"Return to the Forbidden Planet is a desecration, recreation, or consecration, depending on whom you ask,” according to Theatre Week when the show opened in New York in 1991 at the Variety Arts Theater. Like its forebear The Rocky Horror Show, some fell in love with it, some were angered by it and some were just baffled. This was a show that combined three elements that were unlikely to meld: classic rock and roll, early science fiction movies, and Shakespeare’s masterful final play, The Tempest. Yet somehow it all worked. In hindsight we can see that Return to the Forbidden Planet, which trades in the sly, self-referential humor that musical theatre came to embrace in the 1990s, resembles other quirky shows that came after it, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Urinetown, and Spelling Bee, but also reaches back to the largely subliminal social commentary of Rocky Horror, Grease, and the original "Star Trek." This was a show that spoke to the end of the Cold War and speaks to us again today in a new era of a global anxiety.
While wacky and chaotic on the surface, the show cannily incorporates the serious themes of its sources — the idea of expanding human consciousness with new technology that unknowingly releases the dangerous genie of the human id, testing the limits of absolute power. Prospero’s use of telegenesis stands in, metaphorically, for the creation of blogs, viral videos, discussion groups, etc., modes of communication which will change the world as much as electricity and television have. Through the internet and all its various applications, we are developing many new technologies that expand the boundaries of human consciousness. Imagine what technology will look like in twenty-five years and Prospero’s Id Monster suddenly seems a bit less far-fetched. The adaptations from Shakespeare to sci-fi in the film, Forbidden Planet (1956), and then in Bob Carlton’s musical, have as their background the notion of a final frontier: The New World in The Tempest (as the first accounts of the New World were being published in England) and Outer Space in Forbidden Planet. They are adventure stories about the physical world that become adventures in the psychological world.
The Tempest uses the metaphor of a storm to represent the upheaval and sweeping changes the real world was suffering and it is used again in the film to play on the fears of a 1950s sci-fi audience during the Cold War. And now the metaphor is transformed again, turning the shaking and rattling of rock and roll into a comic sci-fi meteor storm for a postmodern, 21st century musical theatre audience. The rock musical returns Shakespeare’s story to its meta-theatrical roots, commenting on itself and its creative antecedents. And ultimately, it’s perhaps a subversive (and joyful) suggestion that the poetry of good rock and roll is worthy of the poetry of Shakespeare -- both are eloquent, truthful expressions of human emotion and psychology, designed to tell great stories to a wide, popular audience. It’s a philosophy that makes Shakespeare less foreboding and rock and roll less trivial.
From Inside Return to the Forbidden Planet by Scott Miller, Artistic Director, New Line Theatre
Prepare to blast off with this musical space odyssey of Shakespearean proportions. Exploding with over thirty cosmic hits of classic rock-n-roll, and playfully based on The Tempest and the cinematic sci-fi classic, this fun-filled musical rockets Shakespeare’s beloved characters from stage to space as Captain Tempest crash lands on the planet D’Illyria, inhabited only by the mad scientist Doctor Prospero, his daughter Miranda, and their trusty robot Ariel.
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