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background and analysis by Scott Miller

Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears…

The Tempest (Act III, Scene ii)

When it came to New York, Theatre Week wrote, "Return to the Forbidden Planet is either a desecration, recreation, or consecration, depending on whom you ask." Like its forebear The Rocky Horror Show, some fell in love with it, some were angered by it, and some were baffled by it. This was a show that combined three elements seemingly least likely to meld: classic rock and roll, early science fiction movies, and Shakespeare’s masterful final play, The Tempest. Yet somehow it all worked. Theatre critic Judith Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the show works on three levels: literary, pop-cultural, and psychological. But like Rocky Horror, the American critics didn’t get it, and a lengthy London run was followed by an aborted run off Broadway, cut short by needlessly negative reviews.

Yes, the show is wacky and chaotic on the surface, but it is also really smart, retaining the serious themes of its earlier versions, Just like the film and the Shakespeare play, Return to the Forbidden Planet is still about the idea of expanding human consciousness with technology (or Jedi-like magic in the original play), 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. Today, more than ever in our past, we are developing many new technologies that literally expand the boundaries and power of human consciousness, through the internet (and its various applications, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, and so many others), the iPhone, the Blackberry, and more devices coming every day. Prospero’s use of telegenesis is a clear and unambiguous metaphor for the creation of blogs, viral videos, discussion groups, etc. Not only does human consciousness now extend beyond our physical selves, it extends across the globe. A blogger’s voice, his thoughts and ideas, are instantly materialized in every corner of the planet, and we’re getting closer and closer to those ideas being instantly translated into any language, so that even language is no longer a barrier. We’ve only begun to understand what this revolution means. It will change the world as much as electricity and television have. Moore’s Law says that the microchip doubles in capacity every eighteen months (this pattern has held since 1958). With that in mind, imagine what technology will look like in twenty-five years, and Prospero’s Id Monster suddenly seems a bit less ridiculous.

And there’s an even deeper connection here. Every new communications technology is used early on – usually before it becomes mainstream – for pornography, the ultimate modern expression of the human Id. The printing press was used early on for pornographic images and text, and early experiments with photography, film and videotape all included pornography. One of the first uses for the internet was what is now commonly called cyber-sex on communal "bulletin boards" that predated the web. Anyone who has tried to prevent new technologies from being used for sexual purposes has failed. One theory for the victory of VHS videotape over the Beta format is that the creators of Beta refused to let their format be used for pornography. And some experts believe that AOL triumphed over Prodigy early on because of Prodigy's refusal to allow sexually oriented chat rooms. Today, pornography is the biggest business on the internet. Perhaps this is the real Id Monster.

But this musical also trades in the sly, self-referential humor that musical theatre came to embrace in the 1990s and still today. In hindsight we can see that Return to the Forbidden Planet fits in quite nicely next to 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 its times, the end of the Cold War, but it speaks to us again today in this new era of a "War on Terror." The show’s creator Bob Carlton seems to believe in a philosophy once articulated by the editors of Mother Jones magazine 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."

The translation from Shakespeare to sci-fi (first by the film, then by Carlton) is surprisingly smart (and in fact, all three versions take place pretty much in real time). Both versions have as their background their period’s final frontier: the New World in The Tempest (Shakespeare wrote this just as the first accounts of the New World were being published in England) and Outer Space in Forbidden Planet. They are adventure stories as much as anything else, adventures in the physical world that reveal adventures in the psychological world. Like many of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest uses the metaphor of a storm to represent the upheaval and sweeping changes the real world was suffering – just as early rock and roll did. Storms have a been literary device as far back as human storytelling, throughout the Christian Bible and other religious texts. This metaphor was transformed for a 1950s sci-fi audience (the U.S. Civil Defense Administration of the 1950s produced an endless stream of scare films to terrify Americans into conformity), and now it is transformed again, into a comic sci-fi meteor storm (far more dangerous than a storm at sea), for a more cynical, postmodern, 21st century musical theatre audience. Surprisingly, the rock musical returns Shakespeare’s story to its meta-theatrical roots, commenting on itself and its creators just as Shakespeare’s play did.

Just as the film Forbidden Planet was released in the thick of the Cold War, Return to the Forbidden Planet opened right at the end of the Cold War, allowing us to laugh at our earlier paranoia but also to see new dangers lurking down the road. Back then we were afraid of the Commies; today we’re scared of everyone.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll

But why impose rock and roll on Shakespeare’s classic story? Because early rock and roll is the language of teenage emotion and sex; it is the expression of pure id, pure primal instinct. Not only does the story deal explicitly with the id (in the original, as the less-than-human Caliban; in the sci-fi versions, as the non-human Id Monster), but it also deals with Miranda’s sexual, emotional, and romantic awakening. Miranda is only fifteen – she is exactly the age that rock and roll targeted in the 1950s, the age at which she "becomes a woman" in many ways. Rock and roll was the first art form to honestly articulate the feelings, fears, and pain of being a teenager. Rock and roll took teenagers seriously. Since a major part of this story is a teenager discovering love and sex for the first time, rock and roll seems particularly appropriate. Miranda is ready for self-realization (both emotional and sexual), but she needs her Other Half (Capt. Tempest) in order to do that; she can’t do it with only her father and a robot. And unlike her father, she does not have to go through an ordeal in order to achieve this awakening because she has not sinned. And we can’t forget that The Tempest seems to be uniquely suited for musical adaptation. According to The Friendly Shakespeare, there are thirty operas based on the play.

The musical works because the surprisingly artful fake Shakespearean dialogue (the Fakespeare) that Bob Carlton created and the rock lyrics he chose are both forms of poetry that can be very crude (even obscene) and populist but they can also be very poetic and emotional and subtle, and both forms were consciously designed to appeal to the masses. Likewise the inherent artificiality of Shakespeare’s language nicely matches the inherent artificiality of the act of breaking into song in a musical; both forms are exaggerated and idealized kinds of storytelling. Shakespeare was writing for mainstream audiences as much as Brian Wilson or the great musical comedy writers were, and linking these forms was Carlton’s way of giving us an unexpected glimpse into what Shakespeare’s work was to his time. Shakespeare never meant his plays to be only for the educated and cultured; they were for everybody, exactly like rock and roll and musical comedy.

In discussing the Shakespeare play, Loreto Todd writes in The Tempest: York Notes Advanced:

If I read it right, this is an example of how a great poet should write allegory – not embodying metaphysical abstractions, but giving us ideals abstracted from life itself, suggesting an under-meaning everywhere, forcing it upon us nowhere, tantalizing the mind with hints that imply so much and tell so little, and yet keep the attention all eye and ear with eager, if fruitless, expectation. Here the leading characters are not merely typical but symbolical – that is, they do not illustrate a class of persons, they belong to universal Nature.

And that "under-meaning" in Shakespeare is similarly found in early rock and roll, an art form almost entirely about sex, but unable in the 1950s and early 1960s to say so outright. "The Shoop Shoop Song" is about the difference between idealized romantic love and physical, carnal love; that it talks around that subject rather than addressing it head-on is an artifact of a more repressed time. But that also marries it beautifully to The Tempest, a story that works almost entirely on a subtextual, psychological level.

St. Louis critic Paul Friswold, of The Riverfront Times, wrote about New Line Theatre’s 2009 production, making particular note of...

…Carlton’s mind-blowing use of form to make his ultimate point. Blending the ephemeral, fleeting qualities of pop songs with the timeless universality of Shakespeare’s work is a stroke of genius; one element is copyrighted and protected (for a while) as a moneymaker for the artist, while the other is public domain, free to all to enjoy and perform. Prospero’s telegenesis subverts the very act of creation: The artist has no control over what he creates, despite Prospero’s intentions for his creation. It is this killer idea that strikes like lightning during Prospero’s reprise of "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," all of the elements warping together in the lyrics, Shakespeare's character, and [Zachary Allen] Farmer's performance. It’s a dangerous and wild thing, and it destroys Prospero. Shakespeare himself called it magic, we call it technology, but both Shakespeare and Carlton grasped the underlying truth, that no artist has control of anything the artist has made once it leaves his/her head and enters the world. The audience for any art subverts the work to their own ends. Both writers were smart enough to couch this massive idea in the vernacular of the times, "magic" and "technology," and Carlton was intelligent enough to collate Shakespeare with rock & roll to show us an old truth a new way.

Notice that Carlton didn’t choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It for his rock and roll musical. He chose Shakespeare’s last solo work, one of the Will’s darkest works, and one of his most abstract, emotional stories. Carlton knew that rock and roll is not frivolous; it is the sound of rebellion, sexuality, and power. Like other art forms, it tells our stories, records our cultural history and our evolution and, unlike most other forms, it speaks for millions of young people who otherwise feel voiceless – people, perhaps, like Miranda. For famous rock and roll classics to take backseat to story – as any musical score must – that story has to be strong. So Carlton chose Shakespeare, one of the world’s greatest writers, at the peak of his powers.

