If heaven is a place on Earth, The GoGo’s have found it on Broadway. Their music is the basis of the new jukebox musical Head Over Heels, now playing at the Hudson Theatre.
“They’re the most successful all-female rock band that actually performed and wrote their own songs,” director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) explains of that famous 1980s sound. Many of the group’s tunes are written into the musical, including “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s solo hit “Mad About You,” and, of course, the title track.
The story, which centers around a royal family sent on a journey by an Oracle (Peppermint) in search of its destiny, is based on Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. “I think what makes this show so unique is the combination of a classic romantic comedy mixed with these incredible Go-Go’s songs and the way it gets everyone to dance and have a good time,” Mayer describes of the beat behind the show. He spent two years getting it off the ground with choreographer Spencer Liff, orchestrator Tom Kitt, and James Magruder, who adapted the book by Jeff Whitty.
“It was only in the last few weeks we realized what the show is about,” admits Magruder. “This is a little bit of a downer, but change — or die.” Magruder helped put the show’s spoken dialogue into iambic pentameter. “It’s in blank verse, which is sort of [William] Shakespeare’s mode of communication — five stressed syllables.” The pulse of the book is set to match the pulse of The Go-Go’s, Magruder adds, which was how the idea was conceived.
Bonnie Milligan, who is making her Broadway debut in Head Over Heels, has been with the show since the first table reading. She plays Princess Pamela, the oldest of the king’s two daughters, who cannot find a suitable suitor. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” she says of the musical that touches on themes of love, gender, female empowerment, climate change, good government, and size acceptance. (Yes, it’s all in there.)
“I’m a plus-size girl, so it was refreshing to not have anything in the script at all about my size,” Milligan says of the role. The musical wasn’t written like Hairspray or Escape to Margaritaville, productions specifically cast with plus-size leads. “I’ve really been moved by the amount of young girls who didn’t think it would be possible to be in a role that wasn’t insulting in some way.”
Broadway veteran Rachel York (Disaster!) returns to her roots on stage as Queen Gynecia, the matriarch of the family, who, she describes, is the voice of reason. “This was a challenge, an interesting process, because it’s such a unique piece of art,” she says of this original, inclusive production. “We didn’t take a script from a movie, so it was a puzzle to put together. It was stressful at times. Everyone in the company held it together.” Not only does York have a romantic scene that’s covered by a sheet and good lighting, but she also busts into a mean split (“I still got it!” she exclaimed) that Liff choreographed for her.
Liff has also added voguing and tutting into the choreography, keeping the music’s time period in mind. “Because our text is so rooted in the 1500s and our music is [of the] 1980s era, I didn’t really want the dancing to honor either one of those. I wanted the dancing to be its own piece of the puzzle.” This year, Liff is celebrating 10 seasons of putting together breathtaking routines on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, while Head Over Heels marks his fourth Broadway choreography credit.
“Hands down it’s the biggest dance show I’ve gotten to do,” Liff states as he looks back at his others, including Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Falsettos, and Spring Awakening. “My favorite part of all of this has been casting my ensemble. I think they’re the most talented, stunning, beautiful, sexy ensemble that I’ve seen in a long time — and I saw more than 600 dancers.”
“They all give such gorgeous character work,” Milligan adds.
Also in the cast, playing Pythio, is Peppermint — widely known for her role on the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race — who the show is proud to name the first transgender woman to originate a leading role on Broadway. “I am on cloud 900!” she exclaims of making her Broadway debut. “I’d be happy doing any Broadway show, but doing this Broadway show with this story is fantastic. It’s historic for me, its historic for the role, it’s possibly historic in the fact there’s a non-binary character celebrated in the show.”
“I think it’s of-the-moment — of 2018,” says Magruder. “It has a lot of say about themes without hitting them over the head.”
Pictured above: Bonnie Milligan and the cast of Head Over Heels. Photo by Joan Marcus.