Actor, dancer and, of course, acclaimed singer Todd McKenney is about to take on a role he’s dreamt of since he started performing: Rock Horror Show’s Frank N’Furter. Firmly lodged in Australia’s hearts thanks to his roles in The Boy From Oz, Strictly Ballroom and his stint as a judge on Dancing with the Stars McKenney is utterly enthusiastic about the role. McKenney is also a an Aslan practitioner and an advocate of sign language in theatre shows to help as many people access entertainment as possible. We had the chance to chat to the multi-talented musical theatre star about the enduring appeal of Rocky Horror, the best thing about musicals and, of course, playing Frank N’Furter.
You’ve said that you’ve dreamt of playing the role of Frank N’Furter ever since you saw a production of Rocky Horror in Perth in the 80s. What’s so appealing about the role?
Because it is so outrageous and its just so much fun! The audiences come ready for a good time, even before the show starts so half of our work is done before we even walk out onto the stage. It is honestly just such a fun musical.
Do you see much of yourself in Frank N’Furter?
I think just my love of being on stage. I don’t know how much my everyday life is spent in fishnets or high heel shoes (it has from time to time I have to say), but I generally don’t spend my day in fishnets, high heels and a corset. So playing Frank N’ Furter is a nice departure from my normal life.
It can be hard to take such a beloved show, and a beloved character, and make it fresh while keeping true to the spirit of the play. How does this production differ from others while still maintaining that classic spirit?
The director, in his wisdom, has always had the philosophy that each person coming into the show should make it their own and not necessarily just do a Tim Curry impersonation. So while you can’t rob the audience of the absolutely crucial Rocky Horror iconic moments, I think you can do it and do it well without just doing an impersonation. The director really wants me to not do a Tim Curry impersonation so we’re looking at ways of making it my own – whether that is the accent or the acting style. There are definitely ways you can tweak it, which is what I love – being able to put my own stamp on it.
This show also holds a particular place in the hearts of many members of the LGBT+ community, what do you think the enduring appeal of it is?
The appeal is about people being themselves and being accepted and just living as who they want to be. There is a song in the show called “Don’t Dream It, Be It” and that is what Frank N’ Further does. He lives his true identity, which just so happens to be as a sweet transvestite. I think there is a lot to be said about people being themselves and saying ‘love me or hate me but this is who I am’ and I think the show really shows that and I think it is a great message.
What’s it like working with Shane Jacobson as the Narrator?
Shane is a naughty schoolboy and I absolutely love him to bits! Shane and I have become really great mates. We’ve just finished another project for Channel 7 where we really bonded. He is one of the nicest guys in the business and he is funny, and a storyteller and a larrikin and he has an incredible work ethic. He is one of my favourite people on the planet and I just love him.
And, of course, there’s huge cult status around not only the stage show but the movie too, with fans turning up in costume to screenings of the film. Are you expecting audiences to dress up? Have you ever dressed up (as an audience member) to attend a film screening or musical?
We are absolutely expecting audiences to dress up! I’ve got 14 friends coming to the opening night and their outfits are outrageous. They’ve been getting their costumes ready over the last couple of months and they’re all amazing. It has been great watching them get excited about it too. So yes, please dress up! It’s a great excuse to dress up.
And yes – I went as a tea bag to see the Sound of Music. My friend went as a jar and jam and I went as a teabag. It was one of the best nights we’ve ever had.
There are so many excellent songs in Rocky Horror – which one is your favourite to perform? Why?
“Sweet Transvestite” without a doubt because when the crowd hears the boom boom of the bass and the drums for that entrance (before Frank N’ Further is revealed) you can feel the audience’s enthusiasm building and then it’s loud and it’s rocky and it’s one of the greatest entrances in musical theatre, without fail.
What is the best part about a musical for you?
Getting the audience’s instant reaction, especially when it’s something as fun as Rocky. Just knowing that you are giving people are good time and you’re entertaining them and hopefully helping them forget whatever stresses they have in their lives and letting us severely entertain them for a few hours – I love that philosophy. And I always think that whether it’s a show for little old ladies or the Rocky Horror crowd I’m always really well aware that we’re taking care of people’s lives for two hours. It might be frivolous musical theatre but that’s our job, to make sure they have a good time and I love that.
Being an audience member myself, the best part about watching a musical is the anticipation of what is about to happen when the curtain goes up. You’re sitting in the audience, and its just the buzz of the crowd around you. There is people dressing up and its all those things. I love the anticipation of what you are about to see (sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad!) but I just can’t wait to see what’s behind the curtain.
What advice do you have for any aspiring triple-threats who want to one day play Frank N’Furter in a production of their own?
Don’t do a Tim Curry impersonation, but do as much research as you can on the era that it was written, the characters in the show. Get online and see as many versions of the show as you can find and let it all influence you, pick the bones out of it and then make it your own. I think that would be my advice. And remember it’s outrageous fun! Just go for it.
Now that Frank N’ Furter is ticked off, what big role would you like to play next?
I’ve always wanted to do the role of P.T. Barnum in a musical version of The Greatest Showman that Hugh Jackman did. I don’t know if anyone is doing it, but if anyone is out there thinking about it I want to do it!
Rocky Horror is on in Melbourne from 12 July at Her Majesty’s Theatre. For tickets, show times and accessibility information, head to the Rocky Horror website.