Return to the Forbidden Planet

Today's my birthday. But that's not the reason I'm happy. The real reason is that after eight agonizing weeks of not being in rehearsal or performance, I'm finally going back into rehearsal Monday, this time for Shakespeare's forgotten rock and roll masterpiece, the deliciously bizarre Return to the Forbidden Planet.

This is a show I had heard about for years, but it always sounded like a silly, shallow catalog musical to me. It first opened in London in the late 1980s and was a surprise hit, winning the Olivier Award (their version of the Tonys) for Best Musical, beating out Miss Saigon. It's (really loosely) based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and on the 1956 film Forbidden Planet (which itself was also based on The Tempest). But what the show's creator Bob Carlton did with the material was pure wacky genius -- he based his musical on both sources, using character names from both, using some dialogue from the original Shakespeare, and around that built a show with fake Shakespearean dialogue (we call it Fakespeare), a 1950s sci-fi acting style, and a classic rock and roll score.

For no particular reason I can remember, I got hold of the London cast album last year and listened to it for the first time. Luckily, it's a live album, so not only can you hear the hilarious dialogue leading into many of the songs, but you can also hear the audience's laughs and cheers. I realized that there was much more there there than I had originally thought. Uncharacteristically, I had judged this weird show without even hearing or reading it. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I realized this might be a show we'd want to do. So I got hold of the script. And I just couldn't stop laughing. It's that funny. I sat alone in my living room reading it and repeatedly laughing out loud. But I also discovered that the show is really, really smart, retaining the serious themes of the two earlier versions, but also trading in the sly self-referential humor that musical theatre embraced so fully in the 1990s and still today. Return to the Forbidden Planet fits in quite nicely next to other quirky shows that came after it, like Hedwig, Urinetown, and High Fidelity, but also reaching back to the mostly subliminal social commentary of The Rocky Horror Show, Grease, and the original Star Trek.

(Hey, maybe we need a rock and roll Star Trek musical next...!)

Just like its precursors, Return to the Forbidden Planet is still about a central theme -- the idea of expanding human consciousness with technology (or Jedi-like magic in the original), unknowingly releasing the dangerous power of the human id, and thereby butting up against that timeless and universal truth, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There is serious stuff at the core of this show, but it's easy to ignore that part if you're so inclined. As the editors of Mother Jones magazine once wrote in an anniversary issue, "Better to give us thanks for knowing the importance of being un-earnest, of taking undignified chances, for having the courage to risk all, risk being wrong, risk looking foolish. If there is in fact any secret at all to our amazing longevity, that's surely near the heart of it: knowing how to act the fool like the future depends on it."

We've done that before and Lord knows we can do it again. It's sort of becoming our specialty.

Long Live the Musical!