Blast Off

Film director James Cameron said in a behind-the-scenes Forbidden Planet featurette that science fiction has always been about the Great Mysteries: Who are we? Are we alone? Why are we here? He sees the theme of Forbidden Planet this way: "We are the monsters. We go to the alien reaches of the universe and we confront ourselves." This is a theme explored in the Star Wars films, most notably in Luke Skywalker’s training by Yoda on Dagobah.

In 1957, a year after the film Forbidden Planet was released, a defining moment in the Cold War captivated Americans, an event that helped re-energize the science fiction genre. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made Earth satellite. At first, people celebrated the human achievement of it. But soon the news media was pointing out an unfortunate side issue, that if the Soviets had the technology to do this, that meant they also had the technology to build a long-range rocket to deliver a missile to the United States. Access to space meant access to us! And the science-run-amok genre of sci-fi films was born. Before that, science fiction was primarily a genre that discussed important contemporary issues through metaphor, a way to confront our most difficult problems in a non-threatening way. By the late 1960s, that kind of science fiction returned with Star Trek, a show set in the far future that still grappled with race, war, imperialism, and many other political and social themes of the 1960s. Star Trek even gave us television’s first inter-racial kiss. But Cold War science fiction was more primitive, more about fear, more directed at the id. Forbidden Planet straddled both those worlds and its rock musical does the same. The Id Monster made concrete the idea of technology as an extension of human consciousness, as discussed in Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking and hugely influential 1964 book Understanding Media (which in turn inspired David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome). The Id Monster stood in, both in 1956 and 1989 – for the threat of nuclear proliferation, man’s darkest imagination becoming real through technology.

It’s also important to remember that music was important in the film too. Bebe and Louis Barron’s a ground-breaking film score changed film soundtracks forever, offering up an abstract, almost avant-garde electronic soundscape that contributed mightily to the film’s mood and success. And of course, the play is one of Shakespeare’s most musical, with several songs in it. Because this story is about primal emotions, it requires music. The meteor shower, which we later discover was a physical manifestation of Prospero’s anger, is a fundamentally emotional event and is therefore dramatized in the stage musical by an instrumental piece, Wipe Out. This piece takes on extra resonance (and maybe laughs) for the majority of the audience who know the song’s title already and will connect the title to the fact that the ship is crash landing, even though the title is never mentioned. In every incarnation of this story, music is an elemental piece of the puzzle.

But there are differences in the various versions as well. The Tempest is in the category of Fantasy because the source of power is supernatural, but Return to the Forbidden Planet (and its film source) is Science Fiction because the source of power in this story is explained in scientific terms. Fantasy and Science Fiction are related (just see how they are grouped together in bookstores) because both deal in imagined worlds, and that’s why The Tempest is so easily adapted into Forbidden Planet, but at their core the two forms are separated by their core assumptions. In The Tempest, Prospero’s power comes from magic; in Return to the Forbidden Planet, Prospero’s power comes from his scientific experiments. And perhaps that difference says more about the times and the two shows’ audiences than it does about the material itself. The play’s title character, the storm at sea, becomes a meteor shower in space in both later versions, though all with the same source. Prospero’s sidekick is supernatural in the play but he’s a highly advanced robot in the film and something even closer to an android in the musical; significantly, all three versions are non-human. The uncharted island in the play becomes an uncharted planet in the film, and then changes again in the musical into the spaceship, the ultimate remote island. Again, the symbols change with the times; today, space is the final frontier, no longer the New World of Shakespeare’s time. We’ve explored all of Earth, so the story has to be set in space because it requires an unknown, untamed location in which to take place, so that our fantasies and fears have free reign to define for ourselves this undefined place.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest was probably written about 1610. It was his last play, though there is some speculation that he wrote one or two other plays with other writers after The Tempest, and one of his greatest plays. It was also one of his most musical plays and apparently his most personal, planting metaphors all over the show for his own creation process, his art, his stage magic, his actors, and even his retirement. Historians believe the play was loosely based on contemporary accounts of shipwrecks in The New World and also on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There were many stage adaptations over the years and then in 1956, MGM released the first big-budget, studio, science fiction film, Forbidden Planet, based in large part on The Tempest. With an experimental film score (dubbed "electronic tonalities" in the credits) and state-of-the-art special effects (with animation help from the Disney Studio), it was a turning point in filmed science fiction. In 1982, filmmakers Paul Mazursky and John Cassavetes made the beautiful and surprisingly faithful adaption, Tempest, resetting the story on a modern day Greek island where an architect has run away from a midlife crisis.

