NICOLE SERRATORE: From the rapturous reception Head Over Heels got from fans, I expected to fall for it too. This jukebox musical based on the catalog of The Go-Go’s (with added numbers from Belinda Carlisle’s solo career) loosely adapts the 16th century work of Arcadia by Philip Sidney into a modern fable of inclusivity with an embrace of non-binary characters, same sex couples, and a recognition of the loves who may exist right in front of our faces.
I thought a musical that was centering an inclusive message would be really appealing to me. But it turns out I need my message musicals to also have some structure and substance behind their message. I found the whole endeavor, while mostly socially progressive, incredibly boring and unfunny. I definitely felt like Grumplestiltsken at the show as everyone around me was having a great time but I quickly realized this obvious humor was not for me.
While I recognize the importance of queer representation in the musical and what it’s attempting to do, there was a niggling part of me that felt like they used lesbianism as a punchline and joke. I could not shake that in the end. What was your experience of the show?
LOREN NOVECK: I think this show is a terrible idea. The fact that it’s executed with almost enough verve and charm to sell it doesn’t quite make up for the unholy mishmash of reorchestrated 80s pop, 16th century poetry, Monty-Python-esque medieval-lite characters, and joyfully polymorphous sex. The minute I realized that they were contorting “the beat” into some metaphysical, philosophical, nonsensical idea just so they could lead off with the biggest hit on the soundtrack and claim a tenuous connection to the plot, the show lost a lot of suspension-of-disbelief goodwill that it never entirely got back for me.
Having said that, while at intermission I was sitting in the balcony wondering what I was missing, since everyone else in the audience was raucously enjoying themselves, by the final curtain, I had been somewhat won over to the cheery sex-positivity, to the show’s insistence on slicing and dicing romantic and sexual partnerships in just about every possible combination other than “naive female ingenue + hunky male with money/status/power.”
While I can’t say a lot for the depth of any of the characters, it’s kind of great to see a show where the romantic couplings not only include multiple sexualities, genders, classes (though the niggling thing that bothered me was the white princess/black handmaid pair that turns into a romance) and races, but are all blatantly sexually charged. I really appreciated, too, that Pamela, the most beautiful and desirable princess in the land, is a woman of stature and size, not a sylph.
I liked that the choreography (which I thought was really good in general) subtly featured same-sex duets. I loved that the pit orchestra, like the Go-Go’s, is a five-woman ensemble (their reveal for the curtain call, in fact, was the point at which I accepted that my opinion had tipped over from a “ugh” to a “well, maybe.”
NICOLE: It’s strange how each of their “inclusive” efforts rubbed me the wrong way. I’m bothered by them hiding the great all-female band until the curtain call. Maybe I’m still holding out hope for an unlikely Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour transfer where the all-female band is front and center the whole time.
KEV: I wasn’t familiar with the poem the story is based on. I had no idea that the book was in iambic pentameter. I was nearly entirely unfamiliar with the music of The Go-Go’s. And yet, from the moment the curtain rose on the opening tableau of the Arcadians around their table, I was sold. The show’s immediate and relentless queerness felt like a prayer answered. A responsorial psalm like in Mass. I’d been looking and hoping for a new show to fill the void SpongeBob’s departure from Broadway would leave in its glorious stead.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about escapism in theatre recently. Two years ago, when we still felt some semblance of hope, I would rail against escapist spectacles, calling them useless and dumb. Nowadays, two years into the new Dark Age, I see their value. I wholly believe shows like SpongeBob, Head Over Heels, and Twelfth Night in the Park and to some extent Margaritaville (which I famously railed against in this magazine) have some sort of value. They realize exactly what they are – restorative tonics for a dying world – and revel in that self-awareness until the final curtain falls.
Other shows try to revel in that same self-awareness (I’m looking at you, Pretty Woman and Gettin’ the Band Back Together) but because they entirely lack heart or any hint of tongue-in-cheek sensibility, they fail in allowing the audience to escape for 2 hours. This is where Head Over Heels succeeds for me. It allowed me to leave an America where I constantly feel afraid as a queer person and let me feel the beat of a world that, while ephemeral, loved me back.
NICOLE: I’m not convinced Pretty Woman (which I railed against in these digital pages) has any self-awareness but I take your point. While Head Over Heels attempted to have heart it felt very much like a construct to me. I felt the commoditization of inclusivity acutely.
LOREN: Nicole, I think your point on the commoditization of inclusivity is very well taken, though I also can’t deny the joy/hunger/embrace by literally everyone in the audience around me. Every Broadway show is selling something, ultimately, and I’m more eager to buy the thing this one is selling.
