Since previews of Head Over Heels, the Go-Gos musical which opens tonight on Broadway, began at the gorgeously restored 970-seat Hudson Theatre on June 23, the demographic of its audience has leaned a bit more Baltimorean than most. Fans, friends, family, former students and theater colleagues of James Magruder have been making the pilgrimage almost nightly to see what seems to be a Broadway smash in the making, with line after line and joke after joke that unmistakably bear the imprint of our hometown hero, one-time dramaturg of Center Stage, visiting professor at the University of Baltimore, and longtime Donna’s Taco Night regular.
Head Over Heels is a delicious fairy-tale farce with a message about gender and sexuality set to the catalog of The Go-Gos. Among its other noteworthy qualities, the production includes the first openly transgender actress to originate a major Broadway role. Her name is Peppermint, and she is literally and figuratively a goddess.
Now the previews have ended, meaning the script is finalized, and Jim’s work is done, for the moment. According to theater tradition, he is spending his last days in New York writing cards and wrapping gifts for each of the 70 cast and crew members, to be delivered opening night.
Somehow, this very busy man was able to find a minute to answer the questions his Baltimore fans are dying to ask.
Tell us how you got involved in this project.
In early July 2016, I got a phone call from my dear friend and erstwhile collaborator, big-gun director Michael Mayer. He was in Poughkeepsie workshopping a new musical called Head Over Heels, and they were in a situation where the original book writer had not shown up to continue work on his show, which had premiered the previous summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and could I come to a public presentation the following day? I took the train up to Vassar, liked what I heard, was intrigued by the fact of the dialogue being written in blank verse, and told Michael I thought I could help out—rewrite and adapt the material along the lines of what Michael and musical arranger Tom Kitt were now re-envisioning for the show.
I started work in September, and by the end of October, two weeks before the election, we held a week-long workshop with actors that focused on the book rather than on the music. That was successful enough for our producers to bankroll a month-long lab production in February of 2017, which was fully staged and choreographed and presented to potential investors. That was very successful. We then had to wait a year to line up a theater; the number of musical properties eyeing Broadway homes far exceeds the number of available theaters, so we were extremely fortunate that Jordan Roth, the President of Jujamcyn Theaters, loved Head Over Heels enough to give us the newly restored Hudson Theatre on 44th Street. Start to finish, I’ve worked on the show for two years, which is a very short time by current Broadway standards.
How does it feel to be back on Broadway? How has it changed since Triumph of Love, your first Broadway show?
I was 37 when Triumph of Love opened. That it only lasted three months because of a negative Times review didn’t dash my excitement with or pride in our efforts — it was a fluke, a joyride. Today I am acutely aware of the zero-sum stakes; I find myself doing everything but throwing the I Ching to wish/hope/pray for a positive outcome for Head Over Heels.
Broadway has become even more colossally commercial in the last twenty years. Eighty percent of new musicals are recycled movie titles or jukebox shows. A Dear Evan Hansen or a Hamilton is the exception that proves the rule. There are almost no new plays, except British imports that the New York reviewers basically tell American producers to bring over. A play revival has to have a star—Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth McGovern—to get put on. The Internet Revolution has made it impossible to do your work in private. Every theater geek in New York gets to weigh in on the Broadway chat rooms about how your show logo induces projectile vomiting. As with everything else in our current climate, the discourse has coarsened immeasurably.
The script marries a very old poem, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, with the music of the GoGo’s. Tell us about the book.
My work is in ten-or-eleven syllable lines with five stressed beats. It’s blank verse, Shakespeare’s predominant form and the speech pattern English speakers naturally fall into. Consider the sentence “I went to the store for some milk and bread.” That’s blank verse. In Head Over Heels, there’s this speech, for example, in which King Basilius is upbraiding his second-in-command for being a worrywart:
Put it all together and what have you?
These two rags aren’t worth a tinker’s fart.
Comes it clear to me now that Pythio
Has the whole thing spitefully invented.
Doth it pulse true and constant.
Our birthright divine never to be stopp’d.
I’ll throw in an occasional couplet for emphasis.
Mopsa, why didst thou leave me thus bereft?
Thou tak’st what little heart thy mother left.
Lest anyone think I’m being high-faluting for its own sake, there are also lines like
Um. Here’s a letter. Hope you like it. Bye.
Judging by audience response night after night, any initial hesitation people might have to the deliberately strange speech is quickly overcome by several big laughs. You can feel the audience relax into it—“Oh, I’m going to have a good time.” And then the Go-Go’s songs kick in with their own beat at regular intervals, and it all becomes a party.
From what I’ve seen and what I hear, audiences are going crazy for the play. What do you feel is the thing that most puts the show over the top? (I’m torn between the acting, the dancing and the message myself.)
I believe we deploy several not-so-secret weapons. In Tom Kitt’s genius hands there are 17 Go-Go’s songs—their greatest hits and some very deep cuts—which sound as if they were written specifically for this crazy book I’ve done. The show makes people feel intelligent. We have an incredible cast that respects each other and love what they’re doing. We have amazing designs and choreography. Oscar Hammerstein, when asked why he thought Oklahoma! was such a tremendous success (It was the Hamilton of the 1940’s), famously remarked: “The orchestrations sound the way the costumes look.”
Head Over Heels isn’t Oklahoma! in form or content, but the shows do share two principles. 1) It attempts, in its stagecraft, a unified visual, aural, performative, and dramaturgical lens on this strange, invented, Elizabethan-Punk-Ancient Greek paradise called Arcadia. And 2) Head Over Heels has a great, big, open, generous, inclusive, beating heart. It isn’t snarky or cynical or meta or self-knowing. It is true to itself. It is a musical with a heart for these heartless times. I think that’s really why audiences are flipping for it.
What’s next for you, Mr. Magruder?
I have a non-fiction book that is overdue for Yale University Press called Staying in the Moment: 50 Years of Yale Repertory Theatre. I am determined to finish a draft of it by the end of the year, so I’m not teaching this fall. I also finished a fourth book of fiction about—surprise—the theater. It’s called Save Yourself, and I think it’s my best. I’m waiting to hear what my agent thinks. I have two comedies I’m trying to get produced somewhere, and I’m very pleased that I’ll be making my creative non-fiction debut in Prairie Schooner in the spring.
More interesting coverage of Head Over Heels here, in the New York Times.