The musical Return to the Forbidden Planet was first seen at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and at the Bubble Theatre, making its premiere in 1983 as a late jam session featuring cast members from the Bubble Theatre. The show opened as a London fringe production in December 1984 for a limited run, then toured the UK. Part of the show’s production crew were from Rhythm Method Productions, a production company set up by the cast members both from Return to the Forbidden Planet and Bob Carlton’s other rock and roll Shakespeare musical From a Jack to a King. After the tour, the show returned to London’s West End in September 1989 for a run of 1,516 performances, becoming that theatre’s longest running show ever and winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical, beating out Miss Saigon. After that, productions opened in Australia, Norway, and then off Broadway at the Variety Arts Theatre (formerly one of Manhattan’s largest gay porn movie houses) in September 1991 where it ran only 243 performances before closing. Like other Broadway and off Broadway shows at that time, it was a victim of the Recession. Meanwhile, it has become a cult favorite, continually produced by colleges, high schools, and community groups around the world. Most recently, the show was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2008, having also played the Festival in the 1980s.

Meta-Theatre of the Absurd

Both The Tempest and Return to the Forbidden Planet dabble in meta-theatrical elements. Meta-theatre is a term tossed about with some frequency by theatre writers and yet there seems to be no real consensus on what it means. The Greek prefix meta means a level above or beyond, so for our purposes, meta-theatre means theatre that goes beyond the normal conventions of theatre – not just outside those conventions, as many shows do, but beyond them to another level of truth or reality. It is theatre that goes beyond the usual fourth-wall artifice and tells a higher truth, theatre in which surface action and meaning take a backseat to deeper, less explicit content. Meta-theatre admits its own artifice, it admits the existence of the audience, and in its more sophisticated form it uses text or images that carry one "literal" meaning within the story and another parallel "commentary" meaning outside the story, often commenting on the show or the performance itself. In this increasingly self-referential world where art is becoming more and more aware of itself as art (think Urinetown or The Colbert Report), it seems the perfect time to re-explore both these shows.

One example to illustrate the idea of meta-theatricality is the Kit Kat Klub numbers in Cabaret, which are both entertainments inside the reality of the story and also commentary that stands outside the narrative and comments on it. In a different way, the stage version of 42nd Street is also meta-theatre, not just telling a story but also commenting on the form and style of the storytelling in the 1933 film, commenting on the original’s naïveté and earnestness – and in an unexpected parallel with the film, also commenting on director Gower Champion’s death before the opening, which mirrored the serious (even mortal?) health problems of the fictional director Julian Marsh in the film.

Another example would be a common performance device used for the musical The Cradle Will Rock. For complicated reasons (which you can read about in my book Rebels with Applause), on opening night of the show in 1937 the actors were forbidden by their union to appear onstage and so they performed the show from the audience. Some theatre companies today present the show as a recreation of that famous opening night, with actors playing the show in the seats and in the aisles. By playing two levels of reality at once – the audience is now playing the audience in 1937 – and by commenting on the circumstances of performance, The Cradle Will Rock becomes textbook meta-theatre.

Both stage versions of the Tempest/Forbidden Planet story are meta-theatre as well. In The Tempest, the dialogue is full of barely veiled references to Shakespeare and his theatre. Prospero’s magic, his ability to affect people’s lives, move and materialize objects, to make people believe in non-reality, all sound a lot like the job of a playwright. The Tempest also contains several songs and a performance within the play. But it’s even more explicit in Act IV, Scene 1, when Prospero says:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Prospero is telling Ferdinand not to worry because the various illusions and deceptions are coming to an end. Just as he has been using his island as a giant outdoor stage on which to play out his various psycho-dramas, Prospero now admits to us that his island really is only a bare stage (and an outdoor one at that). As he reassures Ferdinand, he’s also telling the audience that he’s about to wrap up this story. But he’s also saying something much bigger, that no matter how high the stakes may seem, our little lives are just a blip in the great pageant of history. Kings and queens, heroes and villains, none of them last forever. He even seems to admit that his Globe Theatre, where The Tempest played, is as mortal and finite as the audience who sits in it. The idea here is not that life is pointless, but exactly the opposite, that it is all the more beautiful and precious because of its transience.

The Tempest is also the play in which Shakespeare publicly retired, and like Prospero, then returned to his place of birth. In Act V, Scene 1, Prospero says:

But this rough magic

I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.

If we hear this passage on both levels, then Shakespeare is humbly underrating his own work as "rough magic," art that is unrefined, not yet fully formed. This was Shakespeare’s last play (at least, by himself), and The Tempest was his curtain call. Norrie Epstein writes in The Friendly Shakespeare (an excellent book):

Critics sometime divide an artist’s career into three phases, and the distinction, while simplistic, is helpful. In the first, his work is unself-conscious, exuberant; in the middle, he exhibits mature prowess and control; and last stage of all, he is nostalgic, self-conscious, and so completely the master of his material that he playfully revives old themes and ideas in a new and intriguing way. Many of Shakespeare’s works reveal an intense awareness of their own artifice, none more so than The Tempest, his last, most retrospective play.

