From stand-up comic to star on Broadway

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the 1975 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, achieved legendary cult status. Midnight showings lured young people to see the camp classic set to a rock beat.

One of those young people was Lea DeLaria, who now stars in Broadway's rock musical of the same name.

"I grew up in the Midwest, in St. Louis, and let me tell you, it was revolutionary," Ms. DeLaria says laughing, seated in her narrow dressing room. "Back then, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before."

Both the movie and new musical follow the misadventures of two newlyweds who get stranded in the dark forests of Transylvania and make their way to a foreboding castle, inhabited by Frank 'N' Furter, the riotous leader of a phantom band of followers from the planet Transsexual.

The gender-bending frolic weaves in references to '30s monster movies, '50s alien invasion flicks, and '70s rock musicals. And DeLaria was chosen to play Furter's spurned lover, Eddie, and also Eddie's mad scientist uncle, Dr. Scott.

Now in her 30s, DeLaria has forged a successful career as a jazz singer and a stand-up comic, striking out as one of the first openly gay comediennes. Following some early experience singing with her musician father while she was still in high school, she headed west.

"I went to college for about a minute," she says. "I was 19, in San Francisco, and I wasn't a particularly pretty little thing," she continues. "I'm a character actor, and since there were no stories being written for people who looked like me, I started writing."

That process led to a popular comedy club act that brought her a small but loyal following. She eventually made her way to New York, where nightclub jobs paid the bills, but didn't completely satisfy her creative hunger.

After a few forays into theater, she was spotted two years ago by George C. Wolfe, artistic director of New York's Public Theater. Mr. Wolfe was mounting a revival of the 1940s musical "On the Town" and selected DeLaria for the brash taxi driver Hildy, a part that had catapulted Nancy Walker to fame in 1994.

Director Christopher Ashley also noted her talents and put her in the Off-Broadway play "Jeffrey." Ashley also offered, and DeLaria accepted, the chance to cross gender lines to play the role of "Marryin' Sam" in a revival of "Li'l Abner."

Zealous fans of the film version of "Rocky Horror" are known to attend showings dressed as their favorite characters, shouting responses and comments and even tossing objects at the screen.

Many in the audience repeat those antics here at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theater.

"The most interesting thing about this as a theater piece is that there's audience participation," DeLaria observes, "but it's also its curse.

"Two nights ago, I got very ardent with the stage-management team about people throwing things onto the stage area. The 'Dr. Scott' character is in a wheelchair. If something goes under the wheels, I'll tip over onto the floor. So we need to contain that...."

Beyond audience participation, the subject matter of the show, with its blatant innuendos and cross-dressing, has grown less shocking as the decades pass.

"It's what's happened to music, and the culture," Delaria says. "Of course, this show began its life in England, where they do Christmas pantomimes that feature guys in drag. Making fun of sex is part of life in England. Here in America, in 1970, it was hard to accept. Today, it's a whole new ballgame."

For DeLaria, the roles of "Eddie" and his uncle offered a new challenge. "I wanted these characters to be judged as men, not as a woman in drag. This is me, the actor, talking. Now, every night, I'm approached by audience members who say, 'I had no idea you were a woman!' "

The eclectic cast, which also includes former TV talk-show host Dick Cavett, rock guitarist Joan Jett, and veteran Broadway performer Daphne Rubin-Vega ("Rent"), must adapt to the ever-changing amount of audience involvement from night to night.

Despite the eight-shows-a-week Broadway schedule, DeLaria is hard at work on other projects. Her singing voice can be heard on "Like Aversion," her first CD, in the spring, and her spoken voice is part of a new animated cartoon, "The Oblongs," which premieres in January on The WB network.

"It's so funny the way life works," she concludes. "I started doing the stand-up, challenging stereotypes, and railing against them, to the horror of many people. Then, I started getting acting work, which led to 'On the Town,' and wound up where I always wanted to be as a little girl - on Broadway.

"I achieved my life's dream without losing my integrity. That's a very big thing to me."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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