How Rocky Horror Became a Cult Phenomenon

Call us old fashioned but invoking pumpkin spice and The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the same breath feels transgressive to the point of sacrilege.

The creator of the Polyphonic video, above, is on much firmer footing tying the film to queer liberation.

Prior to its now famous cinematic adaptation, The Rocky Horror Show was a low budget theatrical success, with nearly 3,000 performances and the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical to its name.

Reviewer Michael Billington lauded Tim Curry’s “garishly Bowiesque performance” as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the self-proclaimed Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania, but also acknowledged some drabber peacocks defying gender expectations in that production:

…for me the actor of the evening was Jonathan Adams as the Narrator: a bulky, heavy-jowled Kissinger-like figure who enters into the rock numbers with the stately aplomb of a dowager duchess doing a strip.

Playwright Richard O’Brien, who doubled as Frank-N-Furter’s sepulchral butler, Riff Raff, conceived of the show as a spoof on campy sci fi and gothic horror films in the Hammer Productions vein. He also owed a debt to glam rock, which “allowed me to be myself more.”

(Hats off, here, to Polyphonic for one of the best nutshell descriptions of glam rock we’ve ever encountered:

Glam rock was a queer led movement that was built on the back of gender non-conformity. Visually it was a hodgepodge of style from early Hollywood glamour to 50s pinups and cabaret theater augmented by touches of ancient civilizations sci-fi and and the occult.)

“The element of transvestism wasn’t intended as a major theme,” O’Brien told interviewer Patricia Morrisroe, “although it turned out to be one:”

I’ve always thought of Frank as a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Cruella de Ville of Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmations. It’s that sort of evil beauty that’s attractive. I found Brad and Janet very appealing too, especially the whole fifties image of boy-girl relationships. In the end, you see that Janet is not the weak little thing that society demands her to be and Brad is not the pillar of strength.

Audiences and critics may have loved the original show, but the film version did not find immediate favor. Reviewer Roger Ebert reflected that “it would be more fun, I suspect, if it weren’t a picture show:

It belongs on a stage, with the performers and audience joining in a collective send-up…The choreography, the compositions and even the attitudes of the cast imply a stage ambiance. And it invites the kind of laughter and audience participation that makes sense only if the performers are there on the stage, creating mutual karma.

A prophetic statement, as it turns out…

Once the producers began marketing the film as a midnight movie, repeat customers started coming up with the snarky callbacks that have become a de rigueur part of the experience.

“All the characters appear to be sophisticated, knowledgeable peo­ple but they’re really not,” O’Brien observed:

That allows people of a similar adolescent nature to feel they could be part of the whole thing. And now, in fact, they are.

Shadow casts positioned themselves in front of the screen, mimicking the action in cobbled together versions of designer Sue Blane’s costumes.

Audiences also afforded themselves the opportunity to dress outside the norm, creating a safe space where attendees could mess around with their gender expressions. The film may not end happily but that final scene is a great excuse for anyone who wants to take a lap in a corset and fishnets.

Rocky Horror’s flamboyance, humor, and defiance of the mainstream made it a natural fit with the queer community, with folks costumed as Frank-N-Furter, Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia regularly turning up at fundraisers and pride events.

The film also deserves some activist street cred for saving a number of small indie movie theaters by fattening midnight box office receipts, a trend that continues nearly 50 years after the original release.

Admittedly, certain aspects of the script haven’t aged well.

Virgins” attending their first live screening may be more shocked at the dearth of consent than the spectacle of Frank-n-Furter murdering Columbia’s rocker boyfriend Eddy with a pickaxe, then serving his remains for dinner.

Will they also recoil from Frank as an embodiment of toxic masculity in the queer space?

Quoth Columbia:

My God! I can’t stand any more of this! First you spurn me for Eddie, and then you throw him like an old overcoat for Rocky! You chew people up and then you spit them out again… I loved you… do you hear me? I loved you! And what did it get me? Yeah, I’ll tell you: a big nothing. You’re like a sponge. You take, take, take, and drain others of their love and emotion.

