On the surface, the theatre community in New York appears to be incredibly inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that what seems inclusive is actually pretty exclusive to the letters in LGBTQ+ that aren’t G.
We have revivals of The Boys in the Band and Angels in America on Broadway at the same time and Torch Song on its way in the fall, revolutionary and excellent plays… about gay men. Most plays I’ve read that deal with LGBTQ+ stories are about the men. There are some excellent plays and musicals about lesbians (Fun Home and Indecent are two recent, wonderful examples that had shorter runs than they deserved) but they are in very, very short supply. Same goes with transgender characters – Taylor Mac’s Hir and Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius are very good, but both were only Off-Broadway. And as far as I’m concerned, I have yet to read a published play featuring non-binary or explicitly bisexual characters, excluding RENT.
As a lesbian and a non-binary playwright (and hopeful musical theatre bookwriter,) I’m constantly seeking representation in my field. I am pleased, nay, thrilled to say that there’s a new musical on Broadway right now that defied my expectations of jukebox-style musicals and included the representation I have been craving.
Head Over Heels (book by Jeff Whitty and James Magruder) is adapted from an obscure Renaissance text called The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney. The score is made up of The Go-Go’s and Belinda Carlisle’s greatest hits, orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt.
It sounds like it could end up a hot mess. Turns out, it’s absolutely brilliant. The kingdom of Arcadia is famous for its pulse of life, its “beat” – cue the obvious choice for an opening number, “We Got The Beat” – but when the Oracle of Delphi has a “Vision of Nowness” and foresees the kingdom falling if the royal family makes four mistakes, the Royal Family –haughty King Basilius, strong Queen Gynecia, elder daughter Pamela, younger daughter Philoclea, handmaiden Mopsa, viceroy Dametas – and goofy, lovelorn shepherd Musidorus flee Arcadia on a road trip of sorts to prevent disaster from occuring. Shenanigans, romantic entanglements, mistaken identity, genderplay, and personal discoveries ensue.
The costumes by Arianne Phillips feel like Something Rotten! meets Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The lighting design by Kevin Adams is vibrant and pulsating. The choreography by Spencer Liff is thrilling to watch. And the band performing the iconic score of hits is all-female, just like the Go-Go’s!
The fact that an adaptation of an old Renaissance text has been modernized to include characters with plot-important sexual orientations and gender identities is absolutely thrilling.
(The plot is a tad complicated to fully describe in a review without spoiling the whole thing, so consider this a light spoiler warning. I’m not going to go into too much detail about every character.)
Princess Pamela, played to perfection by 54 Below regular Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut, is constantly wooed by men in the kingdom, but she doesn’t return their affection. One thing I absolutely love about Pamela is that she’s a plus size princess, and she’s constantly referred to as the most beautiful in the family.
On the road trip to save the kingdom, she realizes that she’s a lesbian and in love with Mopsa, her feisty handmaiden played by Taylor Iman Jones. The way their relationship plays out is absolutely charming and laugh out loud funny. When Pamela and Mopsa have a falling out whilst realizing their feelings for one another- with raunchy poetry, of course- Mopsa flees to the Isle of Lesbos to come to terms with her feelings for Pamela (of course she sings “Vacation”) and when she returns to reveal her true feelings it’s totally heartwarming.
The charming Princess Philoclea (played by Samantha Pollino at the performance I attended, normally played by Alexandra Socha) is in love with Musidorus the shepherd (Andrew Durand.) Musidorus is deeply in love with Philoclea, but the King forbids his daughter marry below her station. When the royal family have to flee the kingdom, Musidorus ends up joining the traveling party in pursuit of his true love… in disguise as an Amazonian warrior woman. The entanglements that ensue when King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) both become infatuated by the shepherd in and out of disguise are wickedly funny and their triangle of the romance plot literally climaxes with a gorgeously staged version of “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” By the end of the show, Musidorus learns a lot about himself and the revelation that he considers himself genderfluid is absolutely thrilling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a genderfluid character in a musical since possibly Hedwig, and this reveal got big applause out of me.
All of the relationships in this show are fun to watch. Mistaken identity and crossdressing are of course classic Renaissance theatre tropes and to see them played out in fresh and fun ways with excellent payoff is a real treat. The big box office draw of the cast is Peppermint, the RuPaul’s Drag Race star and first transgender woman to perform on Broadway. She plays Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. Fierce in all the best ways, Pythio is proudly non-binary. Their pronouns are “they/them.” They appear constantly throughout the show, dropping prophecies left and right and moving the plot along the way. Every time they made an appearance I was absolutely floored. Pythio is as proud of their identity as I am, and seeing that pride being cheered for on a Broadway stage did my heart real good.
Michael Mayer deftly directs this production and never makes it boring. There’s constant delight in every second. The book is full of charming and funny dialogue – in Shakespearean verse, honoring the Renaissance source material – that feels contemporary and classic at the same time.
The show has a wonderful aesthetic of 1590s meets 1980s meets Paris is Burning that delights the eye and ear. But most of all, this show delighted my heart. The characters who aren’t cis or het are proud of their identities, and that pride shapes and colors the entire production. I find it appropriate this show began previews during Pride Month, and as long as it runs on Broadway it’s always going to be Pride Month in the Hudson Theatre.
(Photo by Joan Marcus.)