Wringing a stable narrative out of a pop group’s discography is difficult even when the band in question puts out the occasional rock opera. It’s very easy to stretch, too: Marge Simpson’s psychiatrist once tried to claim that The Monkees were about “rebellion and social upheaval.” The 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may have cast George Burns, The Bee Gees, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, but the feeble narrative arc it wove out of Beatles songs made it one of the worst cinematic duds of all time.
It’s a running joke that the urge to cash in on a musical version of something much-beloved has yielded some clunkers. Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark might be the most spectacular flameout, although the Carrie and High Fidelity adaptations unsurprisingly went nowhere, too. But the standout show of the Curran Theater’s 2018 season comes from an unlikely place: the hits of 1980s New Wave band The Go-Go’s. This is especially the case because Head Over Heels’ plot is anything but the story of the all-girl band that used to play North Beach’s long-gone Mabuhay Gardens.
“It’s hard to talk about this show, because it’s not a famous story,” Head Over Heels director Michael Mayer tells SF Weekly. “It’s a 17th-century, Elizabethan work, but then it’s a genderbending pop-punk sort of postmodern mashup.
“People think it’s the story of the Go-Go’s,” he adds. “Which it isn’t. It has nothing to do with them. It has to do with their songs.”
Somehow, singles like “Our Lips Our Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “Vision of Nowness,” plus the Belinda Carlisle solo hits “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” and Mad About You,” have given birth to a comedy of involving a royal family trying to escape from a prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi.
“The music actually lends itself” to this elaborate fantasia, Mayer says. “The mythology in the show is about ‘The Beat,’ and if there’s one concept you could apply to the Go-Gos’ music, it’s the beat. It infuses every one of their songs, and the way the songs line up with the blank verse — it shouldn’t feel nearly as seamless as it does.”
(For its part, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” is riding a wave of renewed cultural resonance, having been the linchpin to Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” perhaps that show’s finest episode to date.)
Many Elizabethan plays revolve around a case of mistaken identity, often across gender lines. (Shakespeare in Love famously played on this via the period requirement that men play every role through the line “That woman is a woman!”).
Rather than rely solely on the easier laughs, Head over Heels involves cross-identification and gender-nonconforming actors in ambiguous roles. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 runner-up Peppermint plays Pythio, the oracle, and the heartsick shepherd boy Musidorus puts on an elaborate Amazon warrior costume to bewitch every member of the royal family, like the character of The Visitor in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 art-house film Teorema.
“The king falls in love with him. The queen sees him peeing at a party, so she knows he’s a man and thinks it’s exciting that he’s in disguise, and she falls in love with him,” says Andrew Durand, who plays Musidorus. “The other princess, who’s discovering that she’s a lesbian throughout the show, falls in love with the female persona. At the end, he discovers that he’s sort of genderfluid.”
Channeling the first principle of improv comedy, Mayer calls this a “yes, and” approach. He had worked with Durand in Spring Awakening, the 2006 Broadway musical about young lovers in 19th-century Germany, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Mayer had also teamed up with John Cameron Mitchell on the stage adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and for Head over Heels, he brought together a number of people from that production’s crew, including choreographer Spencer Liff, scene designer Julian Crouch, and costume designer Arianne Phillips, who dove deep into Tudor silhouettes for research. The resulting mise-en-scène is nearly maximalist.
“It’s very old-school, the way we’re doing it,” Mayer says. “It’s painted flats and drops. It’s like a toy theater from the Victorian Age. But it’s electrified — like steampunk in a way, only richly colorful and bright and poppy. And with lots of Swarovski crystals.”
A deconstructed Times Square New Year’s ball with lots of pearls and bejeweled hairdos sounds like something that’s destined to go straight to Broadway, and in fact, Head over Heels is on the fast-track. As Curran owner Carole Shorenstein Hays remarked at a gathering several months ago to introduce the theater’s 2018 season, her daughter is a huge Go-Go’s fan. Hays is championing this production personally. Founding member and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin is a longtime San Francisco resident, and she and fellow Go-Go Charlotte Caffey have had creative input as well.
While the idea of a “brand-new Elizabethan play written for our time” sounds most ambitious, it’s really all about the music — which the Tony-winning Tom Kitt arranged with a light touch.
“I definitely have a pretty pop-rock sound and a freakishly high voice,” Durand says. “And Belinda Carlisle has a low voice for a woman, so most of the songs are in the original key.”
Head Over Heels, April 10 – May 6, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St. $29-$175; 415-358-1220 or sfcurran.com