We’re hoping Frank, problematic though he may now seem, won’t ultimately be consigned to the dust bin of history.

For context, O’Brien recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the character was informed by his own experiences of cross-dressing as he tried to get a grip on his gender identity in the early 70s:

I used to beat myself up about the hand I was dealt. I don’t know how it works. I have no idea. I’ve read many tomes about the subject of the transvestic nature. It’s the cards you’re dealt. In a binary world it’s a bit of curse, really. Especially in those days when homosexuality was a crime. It’s just one of those things that western society wasn’t very keen on.

Real Content

1978 News Report on the Rocky Horror Craze Captures a Teenage Michael Stipe in Drag

Rare Interview: Tim Curry Discusses The Rocky Horror Picture Show, During the Week of Its Release (1975)

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Dorothea Tanning: The Artist Who Pushed the Boundaries of Surrealism

As Great Art Explained‘s James Payne notes in the above profile of Surrealist Dorothea Tanning, the emotional and psychological complexity of her work invites interpretation, particularly when it comes to one of best known paintings, 1943’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Its doors, young girls (femme-enfants, if you prefer) and sunflower were recurrent themes for her.

What’s it mean?

Tanning maintained the painting is about “confrontation:”

Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theaters where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim….

Art historian Whitney Chadwick, author of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, dared to compare Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to Pierre Roy’s 1927 work Danger on the Stairs, which Tanning may have encountered during her life changing visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s ground breaking 1936 exhibit Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.

Both paintings unfold on narrow, windowless landings. Roy’s features a snake, that harbinger of “Freudian symbolic content”, slithering down a staircase; Tanning’s two long-haired girls in Victorian deshabille and a “torn and writhing sunflower, an image strongly identified with Tanning’s Midwestern origins, close to nature and capable of conveying impressions of both fecundity and menace.”

Tanning bridled at the temerity of Chadwick’s characterization:

To compare my vision with the perfectly proportioned and very photographic depiction of a snake (anaconda) on a stair, neatly painted, somewhat in the manner of Magritte, is simple-minded. The scene, though infrequent, is possible in the natural outside world. Mine is not.

Could it be that the sunflower is a trap set for experts unable to resist the pull of publicly interpreting a Surrealist scene?

Tanning died in 2012 at the age of 101, but Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s sunflower continues to exert its siren pull.

Art historian, Catriona McAra, author of A Surrealist Stratigraphy of Dorothea Tanning’s Chasm sees it as a symbol of “defloration, menstruation and erotic nocturnal knowledge”, while art historian Selin Genc pegs it as “the unknown the child senses within herself: a source of concern and fascination.”

Far be it from us to hazard a guess in the public forum, though we’d be keen to get an adolescent girl’s unofficial take on it, particularly if she shares Tanning’s fascination for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and is as yet unacquainted with the Surrealists, female or otherwise.

Given that many young teens understand gender to be a non-binary proposition, our hypothetical interviewee might appreciate Tanning’s staunch rejection of the label ‘woman artist’, insisting that “there is no such thing or person” and it is “just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist’.”

21st-century artists of all ages, genders and genres could benefit from her advice to “keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads, idiots and movie stars.”

That, friends, is how you make Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In a 2001 article in ARTnews titled The Oldest Living Surrealist Tells (Almost) All, Tanning, then 91 and “still alive in every way” spelled it out:

(Art) should make us feel good about life, or at least make us think about the big questions, the things that people don’t want to ask themselves anymore.”

Here’s some more of Dorothea Tanning’s work to get you started on those questions.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Fantastic Women Of Surrealism: An Introduction

When André Breton, a leader of the Surrealist movement and author of its first manifesto, wrote that “the problem of woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world,” he was not alluding to the unfair lack of recognition experienced by his female peers.

Marquee name Surrealists like Breton, Salvador DalíMan RayRené Magritte, and Max Ernst positioned the women in their circle as muses and symbols of erotic femininity, rather than artists in their own right.

