New production is outrageous, even for New Line
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2009 - "Catalog musicals" (or "jukebox musicals," as they're sometimes called), the shows that build a new (often creaky) story around existing pop songs, have gotten a bad name. That's largely because most of them are really awful, like Leader of the Pack, The Boy from Oz, Good Vibrations, and the current Rock of Ages. Luckily the Tony-winning Jersey Boys redeemed this subgenre to some extent, proving that these shows can be intelligent and well written, but the stigma remains.
And that may be why it took the gang at New Line Theatre such a long time to discover the oddest - but coolest - of the catalog musicals, Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet. I had read about it and dismissed it as just another piece of crap.
Then on a whim I bought the cast album, a live recording of the show in London, and I realized there was something far more interesting going on in this one. I found the script and read it and was totally surprised by its intelligence and its laugh-out-loud comedy. I checked with the Post-Dispatch and found that no one had ever produced the show in St. Louis.
So, we leapt at the chance.
And though New Line Theatre has made a name for itself over the past 17 years for producing odd, alternative, often outrageous musicals, this is clearly one of the weirdest shows we've tackled yet. And it has a cult following literally around the world.
What's so weird about it?
Well, it's based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and also on the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which was itself also based on The Tempest. It's set entirely on board a space ship, though it sees the future comically through the eyes of the overtly sexist Cold War 1950s. The dialogue scavenges multiple Shakespeare plays, and its score is chock full of classic rock and roll, including "Wipe Out," "Born to Be Wild," "Good Vibrations," "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "Great Balls of Fire" (in this case describing a meteor shower!) and quite a few others.
The story takes us on a routine survey flight under the command of Captain Tempest and his crew, as their spaceship is drawn mysteriously to the planet D'Illyria where rogue scientist Doctor Prospero and his lovely daughter Miranda are marooned, along with Prospero's trusty robot, Ariel. Oh yeah, and an Id Monster. Rock and roll ensues.
It's rowdy and it's frequently ridiculous, but it's also really smart, and under the surface it deals with the problem of technology advancing faster than our ability to control it, certainly a relevant topic in 2009. It deals with the extension of human consciousness through new technology, drawing obvious parallels today to the internet, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter, BlackBerry, iPhone and so many other new applications and platforms. With all this power to literally project our consciousness -- our ideas, thoughts, emotions -- around the globe with the click of a mouse, we also find unexpected dangers lurking.
But trust me, when the robot Ariel (on roller skates, no less) sings "Who's Sorry Now?" you're apt to forget those serious themes. This show had us laughing all through rehearsals and will - we hope - do the same for you. We like to think of it as a cross between Rocky Horror and classic Star Trek, maybe with a dash of Bat Boy thrown in ...
And just wait for the Polarity Reversal drill!
Scott Miller is artistic director of New Line Theatre and the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre.