‘Rocketman’ is the 2019 Paramount Pictures biopic musical that depicts a fantasy recreation of the life of Sir. Elton John. The film is an insight into the rollercoaster of the artist’s rise to stardom in the Rock and Roll world, spanning from a 6 year old Reggie Dwight in 1950s Pinner, to Elton Hercules John in 1980s Cannes. I’ve always loved Elton John and all that he stands for, with his activism and honesty-and the utter flamboyancy of his character that is portrayed in the film really spoke to me as a project that could be fun to tackle and recreate in my own way.
With that in mind, I came up with a performance concept using the plot of the biopic but re-worked for the stage as an outrageous, adult only, night at the theatre.
Using the same chronology of life events portrayed in the film, my production would follow the same rough sequence of events, however would really tap into the humour of the film and have an all-round more light hearted approach to the life story- tackling the darker events of Elton’s life with a dark sense of humour and wit. Ultimately I want the stage production to be a flamboyant, immersive and feel good experience that captures the excess and colour of Elton John through the decades.
The main themes of the production are ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’, excess, superstardom, rehabilitation and the inner workings of showbiz. In many ways the complexities of the story is what made the film so heartbreakingly relatable yet so joyous to watch. This is something I want to carry through to my stage adaptation. As it is a biographical fantasy, the plot is full of twists and turns to reflect the nature of life, yet there is nothing mundane about it. The story is told through the perspective of Elton himself, thus, the creative license is very much present through some of the more fantastical scenes, as you get a real sense of the creativity of the man who is retelling his own story. This is a major theme that I want to bring to the stage adaptation- a colourful, creative view of a flamboyant and complex life.
To achieve this sense of narrative, I have come up with a character that will multirole throughout the production as comical minor roles, whilst also being the narrator and host of the show. This will be a drag queen character that will offer humorous insights into the action playing on stage, in the style of a well-timed commentary that will act as sort of ‘in-jokes’ between her and the audience, that builds up a dialogue that bridges the gap between characters and audience members. The way this would work would be that in the opening scene of Elton storming, in full stage costume, into a group therapy session at a rehabilitation center, the drag queen will actually be the therapist leading the session- the character who asks the question “what were you like as a child Elton?”, which is the line that sets the plot into motion as Elton begins telling the story of his life. Initially with her back to the audience, she will then reveal herself in full drag as the scene explodes into ‘The Bitch is Back’ number, where we first meet Elton as a child.
Whilst my ‘Buttons’ in drag character hosts the show and steers the audiences’ reaction to the narrative, of course the biggest driving force of the action is the character of Elton. His experiences, character development, people he loves, drugs he takes, places he travels and songs he writes. In many ways the real thing that propels the action is his rise to fame and success as a performer and all that comes with that. As the pitfalls of fame and the flaws in his character are what makes the story such a richly honest one, as it gives an insight into the behind the scenes experiences of a rock and roll star of the 70s.
My main objection is to create a performance concept that uses the material from the film with my own spin, to make a stage show that gives an all-encompassing experience for the audience. I want the audience to feel as though they are a part of the action, as if they have been swept up in the madness of Elton’s outrageous life, and are a part of the extraordinary journey. I want the experience to feel like a party, or a good night out, with audience participation, sing and dance along scenes, cast members joining the audience and visa-versa.
Ideally the production will be a combination of musical theatre and rock and roll, with elements of comedy and drag. The all-round performance model will be not dissimilar to the audience experience of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, the stage production of which has been a huge inspiration for this concept. The way that the audience is involved in the show, as well as the adult themes and hilarity of the acting, singing and dancing, is very much a production style that I think would mesh brilliantly with ‘Rocketman’. I also really want to play on the parody elements that are hinted at through the film, particularly when it comes to the wat the different decades of Elton’s life are portrayed visually through costume and characterisations of those around him; For example the character of Sheila Dwight (Elton’s Mother) as an aspirational lady of leisure, when in reality she is a 50’s housewife on a council estate, trapped in a miserable marriage. There are many subtle comical observations of social demographics through the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s that are present in the film, that I would really like to build on and exaggerate for comedic effect. Perhaps a good reference for this style of parody theatre could be productions such as ‘Abigail’s Party’ which is a comical 70s pastiche.