As Méret Oppenheim, subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is seen remarking at the outset of Behind the Masterpiece‘s introduction to “the fantastic women of Surrealism”, above, it was up to female Surrealists to free themselves of the narrowly defined role society – and their male counterparts – sought to impose on them:

A woman isn’t entitled to think, to express aggressive ideas.

The first artist Behind the Masterpiece profiles needs no introduction. Frida Kahlo is surely one of the best known female artists in the world, a woman who played by her own rules, turning to poetic, often brutal imagery as she delved into her own physical and mental suffering:

I paint self-portraits, because I paint my own reality. I paint what I need to. Painting completed my life. I lost three children and painting substituted for all of this… I am not sick, I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts notes that Remedios Varo –  the subject of a current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago– and Leonora Carrington “were seen as the ‘femmes-enfants’ to the famous and much older male artists in their lives.”

Their friendship was ultimately more satisfying and far longer lasting then their romantic attachments to Surrealist luminaries Ernst and poet Benjamin Péret. Carrington paid tribute to it in her novel, The Hearing Trumpet.

The pair’s work reveals a shared interest in alchemy, astrology and the occult, approaching them from characteristically different angles, as per Stefan van Raay, author of Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna:

Carrington’s work is about tone and color and Varo’s is about line and form.

The name of Dorothea Tanning, like that of Leonora Carrington, is often linked to Max Ernst, though she made no bones about her desire to keep her artistic identity separate from that of her husband of 30 years.

Her work evolved several times over the course of a career spanning seven decades, but her first major museum survey was a posthumous one.

University of Cambridge art history professor, Alyce Mahon, co-curator of that Tate Modern exhibit, touches on the nature of Tanning’s deceptively feminine soft sculptures:

If I asked for two words that you associate with pin cushions, you would say sewing and craft, and you would associate those with the female in the house. Tanning played with the idea of wifely skills and took a very humble object and turned it into a fetish. She crafted her first one out of velvet in 1965 and randomly placed pins in it and aligned it with a voodoo doll. She says it ‘bristles’ with images. So she takes something fabulously familiar and makes it uncanny and strange to encourage us to think differently.

Tanning rejected the label of ‘woman artist’, viewing it as “just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist’.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sigmund Freud!

The famed psychoanalyst’s concept of the subconscious mind was central to Surrealism, but he also wrote that “women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.”

One wonders what he would have made of Object, the fur lined teacup, saucer and spoon that is Oppenheim’s best known work, for better or worse.

In an essay for Khan Academy’s AP/College Art History course Josh Rose describes how Museum of Modern Art patrons declared it the “quintessential” Surrealist object when it was featured in the influential 1936-37 exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism:”

But for Oppenheim, the prestige and focus on this one object proved too much, and she spent more than a decade out of the artistic limelight, destroying much of the work she produced during that period. It was only later when she re-emerged, and began publicly showing new paintings and objects with renewed vigor and confidence, that she began reclaiming some of the intent of her work. When she was given an award for her work by the City of Basel, she touched upon this in her acceptance speech, (saying,) “I think it is the duty of a woman to lead a life that expresses her disbelief in the validity of the taboos that have been imposed upon her kind for thousands of years. Nobody will give you freedom; you have to take it.”

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

1000+ Barbie Commercials Provides Context for This Summer’s Pinkest Blockbuster (1959-2023)

The Barbie movie has captured the popular imagination in a big way.

The New York Times can’t get enough of the recently opened summer blockbuster. Between reviews, fashion round ups, interviews, box office reports and op eds, it has published over two dozen pieces tied to this massive cultural moment.

Even those who don’t feel a burning need to catch Barbie at the multiplex are likely aware of the Barbenheimer phenom.

But what about those who grew up in feminist homes, or sisterless cis-males of a certain age?

Will a lack of hands-on experience diminish the cinematic pleasures of Barbie?

Not if you immerse yourself in BarbieCollectors’ chronological playlist of Barbie commercials before ticketing up. That’s over a thousand ads, spanning more than six decades.