The self-referential irony and meta-theatrical devices in The Tempest find modern counterparts in the American musicals of the 1990s. Shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Spring Awakening, and [title of show] escaped the conventions of the old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein model by exposing it, showing the audience everything that was once hidden, admitting artifice, admitting illusion, and openly celebrating the bald honesty of it all. (Composer Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince explored this territory back in the 1970s, with Company and Follies, as did director-choreographer Bob Fosse, with Chicago and Pippin.) In Hedwig and Spelling Bee, the audience actually becomes part of the show, just as it did in Return to the Forbidden Planet. If theatre is about telling the truth, then doesn’t it make sense to tell the truth about the storytelling itself?

But Return to the Forbidden Planet did it before all those shows in the 1990s. It finds its roots most obviously in the wild meta-theatricality of The Rocky Horror Show and Hair, but because Forbidden Planet took Shakespeare at his most sophisticated as its source, and blended it with the incredible emotional and cultural power of rock and roll, it was its own creature.

But even beyond that, the musical uses meta-theatrical devices. There are several moments in the show in which actors talk directly to the address, most extensively when they teach the audience the emergency drill before the show, then require them to perform it at the show’s climax. When it played off Broadway, they even had a video recording of James Doohan, who played Lt. Scott on Star Trek, supplying the opening and closing monologues, implicitly naming one of the show’s influences.

Less obviously, there’s the use of so many famous rock and roll songs, some of which are less famous now then when they were first released, but many of which are still universally known rock anthems: "Good Vibrations," "Great Balls of Fire," Shake, Rattle, and Roll," and others. As with Mamma Mia many years later, the use of these famous songs comments both on the story and on Return to the Forbidden Planet itself. But the songs also somehow fold into the narrative quite organically, and the audience immediately registers – and is repeatedly amused by – just how well these pre-existing song seem almost written for this show. This is in stark contrast to later catalog musicals like Mamma Mia, All Shook Up, or Lennon, who collapsed under the lack of organic integration of the songs. The short-lived Elvis Presley catalog musical, All Shook Up, even set its story in the 1950s and borrowed its plot from Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it didn’t help. The one other exception is the brilliant Jersey Boys.

In the original production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, the meta-theatricality of using existing rock songs was even more pronounced since much of the show was staged more like a rock concert than a narrative stage show, the set looking much more like a glam rock bandstand than a spaceship’s bridge. Many critics were surprised at how emotionally engaged they still were in the story, despite the lack of traditional stage conventions. Other later productions staged the show more as a narrative theatre piece and it works both ways.

Live Long and Prospero

All three versions of this story are about the human id, the primal drives that civilization tries to control. Yet in all three stories, civilization is left far behind, so the id is left uncontrolled. Just as Shakespeare often takes his characters into the wilderness so that they can find their true selves, The Tempest and Forbidden Planet take us into the ultimate wilderness, farther from civilization than any other Shakespeare play. Perhaps the ship’s crew, living happily in the technologically advanced future, have once and for all tamed the id. (Star Trek’s Vulcans surely have – except at mating time.) But now they encounter a micro-community that is technologically even more advanced but also, perhaps due to its isolation, also more primal.

The terms id, ego, and super-ego were not created by Sigmund Freud, as many people believe, but by his translator James Strachey. Freud himself wrote of "das Es," "das Ich," and "das Über-Ich" – in other words, "the It," "the I," and the "Over-I." The It or Id describes basic, primal, human drives, sex, anger, hunger, pleasure. It is focused on selfishness and instant self-gratification, the most primitive human appetites. Other pop culture manifestations of the Id include The Incredible Hulk, Michael Meyers of the Friday the 13th movies, and even Cookie Monster. Freud believed that human personality was the product of the conflict between biological impulses and social restraints that were internalized. The Id is unconscious by definition. Freud wrote, "It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learnt from our study of the dream-work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of this is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We all approach the Id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations" (directly referenced in the song "Good Vibrations" in the show, which is a song about the sexual aspect of the id). "It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle." And from this comes Forbidden Planet’s Id Monster.

This three-way view of the mind, divided into ego, superego, and id, is paralleled in the Christian grouping of God (as ego), the Holy Spirit (as superego), and Jesus Christ (as id in his "primitive" human form); or in Star War’s Luke (ego), Obi-Wan (superego), and Darth Vader (id); and even to some extent in the Eastern view of Tao, yin, and yang. In Return to the Forbidden Planet, Dr. Prospero is the ego, Ariel his super-ego, and obviously, the Id Monster is the his id. But the real difference here from the Shakespeare play is that in Ariel is a robot, so Prospero’s superego is nonhuman (just like Captain Kirk’s superego, Mr. Spock). Dr. Prospero wants to protect his daughter from Capt. Tempest’s primal urges, his appetites, his sexuality, his id; and yet it is Prospero’s own id that ultimately threatens his daughter’s life, along with the lives of the entire crew. Gloria is not the villain in the musical, as her parallels Antonio and Stephano are in The Tempest. In the film and the musical, the villain is Prospero himself, his own id. They say that there are three basic stories that we tell: man vs. society, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself. This is the classic "man vs. himself" story.

At its heart, this story goes back further than Shakespeare, all the way back to the story of Icarus, who flew too near the sun (in other words, tried to Play God), melted his wax wings (in other words, his human limitations betrayed him), and he fell back to earth (you can’t be a god if you can die, after all). In this story, Dr. Prospero makes himself into a god, capable of creating merely by thinking it. He even creates "Man" in the form of Ariel, and then brings together Capt. Tempest and Miranda as Adam and Eve.

But it goes deeper. At its core, this is a story about the price of enlightenment, about Original Sin and the temptation to acquire forbidden knowledge (hence the title), the biting into the metaphorical apple. Of course, it’s important to remember that the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been oversimplified through the ages; the closest translation should be: "Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Not just knowledge, but the knowledge of good and evil, dark and light, yin and yang. Later, the serpent says to Eve about the tree, "God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God [or the gods], knowing good and evil." And isn’t that exactly what Dr. Prospero has done? And wasn’t he expelled from his garden – Earth – into the wilderness of space for exactly that reason? When God is throwing them out of the garden, he says, "The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil."

Dr. Prospero has created a formula that literally makes him a god and as in the Greek and Roman myths and in the Judeo-Christian Genesis story, he must be punished for this "original sin" and expelled from his Eden, from the bliss and comfort of ignorance. From a 1950s Cold War perspective, America acquired the forbidden knowledge of nuclear weapons, the power to destroy humankind, and we must pay for that knowledge of both good and evil. The first Planet of the Apes film explored the same idea.

Though it might surprise some of its fans, Return to the Forbidden Planet has at the center of its tale the biggest of all moral questions: should we restrict or block science, even when it crosses into moral gray area? In the musical, Dr. Prospero’s discovery seems to him a great step forward for humankind, an expansion and extension of human consciousness greater than any that has come before. But he doesn’t foresee the inherent downside, that he would greatly intensify the mind’s power without also greatly increasing the mind’s ability to control itself. (This is a theme further explored in the film Fiend Without a Face and the Star Trek episode "Plato’s Stepchildren.") It’s a problem illustrated by the old joke, "Don’t think about an elephant." It’s nearly impossible to do because the mind is hard to consciously control. In almost any human endeavor, increasing power without increasing control usually leads to disaster. It’s a problem we keep bumping up against as we evolve.

Decades ago, we discovered nuclear power, but we still can’t control or contain it. The world’s greatest fear today is that Iran or North Korea or, worse yet, a band of rebel terrorists, will use a nuclear bomb. We increased our power without sufficient control over it. We invented the internet, wildly expanding the reach of human consciousness, but with it came online predators, the loss of privacy, and the erosion of intellectual property rights through viral videos, fan fiction, and file sharing. Again, we increased our power but we still can’t control it (though some believe the internet should not ever be controlled). And two of the newest technologies, gene mapping and embryonic stem cell research already scare people who foresee human cloning and "designer babies." This is the real issue at the heart of Return to the Forbidden Planet, and it’s why this story remains so fascinating. Dr. Prospero believes that Knowledge is Good, but he forgets that Knowledge is often Dangerous too.

Still, in concrete terms, there really isn’t all that much plot in The Tempest or in Return to the Forbidden Planet (though the film version has more). The central action of the story appears to be the meeting and coupling of Capt. Tempest/Ferdinand and Miranda – especially in the musical, where audiences may expect a love story – but that’s not really the primary story. The usual test for drama applies here: the character who learns and grows the most is the protagonist. In this case, that’s Dr. Prospero. Not only does he learn to let go of his daughter to an adult life of love and marriage, but he also learns to let go of his own power. What changes that allows him to learn? Primarily, he learns to forgive those who have done him wrong in the past. More than any other character, Prospero is a different man at the beginning than he is at the end. The same is true to a lesser extent for Miranda who grows into womanhood before our eyes, though not necessarily for the right reasons. But the other main characters do not change in any significant way.