Whilst the production itself would be funny, feel good and flamboyant, the conclusions to be drawn from the plot and themes of the production are that success does not always equate to happiness, and that hiding from who you truly are can be a dangerous game to play. As Elton gains huge amounts of success, he becomes less stable and more reliant on his various addictions. Similarly, as he hides his sexuality and various struggles, he becomes a very polarized person of extreme highs and lows. The deeper and darker themes of the plot will help to bring some light and shade to the whole performance, which will help to balance out the bright, colourful and more outrageous aspects of the show. However as mentioned before, these moments will be handled in such a way that they aren’t a dampener, but more of an insightful addition to a truly amazingly complex story.
As much as I want the stage show to have a real party feel to it, with audience participation- the theme of rehabilitation will be one that is a happy and uplifting ending to the evening and to the story. I want the audience to have fun, but I also do not want to undermine Elton’s sobriety and the positive impact that it has had on his life. So with that in mind, the Rocketman program will come with a flyer that has information about addiction, mental health and LBGTQ+ communities, and a directory of helplines targeting those things. I feel that this is a thoughtful way of providing help and advice without taking away from the magic of the story, as in a way, that is how the biopic handles the more serious themes too-by inserting information at the end of the film, rather than changing the tone too much throughout.
Translation of Design
“I treated him like a male showgirl”- Bob Mackie, Elton’s stage costume designer in interview. In keeping with the rock and roll party feeling of the show, I do want to stay true to this idea of Elton John being a male showgirl, as that is how his designer had intended him to look. Whilst I want to stay true to the colourful, flashy and at times bombastic costumes that are synonymous with Elton, I do want to recreate them in a new way that speaks true to my analysis of his character. I think that Julian Day did a wonderful job with the film costumes, but that being said ,I do not want to copy his work. Since this is a stage adaptation with a party atmosphere, I think there is room to push the designs to a new level of gaudy and camp to match the production concept and to ensure that the exuberance of Elton’s persona reads well at a distance too.
Not only do I want to rework some of his more iconic costumes, but I also want to show an exaggerated insight into the decades he lived through that are depicted in the plot. Again, this will be part of the kind of slightly satirical look at the respective decades which will add to the ‘campness’ and fun of the show. This will be done through careful research into the clothing of the 50s, 60s and 70s, photographs of the time and a look at the various social climates too. This research will be paired with an in depth character analysis of the people in Elton’s life who feature in the plot, to create a well thought out exaggeration of their character that is both comical and insightful into their persona and role within the narrative.
Choice, Style, Period and form
As with the true events of his life, the costumes will become more outrageous as Elton becomes less in touch with reality- the mid to late 70s being the real catalyst for the mad onstage persona of the star. The costumes will therefore reflect the period and also the state of his mind too. I will do this by taking into account the original costumes, the shapes and silhouette of the period, the stage of his career and finally, looking at ways of representing the inner dialogue of his mind through his costumes. This could be achieved through colour theory, carefully considered motifs and patterns. One thing that will be a near constant feature through all of Elton’s stage costumes will be gaudy decorations; sequins, rhinestones, bold appliques, and many, many whacky accessories. In fact I would love it if the audience could come sporting some kind of Elton inspired accessory, some funky sunglasses perhaps. This is another idea that I took from “The Rocky Horror Show’ production style, that I think would add to the audience experience and spirit of the show.
Of course the other characters will not have as much of a flamboyant wardrobe as Elton’s character, but they will each have a sort of costume vocabulary that is somewhat more pedestrian as with the film, only in my production they would be more exaggerated for the purpose of narrative and parody, so that the audience really get a grasp on who these people were- or in many cases, who they were trying to be. I almost want particular characters to read as caricatures of their personalities and of the period. For example Dick James, the slippery and self-important record label owner, well known for not being particularly pleasant, would be designed in a way that pokes fun at his character whilst also making absolutely clear where in the timeline of events he fits in (late 1960s).
Full original stage adaptation scene-by-scene breakdown available upon request.