The 1959 ad, above, that introduced the glamorous “teen age fashion doll” to the public clears up the misperception that pink has always been Barbie’s de facto color. It’s black-and-white, but so is the diagonal striped swimsuit the film’s star, Margot Robbie models in the film’s opener, a tongue in cheek homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(Astute observers may note the similarities between some of the sophisticated ensembles original flavor Barbie sports here and the outfits Robbie donned for the pink carpet prior to the Screen Actors Guild strike.)

In the battle between pink and historical record, pink is destined to come out on top in the Barbie movie. Director Greta Gerwig and her design team punch up Barbie’s early 80’s Western look with a wide pink brush, lowering the neckline but keeping the wink.

The doll came with a working autograph stamp Robbie may consider adopting, should Barbie mania continue on into fall.

One of the most thrilling design elements of the movie is the human scale Dreamhouses occupied by Barbie and her friends, the majority of whom are also named Barbie.

The Dreamhouse has taken many architectural forms over the years – townhouse, cottage, mansion – but it always comes without a fourth wall.

Another cinematic treat is the roll call of vehicles Barbie commandeers on her journey to the real world with her hapless boyfriend, Ken.

Some of the film’s deeper cuts are jokes at the expense of misguided releases, Barbie sidekicks so ill-conceived that they were quickly discontinued, although 1993’s Earring Magic Ken became a bestseller, thanks to his popularity in the gay community.

Look for Barbie’s pregnant pal, Midge, her yellow Labrador retriever, Tanner (whose scoopable excrement was quickly deemed a choking hazard) and Growing up Skipper, the little sister who goes through puberty with a twist of the arm … “which is something you can’t do,” the commercial’s narrator taunts in a rare reversal of the “girls can be anything” ethos Mattel insists is part of the brand.

Of course, one can only cram so many knowingly-placed products into one feature-length film.

Are those of you who grew up with Barbie hurting from any glaring omissions? (Asking as a child of the Malibu Barbie era…)

Those who didn’t grow up with Barbie can play along too by sampling from BarbieCollectors’ massive chronological commercial playlist, then nominating your favorites in the comments.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Carole King Revolutionized ’70s Music

In 1960, The Shirelles became the first Black female group to have a #1 US  hit with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?“.

The song also represented a big break for its composer, 17-year-old Carole King, and her then-husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin.

The two set up shop in New York City’s Brill Building, a pre-British Invasion hotbed of songwriting teams, cranking out pop tunes for others to record.

King and Goffin’s collaboration was a fruitful one for both themselves and the artists they sent climbing the charts:

Bobby Vee with “Take Good Care of My Baby“.

The Chiffons with “One Fine Day“.

The Monkees with “Pleasant Valley Sunday“.

“Little Eva” Boyd (the couple’s babysitter) with “The Loco-Motion“.

Aretha Franklin with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman“.

The late 60s ushered in both a musical and social revolution.

As King writes in her memoir, A Natural Woman, “Had I been forty-two and Gerry forty-five, I might have understood his yearning for the Bohemian lifestyle he’d never had:”

But I was a twenty-two year old wife and mother losing my twenty-five year old husband to avant-garde ideas. I wanted my life back. Unfortunately, yesterday had a no return policy, and today wasn’t where I wanted to be. I could only hope tomorrow would be better.

The couple split in 1968, and King left New York for LA, settling in Laurel Canyon, another hive of musical activity. Here, however, singers like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Neil Young wrote their own songs, sharing intimate details of their lives and relationships in the name of creative expression.

King began to explore these avenues, too, though as Polyphonic‘s Noah Lefevre observes in the above video essay on her seminal second album, 1971’s Tapestry, the Brill Building’s high bar for solid song craft and catchy hooks had become part of her DNA.

Her first solo recording was little heralded, but Tapestry was a smash from the get go, nabbing King Grammys for both record and song of the year, the first female solo act to be so recognized:

Tapestry changed my life. In an immediate way, it gave me financial independence, which was really wonderful. Less immediate and in an ongoing way, it opened doors.

Released as second wave feminism was cresting, Tapestry’s lyrics resonated with many women who, raised on dreams of marriage and motherhood, found themselves seeking fulfillment elsewhere, whether by choice or circumstance.

Compared to Joni Mitchell’s confessional Blue, Polyphonic’s Lefevre sees Tapestry as a work of “quiet resilience.”

It modeled the soft rock sound that became a 70s staple, and its cover art eschewed the idea of artist as glamorous being, in favor of an approachable human-scale individual.

It also afforded King the opportunity for timely reinterpretations of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “A Natural Woman,” this time as a singer-songwriter.

Listen to Carole King’s Tapestry here.

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Older Women Come Together & Play Punk Rock: Discover The Unglamorous Music Project

Punk is not only not dead, it’s getting a fresh burst of energy, thanks to The Unglamorous Music Project, a female collective in Leicester.

In accordance with punk tradition, musical ability is not a primary concern.

Shockingly, life experience is.

With five, six, and seven decades worth, Unglamorous Music Project participants have no illusions about how women their age – with the possible exception of Patti Smith – are perceived.

Rather than content themselves with crumbs and conform to societal expectations, they are going hard in newly formed bands like The Wonky Portraits, Dada Women, BOILERS, Velvet Crisis and The Verinos, above.

“This is definitely not ‘cutesy grannies have a go at punk’ band,” BOILERS’ Allison “Fish” Dunne emphasized to The Guardian:

I’ve got no fucks to give any more about what anyone thinks of me…We write our own music and we’ve got a lot to say about everything we’re angry about. I’ve been enraged for years.

The Verinos’ 61-year-old Ruth Miller, founder of The Unglamorous Music Project, told RNZ  how she tapped into an unexpectedly rich reservoir of previously unacted upon mature female musical impulse, when she mentioned her plan to form a band to the friend with whom she drank coffee and talked politics.

The friend confessed that she’d long wanted to take up the drums, and on the strength of that comment was drafted as drummer for the Verinos, after watching one instructional YouTube video.

A “really cool looking older woman” with “sticking up hair” whom Miller approached in a restaurant, asking, “Excuse me, are you in a band?” earned her place by answering “No, but I’ve always wanted to learn bass.”

I think as a woman, you hit a particular age and you think, “Well, I don’t care what anyone thinks. It’s my life, and I really want to do music again, and it doesn’t matter whether people like it or not. They don’t have to listen…”

But they do like it! It’s incredibly appealing, that idea of seeing a group of older women who are just themselves.

Miller believes that rather than paying for private lessons and concentrating on the “proper” way to play music, beginners should let go of their inhibitions and have a go at playing communally.

The principles of the Unglamorous Music Project spell it out even more explicitly:

  • Choose an instrument that appeals and fits in with others
  • Find helpful people to lend you stuff and support unconditionally
  • Form a duo or band with other beginners straightaway
  • Explore very simple rhythms and sounds
  • Write your own words about your life
  • Sing great tunes and backing vocals
  • Play your song in a confident, cool, challenging way
  • Get encouragement and applause from friends
  • Start performing to audiences as soon as possible

Perhaps an unspoken principle, given the Project’s emphasis on fun, is assuming Ramones-style stage names, a la Vim, Vi, Volcano, Vixen and VeeDee Verino.

If you’re inspired to join the movement, mark your calendar for March, 8, International Women’s Day and join Miller’s Facebook group, 66 Days to your Debut.

via BoingBoing

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club: Behold Images from a 15th-Century Fighting Manual

Welcome to Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club.

The first rule of Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club is: you do not talk about Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club.

The second rule of Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club!


The Public Domain Review’s managing editor, Hunter Dukes, wisely argues that it’s because we have so little to go on, beyond these startling images of “judicial duels” between men and women in German fencing master Hans Talhoffer‘s illustrated 15th-century “fight books.”

The male combatant, armed with a wooden mace, starts out in a waist-deep hole.

The female, armed with a rock wrapped in a length of cloth, stands above, feet planted to the ground.

Their matching unisex garments wouldn’t look out of place at the Met Gala, and provide for maximum movement as evidenced by the acrobatic, and seriously painful-looking paces Talhoffer puts them through.

