanism to make them taller.”
In Act II, a runway on a deck winch moves forward to fill the thrust space, then moves back upstage as the chandelier descends again, with CO2 tanks provided by Jauchem & Meeh to create the effect of a spaceship taking off as two of the characters return to their own planet. For the final scene, the seats flip back up, the movie theatre proscenium moves back into place, the horror show is over, and the set ends up just as it began: in an old-fashioned movie theatre.
Video plays an important role in the design concept as well, with both live and prerecorded video used in three major segments. The video was designed by New York City-based Batwin + Robin Productions, which worked with Ashley on the concept. “He wanted to stay away from the film, so we didn't try to ‘do’ the movie, says Linda Batwin, principal designer for Batwin + Robin.
The opening scenes of Brad and Janet at their friends' wedding have a black-and-white 1950s look to them, and segue right into the live action of the show. “We needed to find a church that looked right, with a big enough tree,” reports Batwin, who adds that the church used for the shoot is located in Mahopac, located less than two hours from Manhattan in upstate New York.
“We panned the actors, moving the camera as they moved, leaving some flexibility for the cut to live action,” says Batwin. Brad and Janet eventually “walk out” of the video and onto the stage. The rainstorm sequence was shot upstate on a dirt road with only two houses, using a rain truck to create the storm. Here Brad and Janet are “driving” through the rain, which is projected behind them. “We did 12 versions of a flat tire and blowout,” Batwin notes. The show's finale was shot in Times Square so that the time frame would clearly move from the 1950s at the beginning to the year 2000 at the end.
“We scouted and shot in advance to get the right feel,” says Batwin. “I felt that the video at the beginning [the church scene and the rainstorm] was a nod to the cult film. The gag interaction reinforced what made the film so infamous. Also, the black-and-white footage, both for the opening and closing scenes, reinforced the setup for the old movie theatre scene. The Times Square footage added the dimension of ‘now.’ Again, it reinforced the surreal and dreamlike quality, with, of course, the element of humor.”
The video for the church scene, the storm, and Times Square sequences is projected by two converged Digital Projection Power 5dv projectors with playback via two Doremi hard drives located in a rack near the sound board at the back of the house. Dataton software is used for control of the video system, including the projectors, switching and use of live cameras, with cues triggered via DMX from the lighting board. The video is front-projected onto a large white screen provided by Showmotion, with a 16:9 aspect ratio for a wide-screen look.
Live video also plays a role in the production, with one “screen,” built by Showmotion, on either side of the stage. The screens are covered with red fabric like the theatre walls until two actors remove the covering to reveal them. Once revealed, the screens have fun-shaped frames designed in conjunction with Rockwell. When there are no live images on them, a wavy gobo is projected to match the set as much as possible.
The live video is timebase-corrected through a DPS ES-2000 system, switched through an Autopatch 8Y-XL router, and front-projected, using two Phillips Hopper SV20 projectors. Five Sony TRV-87 digital camcorders (three stationary and one handheld, plus a spare) are used both backstage and in the theatre in the vom (under Dick Cavett's narrator's perch). The camera angles were selected for what Batwin refers to as “surveillance cameras with a green tint,” and in fact, they often catch the characters in rather compromising positions. Manhattan-based Scharff Weisberg provided installation and programming of the video systems.
“We went to a lot of the production meetings to work out the details of the system layout,” says Scharff Weisberg's project manager Derek Holbrook. “We worked with Batwin + Robin to figure out exactly what they needed for the total hardware and video playback solutions. We also worked out when the decks cue up and need to trigger.” The opening church sequence proved the most challenging in terms of programming. “We were cueing to live action,” Holbrook explains. “When they move, the video moves; when they spin, the video spins with them. It is a very tight sequence.”
The set design and video work hand in hand in an action-packed production. “You can do things that can only happen in the theatre,” says Rockwell, who admits that his participation in The Rocky Horror Show lived up to his fantasy of what it would be like to design for Broadway. “You are always aware you are with an audience, and in this case, the director wove it all together to create a piece that is consistent. There is constantly something happening. There are constant surprises.”
When Rocky Horror costume designer David C. Woolard is asked how he got this gig, he laughingly replies, “Because I'm fabulous.” In a more serious vein, he says, “Chris Ashley and I have worked together on a number of shows throughout the years — Jeffrey, Voices in the Dark, and others. And I did The Donkey Show with Jordan Roth, the producer. At some point, we were talking about Rocky Horror, and I said, ‘I'm doing it,’ and Jordan said, ‘Of course you are.’”
A challenge for Woolard was to reference the 1975 film, pay his respects, but also create a new, modern look. “There's a lot of branding of the show because the movie is so well known,” he says. “We had to make sure we paid attention to that, but it was never our intention to copy any of that stuff. We certainly have to pay homage to it — that favorite designer word.