Interestingly, in The Tempest Prospero’s powers come from books and from his staff, which he found on the island. Likewise, in the film Forbidden Planet, Dr. Morbius’ powers come from the alien Krell technology he found when he crash landed here. But in the musical, Dr Prospero’s powers come from his own scientific knowledge. In other words, his own higher consciousness unleashed his primitive drives. Is this a 1950s-style commentary on the dangers of scientific advancement and maybe also experimentation with mind-expanding drugs like LSD? (One of Rocky Horror’s pivotal moments in the stage play also involve a drug suspiciously like LSD.) Likewise, in The Tempest, Prospero chooses to give up his powers and retire; in the two sci-fi versions, his power destroys him. In the musical, Prospero actually commits suicide in order to destroy the Id Monster. His primitive side defeats the civilized side which created it – much like in Jekyll and Hyde.

On an artistic level, some commentators have suggested that if we see Prospero as a stand-in for Shakespeare, which seems a reasonable reading of the play, then Ferdinand/Tempest may be a stand-in for John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s younger colleague who would take over writing plays for the King’s Men. And perhaps that makes Miranda into Shakespeare’s theatrical art, being passed from the care of the older man to the younger. Going even further, some read the play as an allegory for Western Europe moving forward and discarding old ideas about magic and superstition. Of course that relates nicely to the 1950s in America, when science and religion were doing fierce battle (which happened again during the George W. Bush era), and most ordinary people were deathly afraid of the advances in science (particularly the nuclear bomb) that seemed always ahead of the morality to control them. Similar issues remain today.

She’s Not There

The male characters in Return to the Forbidden Planet are all just chock full of rabid 1950s sexism, always trying to cram their women into the fifties’ most restrictive categories – either virgin or whore, nothing in between. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen illustrated in Grease, Rocky Horror, The Nervous Set, and other musicals that comment on those times. But it's extra-funny in this context because this is a 1950s view of the future, so here the future takes on the regressive social politics of the mid-20th century.

Almost right away at the beginning of the show, Captain Tempest and the Bosun talk about how much it bothers them that their new science officer is a woman. He says to the Bosun:

Yond’ woman has a mean and hungry look,

She thinks too much: Women are dangerous.

. . .

She reads much. She is a great observer,

And she looks quite through the deeds of men.

Women you see are never at hearts ease

Whilst they behold a greater than themselves

And therefore are they very dangerous.

Translated into American vernacular, you can just hear Wally Cleaver saying the same thing to the Beaver. Tempest and the science officer then face off in a singing argument, "This is a Man’s World," in which the science officer gets the best of Tempest.

Then when we meet Prospero’s daughter Miranda, we see a similar phenomenon. The entire male crew (the science officer temporarily missing) goes crazy over seeing this young women, their hormones coursing through a rousing rendition of "Good Vibrations." The sexism of the dialogue finds its mate in the (perhaps unintentional) objectification of Brian Wilson’s classic lyric. Miranda is happy to fuel those hormones until she discovers it won’t get her what she wants. Later in the show, both Miranda and the science officer Gloria transform themselves explicitly from 50s virgin to 50s whore. Though the audience may not register it consciously, the show mocks American gender roles and sexual roles as fiercely as it mocks 50s sci-fi movies, and as with Rocky Horror, the author is British looking at America’s follies from the outside, so the commentary is deadly accurate.

Go Now

One of the most interesting characters in the show is Gloria, the ship’s science officer and also Prospero’s ex-wife, who banished him into space years before. This is a character that has no parallel in the film and only a vague parallel in the Shakespeare play to Antonio and Sebastian; but though these Shakespeare characters have only selfish motivations, Gloria’s motivations are less obvious.

The text of the musical’s script only drops hints about Gloria’s motivations, those hints do add up to something by the end of the show. We know that, years ago, Gloria worked with Prospero in his lab, so she knows about telegenesis, and since he is a scientist herself, she probably also has an idea of how that power might grow and how destructive it could become. And she also knows her own daughter was accidentally sent into space with her husband. This is Gloria’s first assignment on board this spaceship, so perhaps she has taken this assignment precisely because she knows the ship is going in the same direction she sent Prospero. Perhaps her whole agenda here is to find Prospero (and Miranda), at least to find out what happened to him, to see if his powers have increased, and if possible to save her family, maybe partly out of guilt over what she did to them. She has a "sin" here that needs redeeming as much as Prospero does.

It’s also fair to assume that Gloria does know that the freak meteor storm at the beginning may be coming from Prospero, which tells her that she’s close to finding him, and which is why she takes off in the shuttlecraft. She probably has an educated guess as to the extent of his power, and she knows that his powers may be extensive enough to cause the crazy things that are happening in the first ten minutes of the story.

