Steroids? Yes. EDM? No: How Lou and Cisco Adler revived the music from ‘Rocky Horror’

Lou Adler, left, recruited his son Cisco to oversee the music for a remake of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lou Adler didn’t need his memory jogged to recall a disastrous test screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in Santa Barbara in 1975.

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened,” said the 82-year-old rock and roll impresario, whose long résumé includes, among other things, producing that film, organizing the Monterey Pop Festival and overseeing the creation of Carole King’s album “Tapestry.”

“People started leaving a third of the way through. We’re sitting on the curb outside, me and one of the executives from Fox, wondering, ‘Is this the end?’ But then 25 people come out after it’s over: ‘We really like this. When can we see it again?’”

That small but passionate response launched “Rocky Horror” — born as a live production first staged in the U.S. at Adler’s West Hollywood club, the Roxy — toward decades of repeat business as the quintessential midnight movie.

And it’s what laid the groundwork for a TV reboot of the musical set to premiere Thursday night on Fox with a young, pop-savvy cast including Laverne Cox, Adam Lambert and Christina Milian.


“‘Reboot’ is a word for computers,” said Adler’s son Cisco, a veteran of the Los Angeles rock scene who handled music for the new production. Added Lou, who serves as executive producer: “I think of it as a reimagining.”

Either way, the splashy update reflects a belief that people still want to see “Rocky Horror” again.

Yet reviving this indelible period piece — about fresh-faced couple Brad and Janet, who happen into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (memorably depicted in the original by Tim Curry) — required some delicate retrofitting.

For one thing, Frank-N-Furter is introduced in the show as a “sweet transvestite,” a well-meaning but “very antiquated” term, as Cox, who plays the role in the new version, described it.

The transgender actress best known for her Emmy-nominated performance in “Orange Is the New Black,” Cox said the phrase (which survives in this edition) now plays as a self-conscious throwback, one of many in the movie.

“I mean, the whole premise of the film is that Brad and Janet, their car is broken down and they need to use a phone,” she said with a laugh. “In 2016, they’d have a cellphone and they’d just call AAA.”

There was also the matter of Richard O’Brien’s music for the show, which decades ago tapped into the prevailing glam-rock sound of the mid ’70s — and spawned a stand-alone hit in the deathless “Time Warp.”

“You can’t go to a bar mitzvah now without hearing it,” Lou Adler said as he and Cisco, 38, sat in a glass-walled living room at his home in Malibu. Posters commemorating some of Adler’s many projects hung on the walls, while a TV tuned to cable news flashed images of Donald Trump. (“He’s a hustler,” Adler said with visible disgust. “A hustler and an elitist.”)

Today, though, rock hardly dominates the mainstream the way it once did. So Cisco — known for his group Whitestarr and his work with the rapper Shwayze — saw himself as a kind of a translator: someone who could reinterpret “Time Warp,” “Dammit Janet” and “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” for younger viewers raised on hip-hop.

“These songs are rock standards,” he said. “I didn’t wanna flip the music on its back and make it EDM. But I did wanna flip it on its side — steroid it up, give it fatter drums.”

To record the tunes, Cisco recruited live players (including drummer Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and guitarist Duane Betts, who plays in L.A.’s Dawes) but also employed plenty of modern post-production techniques.

“For ‘Touch-a Touch-a,’ I was thinking of ‘Hey Ya!,’” he said, referring to the bouncy 2003 hit by the rap duo OutKast.

Kenny Ortega, the remake’s director, said he views Cisco alongside artists like Bruno Mars — “guys who’ve been clearly influenced by all that’s preceded them and are able to make these interesting connections to timeless music.”

And the selection of Ortega to helm “Rocky Horror” speaks further of Lou Adler’s desire to nudge “Rocky Horror” toward current pop. An experienced choreographer who directed “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” as well as the hit “High School Musical” films, he understands how to navigate the tricky space between musical theater and the Top 40, and does it here with dancing that feels closely aligned with top-tier arena shows.

Still, for all the effort the Adlers put into reaching a new audience — “all those Brads and Janets who don’t go to midnight screenings,” as Lou put it — the elder producer insisted he kept the original “Rocky Horror” faithful in mind, making sure that the update honors the spirit that once excited that tiny group in Santa Barbara.

“The fans have fought me on every change, going back to when we first put the movie on VHS,” Lou said. “But it’s because they’re so invested in it. And God bless ’em — they’ve kept this thing going for 42 years.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood