What a life he lived. I just thought I’d post one of my favourite performances. Here he is singing ‘Mr Midnight’ in cult musical Captain Invincible.
I sometimes joke that The Rocky Horror Show “saved my life”, but that statement is not really so far from the truth. When I discovered Rocky I was a profoundly depressed, bullied, 15-year old Catholic lesbian, living in the kind of conservative small town where you could get away with stabbing a gay man in the back by pleading “gay panic”. I wasn’t considered bright, or pretty; I didn’t have many friends and I was developing an eating disorder.
I can’t remember why someone lent me an old copy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was probably just being passed around at school with a lot of other illicit material, but something about it resonated with me incredibly deeply. Even now I still get chills when I listen to the opening song, ‘Science Fiction/Double Feature’.
The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.
“The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant; frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music“, Sue Ellen Case, ‘Tracking the Vampire’ in Differences (1991) (p. 3).
The other day, an online conversation reminded me of my teenage love of musicals, in particular, my obsession, between the ages of 11 and 13, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. My cooler friends were into Les Miserables, which even I had to acknowledge had a better score than Phantom, but I’ve always had a taste for glamour, the gothic and, of course, the queer, and on all those fronts, Phantom won hands down.
My early love of Phantom is an example of how queer kids often cultivate interests that appear acceptable on the surface of things, but privately rewrite their meaning to meet their own emotional and erotic needs. No one objected to my love of Phantom because an interest in musicals is considered acceptable for white, middle-class teenage girls and because they assumed that I identified with Christine and her romance with Raoul.
In fact I identified passionately with the Phantom himself, the queer figure who lurks underground (and outside heteronormativity) and who exerts a mesmerising power over beautiful women, a figure who isn’t what he appears to be and who hides a terrible secret under his mask where he bears the mark of his ‘queerness’. The Phantom/Angel of Music/Erik allows us to face our fears of being literally unmasked and seen for what we really are. I even had a Phantom of the Opera mask and hat.
In attempting to drop a chandelier on Christine’s bland boyfriend, Raoul (see video below), the Phantom in his role as return of the repressed, acts out a queer rage against the dominant discourse. From a feminist perspective, (and I’m sure there must be cultural critics out there who’ve talked about this), the Phantom can also be seen as an avatar of Christine herself, since the death of Raoul would save her from the fate of a dull marriage to a painfully dull man that awaits her and will undoubtedly end her singing career. The Phantom may be rather creepy, but at least he wants to unleash Christine’s creativity and show her what she can achieve. In gothic and horror fiction, the queer monster often allows women to dally with possibilities beyond heterosexual marriage, but only within the context of a parasitical or vampiric relationship that threatens to destroy them. For the queer figure, the attempt to express him/herself through the woman ultimately it leaves him/her voiceless. If you’re interested, Rhona J. Bernstein’s book, Attack of the Leading Ladies is very good on this special relationship between the monster and the ‘leading lady’.
When I was 13, the Phantom got dumped for Madonna, and when I was 14 I took up with the Rocky Horror Show, but that’s a whole other post. For now, here’s the original video starring an unblinking Sarah Brightman as Christine, a rather stiff and awkward Steve Harley as the Phantom, and the most amazing mullet on the guy playing Raoul. It now looks like a particularly bad Meatloaf video, but I loved it at the time.