Later on, she realizes he’s gone way too far, his powers are both extensive and out of control, so the only possible resolution to this problem is for him to kill himself. As with most of the songs in the show, all this beautifully sets up the song "Go Now," in which Gloria and Prospero both realize his death is the only way to make the universe safe again. She still loves him even though she hates the monster he has become. Strangely, enough the lyric to "Go Now" seems to come so organically out of this character and this situation:

How many times do I have to tell you,

Darling, darling,

I’m still in love with you now?

We’ve already said so long;

I don’t want to see you go .

But oh, you better go now,

Go now, go now, go now.

Don’t you even try

Telling me you didn’t really want it

To end this way.

‘Cause darling, darling, can’t you see

I want you to stay?

 In the middle of what is mostly a wacky comedy, Carlton injects this very sad, tragic storyline, much as Shakespeare himself often did in his comedies (in Twelfth Night, for example). And all this explains why Gloria is so testy at the beginning with Tempest and the Bosun, and why she makes the deal with Cookie. Her only goal is to save her family, a struggle that is made concrete by the Id Monster’s attack on her. And finally, this story can only end when the family is saved, through Prospero’s final selfless act and the coupling of her daughter with Tempest. By the end of the show, one family has been broken, but a new family – the ship’s crew – has accepted Miranda into its bosom. And as with the ends of almost all Shakespeare comedies, a marriage is implied.

Two Beeps or Not Two Beeps

Part of the humor in Return to the Forbidden Planet lies in just how nimbly its three incompatible source elements – 1950s sci-fi, Shakespeare, and classic rock and roll – are fused into one organic whole. On the London cast album, recorded live, you can hear the audience laughing at how smoothly Shakespearean dialogue melts into an unexpected rock and roll lyric. It’s so clear that creator Bob Carlton knows his Shakespeare, understands its music, and understands in a deep way the play’s characters and relationships. There’s also the playful way Carlton pillages the Shakespeare library throughout Forbidden Planet’s dialogue, dropping in monologues from King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Julius Caesar, as well as comically mangled versions of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes.

Part of the appeal of the musical is that it provides a nonthreatening entry into Shakespeare for the uninitiated. It’s Shakespeare with training wheels, intelligent and respectful of the source play but offered up with a spoonful of sugar. And more than that, it’s the kind of show Shakespeare would write, a wacky comedy about complicated love, sprinkled with social commentary, moments of real emotion, even mistaken identity, and lots of music. The musical also shares with many of Shakespeare’s plays an outsider’s perspective of another country. Shakespeare wrote about Scotland in Macbeth, Denmark in Hamlet, Italy in many of his plays, and other places; just as Bob Carlton writes quite insightfully about America at mid-century with Return to the Forbidden Planet, a view that reveals as much about right now as it does about the less evolved 1950s.

It also shows a respect for rock and roll that many of its detractors miss. The reason teenagers first embraced early rock and roll so fervently is that it took them seriously, their love, their pain, their isolation. It validated them. Likewise, laying rock and roll classics alongside Shakespeare (even in this largely fake form) validates the poetry and artistry of these great songs. Sitting next to Shakespeare, the intricate complexity of Brian Wilson’s "Good Vibrations" becomes more apparent, and its musical sophistication meshes nicely with the iambic pentameter. The fire of "She’s Not There" matches the fire of the dialogue. The powerful emotion of "Go Now" folds beautifully into the emotion of the surrounding text.

This is a wacky comedy first and foremost, designed to entertain. But it’s also a very smart, very original companion piece and tribute to Shakespeare’s play and to the 1956 film. And maybe most subversive of all, it’s a conscious statement that the poetry of good rock and roll is worthy of the poetry of Shakespeare, both eloquent, truthful expressions of human emotion and psychology, both popular in their time and still loved today, and both designed to tell great stories to the widest audience possible. It’s a philosophy that makes Shakespeare less foreboding and rock and roll less trivialized.

There is a growing controversy, in this age of quickly advancing technology, over the ideas of copyright and authorship, the owning of ideas and of art, the valuing of art in terms of money. The ultra-democratic universe of the internet has changed the rules, and many artists are arguing that they should not be forbidden from making new works of art using other people’s works of art as material. Bob Carlton was ahead of his time. He built a highly original and apparently very personal piece of art using other people’s art, and the result was something genuinely new and interesting – not like the mindless catalog musicals that followed. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a new path for artists to follow and if the idea of ownership of art begins to change.


Copyright 2008. From Scott Miller's upcoming though untitled book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.