A Proposal For a Musical Called "Head Over Heels"
A Proposal For Head Over Heels
A MUSICAL SPUN FROM THE WORK OF THE GO-GO’S & SIR PHILIP SIDNEY,
FREELY ADAPTED BY JEFF WHITTY
October 12, 2012
Jukebox musicals are dangerous, which is why I find them attractive. We’ve seen weightless romps that succeeded (“Mamma Mia”/Abba), weightless romps that flopped (“Good Vibrations”/Beach Boys, “All Shook Up”/Elvis), biomusicals (“Jersey Boys”/Four Seasons), compilations (“Rock Of Ages”/various). “Mamma Mia” had the advantage of being one of the first juxebox musicals, and though its story is a little lame and the jokes fall flat one cannot deny that the creators nail the tone. The moment when the book flips from unfamiliar story to familiar music is a dangerous swerve and takes some guts. And “Mamma Mia” accomplishes that neatly, tongue partly in cheek. Even before one steps into the theater the evening promises, from the get-go (its ad campaign especially), a female-driven romp -- a night of fun. Does it deliver? Well, not exactly, but the finale is a preposterous garish love-fest that sends the audience home happy.
I’d like to do something smarter and funnier and send the audience home happy. I’m a firm believer that to manifest joy in an audience IS subversive.
The catalog of The Go-Go’s is winning and infectious and suggests a tone that I think would fall beautifully into the “romp” category. (I think a biomusical doesn’t match the catalog tonally -- a “Behind The Music” approach might feel heavier than the music would allow.)
The majority of the catalog’s songs are about love -- falling in love, being in love, being apart, longing -- and to work the catalog into a musical I think we need a story where the motivating factor for every storyline is, well, love.
But I don’t want to do something that’s uninteresting and bores ME as an imaginary audience member. I’m not interested in setting this show in the 2010’s or the 1980’s. I think that would feel expected, and both periods have such darkness I don’t know what world I could find where lovers would tumble into one another, cross paths, fall for the wrong person. There’s an ironic detachment in modern times that wouldn’t allow for the full-throated zest the music wants to support it.
So I kept thinking of great, fun theater stories about love, and “A Midsummer Nights Dream” kept coming to mind -- just an absolutely goofy evening, really, but when done well a pure delight. It’s still funny and human all these centuries later.
A pastoral comedy! Set in a period! Women running around in flowy dresses and men in doublets. Disguises. Spells cast, all lovers’ dreams put in a blender and set aright at the end.
I don’t want to use “Midsummer.” But that KIND of show makes sense to me. But one might ask:
What does this have to do with The Go-Go’s? Bear with me. Consider the musical “Spring Awakening,” which is a dark, dark period piece about 1890’s German teenagers suffering beneath the yoke of their oppressive elders. Duncan Sheik did the music and kept it in a contemporary rock vein, and through theatrical alchemy the contemporariness of the music revealed the inner lives of these poor suffering suicidal German kids. It worked.
My thought is to use the Go-Go’s in a similar manner, but the lighthearted yin to “Spring Awakening’s” yang. I think such a mash-up approach would let the audience smile fondly when the music arises, and keep the musical from a patchwork “Here’s this hit song” --> “Here’s an obvious scene to bridge us to” --> “This hit song.” My eyes have hurt after many bad jukebox musicals from all the ROLLING they did. The stories are paper-thin, usually, and rather tortured in their attempts to make the songs fit. (Stage direction from the Beach Boys musical “Good Vibrations”: “Barbara Ann enters stage left.”)
What makes this hard is that many of The Go-Go’s songs lack specificity. They’re pop songs, so they should! But with some occasional tweaking of lyric, I think we could make them work. They reveal the throbbing heart beneath the corset/doublet.
But what WOULD the story be?
Well, as an English major 20-plus years ago I fell in love with a slightly obscure work by Sir Philip Sidney -- “The Arcadia” -- written in 1593 as a trifle to amuse his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. Don’t let the “Sirs” and “Countesses” intimidate -- the story is riotously funny, a pastoral romantic tale with colliding storylines and a surfeit of joyous implausibility. Cross-dressing men, terrifying prophecies, lovers crashing around in a forest. I’m amazed no one has ever adapted it, frankly, but I’ve always wanted to.
The language makes it tough reading (if you read it, ignore the Eclogues) but once you crack it, it’s delightful. At the time it proved such a success that Sidney rewrote the first three books (of five) into a more complicated work but died at age 31 before he could rewrite the last two. His sister did her best to finish it albeit in a patchwork manner. The original version was then lost for over three centuries and then found again in the early 1900’s, and is now known as “The Old Arcadia.” His sister’s version is “The New Arcadia.” It is from “The Old Arcadia” I would draw since it’s the one I fell in love with.
Basically I would act as a magpie when creating the story, choosing the shiniest objects but going in my own direction when I saw fit. Already I’ve been contemplating the two lead teenaged women, Pamela and Philoclea. What if Philoclea was widely considered and incredible beauty, and Pamela was considered terribly plain? But then what if we cast an actress against type in both roles but within the world of the play it IS the standard of beauty? Philoclea could still be beautiful but rather plus-sized -- fat, say -- and she feels badly for her plain, plain sister (who is played by a conventionally beautiful ingenue). I am inspired by my favorite comedienne, Dawn French, from the British comedy duo “French and Saunders” who’s always been overweight but VERY confident with no hint of apology, and some of her most wonderful bits have been when she played a ballet dancer, for example.
Anyway, I’ll shut up about my specific ideas for now.
But if I were to do this musical I’d want to write what I write well. I love writing accessible period dialogue and I love stylistic mash-ups.
And we could tip the story to modern and edgier sensibilities. I’d love a lesbian love story, for example, because NOBODY has done it in a musical comedy, really. It’s always gays and even as a gay I don’t need to see our love stories in musical form, like, ever again. Also, my last two musicals have featured prominent transgender characters and since Sir Philip Sidney has a young man cross-dress in order to get close to his beloved, why not take it a bit further and have him discover he likes it? I don’t know exactly, I haven’t planned much out beyond the concept and taking a stab at an opening scene.
But to pull the lens way back -- I think we could promise the audience a ROMP. People love period stuff. An excited fresh-faced young woman in period garb on the poster, beaming out energetically -- and I do think the show should be called “Head Over Heels,” no? I just decided on that about 10 minutes ago so my opinion could turn on a dime. Maybe that’s a terrible title because it’s so expected. We can’t call it “Arcadia” in any case because Tom Stoppard stole that title for HIS (unrelated) play.
But enough. That’s my concept. We want something that will make the naysayers go “Hmmm, this could be interesting.” And we want to promise the general audience a night of fun. A blast. Take your husband, take your kids. It’s The Go-Go’s. What is more fun than that?