Dukes is not alone in wondering what’s going on here, and he doesn’t mince words when calling bullshit on those responsible for “hastily researched articles” eagerly pronouncing them to be action shots of divorce-by-combat.

Such brutal methods of formal uncoupling had been rendered obsolete centuries before Talhoffer began work on his instructional manuals. 

In a 1985 article in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Allison Coudert,  a professor of Religious Studies at UC Davis, posits that Talhoffer might have been drawing on the past in these pages:

I would suggest that no records of judicial duels between husbands and wives exists after 1200 because of both changes in the reality and the ideal of what a woman could be and do. Before 1200, women may well have battled their husbands. Women understood and defended the importance of their economic and administrative roles in the household. After the twelfth century, however, law, custom and religion made marital duels all but unthinkable.

Why would Talhoffer bother including archaic material if the focus of his Fechtbuchs was giving less experienced fighters concrete information for their betterment?

We like the notion that he might have been seeking to inject his manuscripts with a bit of an erotic charge, but concede that scholars like Coudert, who have PhDs, research chops, and actual expertise in the subject, are probably warmer when reckoning that he was just covering his historical bases.

For now, let us enjoy these images as art, and possible sources of inspiration for avant-garde circus acts, Halloween couples costumes, and Valentines.


Explore more images from the 15th-century Fechtbuchs of Hans Talhoffer here and here.

via the Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Cher Play All the Major Parts in a 12-Minute Remake of West Side Story (1978)

Cher, the mononymous Goddess of Pop, gifted the small screens of the 70s with a lot of over-the-top glamour.

Her work ethic, comedic flair and unapologetic embrace of camp helped her stand out from the crowd, conferring the fame she had longed for since childhood, when she commandeered her 5th grade classmates for an unofficial, and, from the sounds of it, all-female production of Oklahoma, covering the male roles herself when the boys declined to participate.

Some twenty years later, she was a household name – one that was no longer appended to that of ex-husband Sonny Bono, co-host of the popular eponymous variety hour in which they sang, hammed their way through goofy skits, and busted each other’s chops to the delight of the live studio audience.

The 1978 television event Cher…special found her bringing many of those same talents to bear, along with country star Dolly Parton, rocker Rod Stewart, outré glam band, The Tubes, and the crowd-pleasing array of spangled, skin-baring Bob Mackie designs that defined her look.

More shocking than any of Mackie’s creations or the Musical Battle to Save Cher’s Soul, a set piece wherein Parton and a gospel choir endeavor to coax the diva from a kinky disco hellscape, is the star’s 12-and-a-half minute solo version of West Side Story, above.

This is no mere medley. Cher puts the big pot in the little, donning multiple wigs, a facsimile of the chaste white party dress Natalie Wood wore to the dance at the gym, and flats (!) to embody Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo and various Jets, sans irony.

Some of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning songs have been transposed to a different key to accommodate Cher’s contralto, and when they haven’t, her famous voice is stretched a bit thin.

Vocally, she makes a more convincing Jet than she does the ingenue, Maria.

(Speaking of which, let’s not forget that that’s ghost singer Marni Nixon, not Wood, as Maria on the 1961 film’s soundtrack…)

Why West Side Story?

Why not Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar? Wouldn’t those fit better thematically with the portion of the special that has Dolly and a white-robed chorus battling the denizens of Satan’s sexy playpen?

Two words:

1. Variety. That’s what Cher was peddling in the 70s.

2. Nostalgia. As Cher recalls in On the Dance Floor: Spinning Out on Screen:

I remember dancing around my living room to West Side Story (1961). I would sing all the parts and dance every single dance, when there was no one else around.

That admission helps us reframe the cringe factor. Before ye cast the first stone, think: hast thou never stood before a mirror singing into a hairbrush?

And if, by some chance, you’re unfamiliar with West Side Story’s dramatis personae and plot, don’t look to Cher for clarification.

Instead, we refer you to Romeo and Juliet, and for some modern context touching on green screens, genderfluidity, and the color-conscious casting of the 2021 remake, the below episode of Chris Frank’s snarky Bad Music Video Theater.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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