I also wonder whether there really is a generational thing here–that those of us who grew up on The Go-Go’s can’t help but find these orchestrations a kind of saccharine, cynical attempt to do a Big Chill-sort of thing for Gen X, whereas if you don’t know the music, it just seems like another pop musical? Like, I went in being able to predict with a pretty high degree of confidence not just which songs would be in it but which would be the act breaks. I definitely think that added a layer of eye-roll for me.
And yet…and yet. As I said, I did find myself somewhat charmed by the end. Maybe because the cheerfulness and the silliness wore me down. Maybe because even shallow lip service to an upbeat message about the panoply of sexual and gender identities, and a completely unfazed ability for everyone involved to just…shrug and adjust their expectations about other peoples’s identities and romantic choices, seems, right now, like a bit of progress.
NICOLE: I thought Elisabeth Vincentelli’s reaction in the Times’s discussion of jukebox musicals was interesting in contrast to your feelings about how the Go-Go’s music was used, Loren. She said: “It represents an ambitious way to not just use a catalog of songs, but use it to reframe a band: from bubble gum pop wonders to ahead-of-their-time advocates of feminist agency and sexual freedom. In that sense, a jukebox musical works on two levels: the show’s own agenda and the band’s legacy.”
I have not seen a lot of jukebox musicals. I’m a pop music Neanderthal. I just never got into music when I was a teen and still find myself playing catch-up. I wonder how much of this was a miss for me because the music also didn’t provide that extra layer of familiarity or tasty, satisfying musical nostalgia noms. I do applaud them for trying to go a very different route and not going with the hagiographic biopic like everyone else. Though honestly, after thinking about a female band from this era, it has made me want a musical version of the film, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. It’s got more than enough plot, feminist themes, and the backdrop for early-80s post-punk music.
LOREN: I feel like calling The Go-Go’s bubble gum pop is missing a lot about the post-punk early new wave American music scene. They were popular, sure, but I think the show trivializes more than raises the significance of that band. (And if one was going to channel the spirit of my serious music geek friends, one would argue that including Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits is also a downgrade of the musical legacy.) And yes on The Fabulous Stains. Sign me up!
KEV: I find that biographical jukebox musicals – with one exception – are all painfully self-serious. But On Your Feet is one of my favorite musicals ever because it understood (RIP!) that for a jukebox musical to truly succeed, its creators and performers need to understand that the audience is there for a good time, not for a Pulitzer-winning script. It’s about the music and it’s about the sex appeal and it’s about making sure the audience is having a BLAST.
NICOLE: I don’t know what the magic formula is for jukebox musicals but lord god let’s not give up on aspiring to make the book of the musical work. I have to believe an audience can have fun AND someone can make art.
KEV: As soon as On Your Feet began I was taken and in love and in a committed relationship with the show. When shows are aware of their own ridiculousness it allows the audience to lean in on the joke a bit and to enjoy the music. Gloria Estefan getting hit by a truck is simultaneously the most brilliant moment of theatre I have ever seen and the most absurd moment and its brilliance only comes from the previous hour and 45 minutes of reveling in its own self-aware absurdity.
I think it’s slightly different when it comes to Head Over Heels because it’s not biographical, but it feels as though it’s in the same vein – the same vein being a cast of hotties aware of how crazy the show they’re doing is, gyrating around the stage making the gays in the audience weak in the knees were they to be standing up. Here the music functions differently, and I do maintain that it worked for me, as a playwright. I love taking disparate elements and forcing them together to see what happens. Perhaps my lack of familiarity with The Go-Go’s is why I felt it worked so well, I had no idea what was coming next, and was constantly surprised by the music!
NICOLE: There can be enjoyable froth and smart pastiche and sometimes that can happen in the same show. For me this show failed on both fronts. I never warmed to it’s shallow characters and never got swept away by its shoehorned musical numbers. I just found the creative elements so flimsy to begin with that the juxtaposition of them got weaker and not more resonant for me.
LOREN: My eye-rolling never quite recovered from the jamming together of “the beat” and “the governing ethos of a Renaissance nation-state” and wrenching the plot to make “Vacation” literal. Conversely, something like the deep irony of throwing “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” into what’s essentially an underground–like, a cave–sex club seemed to me a more successful synchrony. Also a much bubble-gummier song. See my earlier objections to lumping in Carlisle’s solo work.
NICOLE: Of the upcoming jukebox musicals, I am eagerly waiting for the Air Supply musical, All Out of Love, which premiered in the Philippines. They were the only band I listened to as a teen and maybe the nostalgia mixed with the ridiculousness of it will be a winning combo for me. But they are gonna need to lean waaaaaay the fuck in on self-awareness.