Why The Rocky Horror Show Is Still as Popular as Ever

Richard O'Brien is sitting at his regular corner table in London's Covent Garden Hotel. With his shaven head and gaunt features, O'Brien has barely changed since he first starred in The Rocky Horror Show, a musical about an unstable transvestite scientist that he wrote in the early 1970s when he was an unknown actor. Nor has O'Brien's dress sense altered much since the early '70s: He is wearing a black thigh-length cashmere wrap with a belt tied in a bow, a matching pair of what he says are leggings and cowboy boots. When I first saw him, I thought of Gene Wilder's line from Mel Brooks's film The Producers, when he is introduced by Max Bialystock, Zero Mostel's character, to their chosen director, Roger De Bris: "Max...he's wearing a dress."

Nobody with any sense of self-preservation, however, would risk mocking O'Brien. At 73, he is smart and amusing, and though sympathetic, he isn't the kind to allow intolerance or idiocy to go unpunished. He has the sort of confidence that comes from someone who created one of the most successful musicals in history.

Some critics initially dismissed The Rocky Horror Show, first staged at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1973, as a kind of camp joke, but more than four decades later it continues to attract audiences of all ages across the globe. A revival of the kitsch musical begins a British tour on December 18, continuing through August 2016. The production sold out 11 London performances in September, with guest performers including Stephen Fry. But the tour is hardly a comeback for the rock musical; it has never gone away. For the past four decades, on any night of any year, The Rocky Horror Show has been on a stage somewhere in the world.

"We've conquered the whole of Europe," O'Brien says, in a tone of mock imperialism. "And Japan. And America, North and South. I'm not sure about Azerbaijan."

In its first American incarnation, the show that O'Brien calls Rocky survived a mauling from New York critic Rex Reed, who said the production was "only for homosexuals." It was a remark that "seriously offended my wife," O'Brien recalls, "and my boyfriend."

The show survived the critics—and then some. The Rocky Horror Show has made O'Brien a wealthy man whose creation has entertained generations of theatergoers and glam-rock fans. The original London production ran for seven years, notching nearly 3,000 performances. In 1975, the musical's reach grew hugely when it was made into a movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Meat Loaf and O'Brien (as a servant named Riff Raff). The movie is still in limited theatrical release, making it the longest-running cinematic release in history. Audience members often dress up in vampy drag and shout out most of the lines of dialogue.

O'Brien has engaged in other ventures with mixed success: in Britain, notably, as the host of a game show named The Crystal Maze, which ran in the early 1990s and tested contestants' mental and gymnastic agility. Other projects, among them the musical Shock Treatment—the 1981 follow-up to The Rocky Horror Show—were failures.

But Rocky has never lost its appeal, straddling cult status and mass appeal. How is it that a musical that seemed very much of its time managed to establish a degree of worldwide recognition to compare with that of Macbeth?

"Again and again," O'Brien says, "I've tried to work that out. I've never been able to. Rocky shouldn't be successful. It's childish. It's puerile beyond belief. The songs are so basic. Perhaps it's because it's a retelling of the fall of man. Brad and Janet [the naive lead couple, played by Barry Bostwick and Sarandon in the movie] are Adam and Eve. Frank N. Furter [Curry] is the serpent. I'd like somebody else to tell me what it's all about. Somebody with a bigger brain than mine. Maybe it's the hidden themes that make it last, like a fairy tale. It celebrates difference. People who feel marginalized, alone and confused; somehow, it gathers them together and allows them to coexist."

Entering a car on a night train, as I once did, to discover that every other passenger is returning from a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening in costume as one of the characters, I tell O'Brien, is a frankly alarming experience.

"It is. But there's a joyous quality to it," he says. "You get girls who feel they are overweight and are ridiculed, goths, hippies. The show brings all of these alienated people together."

It's not a struggle for O'Brien to relate to this sense of being different. He has been married three times—his current spouse, Sabrina Graf, 35 years his junior, is German—and has three children. He was born in Cheltenham, England, where his father, Alex, was an accountant. When he was 10, the family moved to Tauranga, New Zealand: a nation, I suggest, not traditionally associated with flexible notions of gender.

"Oh, I loved it. It was a fantastic place to grow up. I left school at 15 and became a glazier. Then a hairdresser. But I was lost, I suppose. All of my dreams were in my head. And that's where I lived—in my head."

He returned to England when he was 22 and began his acting career as a stunt double, riding horses in films, including the popular British comedy Carry On Cowboy. He appeared in the 1970 U.K. touring production of the musical Hair and wrote The Rocky Horror Show after playing a leper in Jesus Christ Superstar.

It was no accident that the jobbing actor's new musical explored the themes of gender identity. It took years, in O'Brien's words, for him to "accept the notion of transgender." The actor views himself as "70 percent male, 30 percent female." In practical terms, how did that affect his life?

"If I wanted to put a frock on, I would. I remember the first time I went to buy high heels. There are two shopgirls, getting sniggery. I say, 'Well, girls, I've already bought the frock, and it really is just fabulous.' They exchange looks. Then I say, 'These shoes aren't a bad color; they're so damn close, it's annoying.' Before they know it, they're running around desperately searching for the right shade of scarlet. They have joined in. You've brought them on to the journey. And that," says O'Brien, who now lives back in New Zealand, close to the house where he grew up, "is wonderful."

When Rocky opened, pop culture figures like David Bowie and Mick Ronson were dabbling in androgyny. With Rocky, O'Brien wasn't dabbling. He was diving in, as he was with the rapidly liberalizing attitudes toward sex in the late 1960s and early '70s. It's a subject that still interests him. Recreational sex, O'Brien says, "is recreational sex. I see the person [not the gender]. If we walk away with a smile and think, That was delightful...where's the problem?" asks O'Brien with a look that indicates further exploration of this subject would be ill-advised.

I wonder if it bothers him that he is still identified as Mr. Rocky Horror? "No. I'm really glad Rocky has this life, but I don't think that it defines me. I am a freer agent than that."

I ask, "You once said, 'People stare at me in the street, and I'm not sure why.' Is that still true?"

Less than it was, he says.

"Though even today," I suggest, "it does take courage to be different."

He replies, "I know exactly what you mean. I've been in places where they'd take you out simply because they didn't like the cut of your jib."

But then, O'Brien adds, "What have I got to lose? Except for my life? And I'm going to lose that eventually, anyway. You know, over the years, with The Rocky Horror Show, I've had some hateful reviews. When I say 'hateful,' I mean vicious. Personally hateful. And where are these reviewers now?"

"I don't know," I say.

"Dead. They are all dead. All of them. Dead. They are all dead. And where am I? I am here. Alive. And so," O'Brien adds, "I win."