“I didn't have to do a ton of research,” Woolard continues. “It's not one of those shows where you have to make it in the period or capture an artist and make it a Klimtian world. I wasn't going for that; I was going with the sick and twisted world that I know pretty well.” One way the costume designer brought the show into the present was by using manmade materials for many of the costumes. “Most everything in the show is some sort of vinyl, plastic, or rubber,” he says. “Even the operating smocks are poured rubber.
“The one that Frank ‘N’ Furter wears that gets bloody is a great thing,” he continues. “We located Purple Passion, a fetish store in Manhattan, and went through them to their supplier, up in Canada, and he custom-made the smocks for us.” Originally, Woolard planned to have cast members squirt Frank ‘N’ Furter with fake blood-filled squirt guns during the scene when he kills Eddie, but the “blood” didn't stick to the rubber or read under the lights. “So we went back and had the guy do another smock with the blood already mixed in, and there's a fake front that rips off,” says the designer.
The show features quite a bit of ripping off of costumes, including Rocky's “birth sac,” made of polyester sheer fabric, which tears away to reveal an umbilical cord remnant covering a strategic area. “Chris wanted an umbilical cord moment,” says Woolard, adding that Ashley also wanted Rocky to be completely naked for his first appearance. “His first reveal is singing a song,” says Woolard. “We couldn't have him up there doing the entire song naked, so I said, let me do this, which I think in the end is sexier than seeing him nude.” In a show that the designer says is “all about entrances; it just gives entrances one after another after another,” Frank ‘N’ Furter's is the most spectacular: he descends on a great chandelier swagged with a red Austrian curtain, covered in a cape of matching fabric. “We wanted to give the audience a tease,” Woolard says. “You see his legs, but you don't see him because he's all hidden in the cape.” Frank ‘N’ Furter then flings open the cape to reveal the trademark corset, fishnets, and heels. “We wanted to make an homage to the Tim Curry look, but we also wanted to make sure we didn't go into the drag look completely,” says Woolard. “We know that we're dealing with a man here.”
The cape is lined with 1" gold paillettes, which shimmer and catch the light like a blinding disco ball. “The idea for this is based on those car wash billboards with the paillettes on a pin about an inch away from the back so they can flutter in the breeze,” says Woolard. “It was either that or flashing neon.”
Fans of the cult film will still find enough references to recognize a character, Woolard says — except perhaps for Columbia, played by rocker Joan Jett. At the first invited dress rehearsal, many diehard fans were in the audience, dressed as their favorite characters. “There were about three or four of them dressed up as Columbia from the movie,” says Woolard, “and then Joan came onstage all in leather. I was in the audience and I just watched those Columbia girls crumple. It was so sad. That's why we added the gold sequin bowtie.
“Riff Raff was great, because we weren't going with a Richard O'Brien look,” Woolard continues, referring to the actor (and writer of the Rocky book, music, and lyrics) who so creepily portrayed Riff Raff in the film. “We were going with a very young look and I wanted to keep the servant quality of his character.” Raúl Esparza, who portrays Riff Raff, wears a vest with buckles encircling it in a straitjacket motif, then switches to a spacesuit with chasing, flashing LiveWire around the hood for the scene when he and Magenta (similarly attired) board a spaceship and take off for their home planet.
Brad and Janet wear black-and-white costumes at the beginning of the show, in order to interact with the opening video segment. Again, the costumes reference but do not slavishly imitate the movie attire. Janet, played by Alice Ripley, sports a bra-and-tap-pants ensemble after entering the castle and having her clothes ripped off by the chorus members, or Phantoms. “I thought this would be better [than the bra-and half-slip outfit worn by Susan Sarandon in the movie], because it would allow Alice to move wherever she needed to and not have to worry about crotch exposure,” he says.
The Rocky Horror costumes were built primarily at Carelli Costumes, with Jennifer Love contributing additional items and T-O-Dey Custom Made Shoes providing the footwear. Rocky's birth sac was made by Martin Izquierdo Studios. Dick Cavett's clothes were purchased at Brooks Brothers (“He kept asking me, ‘When do I get fishnets?’” Woolard laughs). Christine Field was Woolard's assistant.
Woolard, whose next project is the decidedly un-70s show Bells Are Ringing, with Faith Prince, says that he enjoyed collaborating with Broadway newcomer David Rockwell. “He came to it saying, ‘Well, I don't really know a lot of the laws and rules and other rules of theatre, but that doesn't matter. We're making a world here and we can figure out the rules later on.’”
A Horrific Sound
Audience participation is not a problem most Broadway theatre sound designers have to contend with. Does Tom Clark need to worry about fans shouting, “You go, girlfriend!” to the title character in Jane Eyre? Does Tony Meola have to prepare for children screaming, “Simba, watch out for the stampeding wildebeests!” in The Lion King? Hardly.
