Musical Marketing Coup: Rocky Horror Glee Show
I have used my blog to write about Glee before. Seeing the buzz the show was generating in the States I have to say I was intrigued as to whether the show would hit the mark on this side of the pond. At this point there is really no question about it, Glee is huge business. The show has rewritten music marketing and I personally believe is one of the best promotional tools musical theatre has going for it at the moment. So imagine my surprise when I heard the show would be dedicating its Halloween episode to Richard O’Brien’s 1975 cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Musical marketing genius. Here’s why:
I would almost go so far as to argue that Glee has rewritten the rule of music publishing. “The Glee Effect” has led to weeks when 25 songs on the Billboard Top 100 Charts have been songs from the show. Not only do recordings of numbers sung by the cast, released straight after that week’s broadcast for sale on iTunes, but original recordings of the songs the show has covered see huge sales.
Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” saw sales triple after being featured on the show. The show has also reintroduced songs back onto the playlists of iPods, clubs and radio stations a like. Song writers and music publishers have been laughing all the way to the bank. Repertoire owners have been knocking down the show’s door offering entire back catalogues for exploitation, knowing that massive sales figures will follow.
Glee also manages to walk to thin line between pop music and musical theatre with enviable skill. With Broadway faces such as Lea Michele (Spring Awakening), Matthew Morrison (Hairspray) and Idina Menzel (Wicked) to work with and piano-led arrangements to level the playing field between traditional pop numbers and those from shows, Glee manages to blur the genre edges in almost every episode. Its great to hear musical theatre numbers sung on TV every week and being watched by millions.
Don’t get me wrong, the auto-tuned to hell, vocally thin renditions do not excite me as performances, but the fact that musical theatre songs are making it on to mainstream American television and being watched by millions, without the ghettoisation which the musical genre is normally faced is something we should not be sniffing at.
Which brings me to The Rocky Horror Glee Show. For those of you counting (or perhaps just wanting to know where to “find” the show on the internet) it was broadcast as season 2, episode 5 on 26 October 2010, just five days before what is surely America’s most commercially motivated “holidays”.
In the UK theatre scene it is fashionable to have a moan about Andrew Lloyd Webber and the closeness of his relationship to the BBC. There is an argument that the reality casting shows which he has produced are little more than series-long adverts for the shows which eventually end up in the West End and then tour the country.
To be honest, its a pretty convincing argument. As well as introducing or reminding audiences of the musical that is being cast (its not as if they’re high art, you just need to make sure that housewives up and down the UK remember “Over the Rainbow” and “He Needs Me” come from a show for which you are about to try and flog thousands of tickets a week) the reality casting process also has the advantage of giving audiences buy-in to the casting process. By making audiences feel they have some ownership over the cast member they voted onto the stage you generate an incredible connection between potential ticket buyer and your chosen star.
Llord Lloyd Webber even cheated with his last reality casting round, both the winner and the first runner up will play the role of Dorothy at the Palladium in Spring 2011, you don’t even need to have voted for the loser to feel like you owe it to them to see them on stage, just make sure you book for the right Tuesday night and the whole of Wales can see their reality show cast-off of choice in the ruby slippers!
The real strength of what O’Brien has managed to do with Rocky Horror is to get it out of the musical ghetto. Ken Davenport quotes a Broadway press agent whose adage was to “get your coverage off the theatre pages of the paper”. O’Brien has had the majority of his musical reproduced by characters tweens love on a show they genuinely think is cool. He has smuggled an entire musical on to the TV screens in millions of households around the world.
Within the first five minutes of the episode the script writers had already taken the opportunity to educate viewers that the Rocky Horror experience might regularly come to a cinema near them, complete with the audience participation, singing along and costumes which made the movie famous. If this wasn’t happening in small town America, I would be genuinely shocked if there aren’t independent cinema operators now wondering if its time to welcome late night screenings back into the repertoire, the profile of Rocky Horror having been lifted amongst business as well as consumers.
It is also important to mention that the Rocky Horror Glee Show was not what most American TV has programmed to expect when parodying an established cultural product, this was nothing like a Simpsons retelling. The songs of Rocky Horror were melded around a normal Glee episode plot, the on-stage action interspersed with the school-based dramas we see week on week. Just because you have seen the Rocky Horror Glee Show does not mean that you have seen the entire musical. There is still an element of discovery there for the audience to overcome, still an element of wonder into just what the hell this Rocky Horror Picture Show thing is.
The performances that Glee gave us for Halloween were cleaned up, but it is probably naive to expect that mainstream American television would have gotten away with anything else. Jayma Mays’ rendition of “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” was not a performance Susan Serandan would have recognised, somehow ending up with Matthew Morrison showing his bared chest whilst Jayma Mays remained fully clothed. Perhaps the television producers know their gay/female audience just a bit too well.
By having Amber Riley play Frank-N-Furter the producers also completely dodged the majority of the transexual references which lace the original piece. Glee might be filled with singing jocks, openly gay choir members and a cast pushing 30 all playing high schoolers, but apparently the idea of a man dressed in a basque, fishnets and suspenders was just a step too far for Fox this halloween.
All credit to Richard O’Brien for managing to sneak an entire musical onto television screens all across America, and indeed the world. Definitely the musical theatre marketing coup of the year in my opinion.
Photo Credit: Probably borrowed from Fox. I personally borrowed it from homorazzi.com