But then the current revival of The Rocky Horror Show is not your normal Broadway musical. To a generation raised on the hugely successful cult film, actively participating in the story of Brad, Janet, and Frank ‘N’ Furter has become second nature. It should come as no surprise, then, that audience members attending the current hit revival dress up as their favorite characters and comment rather loudly on the proceedings. There are even party bags on sale in the lobby consisting of boas, confetti, and other accouterments for those who want to take the experience even further, though the spraying of water is strongly discouraged.
Such audience participation was one of several challenges faced by sound designer Richard Fitzgerald when he first took on the project. “In the original design,” he explains, “we had actually recorded some of the audience shouts, because we weren't sure what kind of audiences we were going to get. We didn't know whether they were going to be dead audiences, and we'd have to pick up the slack. But the first audiences made all of that work totally unnecessary.”
The shape of the Circle in the Square space, a ¾-thrust, has long been the bane of many sound designers, but Fitzgerald and co-designer Domonic Sack found the space to be ideal for this particular production, especially given the location of the band — onstage rather than in an orchestra pit. Over 90% of the action occurs on the thrust.
“Two things happen in The Rocky Horror Show,” he explains. “It's in a horseshoe, so you always see the audience, no matter where you sit, and you get a totally different sense of what's happening. You're more pumped up, because you're reacting to their reaction to what's happening onstage, watching them throw confetti, whatever. And this is definitely helpful in figuring out what's going on. You truly do not have to hear every single word to get an idea of what's happening. And then, of course, so many people in the audience already know the words, so that helps, too.”
Because of the horseshoe shape of the space, Fitzgerald decided to install separate music and vocal systems. “Because the band is on the proscenium, at the open end of the horseshoe, we were able to make all the band sound emanate from the band,” he explains. “By leaving it there, and having you listen to the band almost exclusively from there, you can now separate what is happening. And by doing that, we take the focus of the band and put it in your ear. And the focus of the vocals, we put in your eyes, right in front of you.”
The music system is in stereo, with 36' of separation between the two main stacks and subs. An additional two pairs of inverted stereo delay speakers are suspended 12" apart at the closed end of the horseshoe. The vocal system is distributed around the horseshoe to the seating areas with a vocal foldback over the stage. The main music system is powered Meyer speakers, consisting of CQ-1s and 650P subwoofers. The delay music system is Apogee AE-5s. The main vocal system is comprised of Meyer UPA-2s with ring delays and EAW JF-80s, and the foldback from Meyer UPM-1s. The system is powered by Crown K2 amps, and run on a Midas XL-3 console with 40 channels of Performance Automation software. Delays and EQs are courtesy of 18 XTA DP200s, reverbs by a Lexicon PCM 80 effects processor and a Yamaha Rev 5, and gates and compressors are via DBX 160Xs. (All the audio equipment was provided, naturally, by Fitzgerald's company, Sound Associates.)
Fitzgerald notes that the Midas console was a perfect choice for such a rock-and-roll-heavy musical. “For dynamics, it is the best; that's why the rock-and-roll people have used it for years,” he says. “I suppose I could have used a Cadac if this wasn't a rock musical, but I like the Midas. And the Performance automation is better than the Cadac automation, because the Cadac automation uses a MIDI device and takes forever to do a cue.”
Much like Tom Clark on The Full Monty [see story, page 40], Fitzgerald also had to contend with his fair share of the proper placement of mics and beltpacks on scantily clad actors. When we first see Rocky, for example, he's wearing little more than a collar and a loincloth. Fitzgerald placed one of the new Sennheiser SK50 split transmitters in the collar. “They took the battery part and separated it from the transmitter part,” he explains, “so it's in two pieces in the back of his collar, and connected by a little cord. It balances easier, and the package is not quite as big.” Fitzgerald also opted for a similar transmitter on Janet, which is hidden in her wig.
The rest of the performers use Sony 860A transmitters and Sony 806 receivers; all of them sport DPA 4065 microphones. Eddie sports a Vega 600T handheld wireless for his big solo. The band, consisting of four keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar, and electric bass, uses BSS DPR504 four-channel noise gates and AR133 direct boxes. The drum kit mics are comprised of Sennheiser 604s on each tom, a Shure SM57 on the snare and high-hat, an EV RE20 on the kick pedal, and a stereo pair of AKG 391s overhead. Each mic is gated and submixed through a Total Audio Concepts 8 × 4 × 2 analog submixer.
Fitzgerald, a veteran sound designer (“Abe Jacob and I are vying for the most senior designer around, at this point,” he jokes), says The Rocky Horror Show is probably the last musical he'll be working on, at least for the time being. “It was nice to be asked to do this, and I would probably work with Chris Ashley no matter what, but musicals are just so difficult to do, timewise. They take forever. And Sound Associates is a huge, full-time operation, so I'm just not picking up any other jobs. My wife wants to see me again, and we want to do some traveling. My exit strategy is in place.”