Given the amount queer creativity imbued into Broadway's bones, it's an achievement when a new play manages to take LGBTQ representation on the Gay White Way to new heights. Enter Head Over Heels. The musical, which which ficially opened July 26 at the Hudson Theatre in New York City, delivers a deliciously subversive, passionate celebration queer life by drawing on two unexpected sources – the music an '80s new wave band and a 16th century British pastoral.
Marrying the music The Go-Go's (and a few solo songs) with Philip Sidney's Arcadia (adapted into a play by James Shirley in 1640), Head Over Heels portrays the struggles and victories a variety characters coming to terms with their sexuality and identity.
As you may have heard, Peppermint – a finalist from season 9 RuPaul's Drag Race – co-stars in the musical, becoming the first trans woman to originate a principal role on Broadway. But the play's progressive bend goes far beyond that one (impressive, overdue) feat.
First f, there's the most blatantly queer part the play – a lesbian awakening from a male suitor-scfing princess, played by a scenery-chewing Bonnie Milligan whose comedic timing has you hanging on her every gesture. Before admitting her sexuality to herself, she shares a hysterical poem full bawdy rhyme and wordplay that reveals her repressed urges (Tobias from Arrested Development better watch his back). But beyond laughs, her burgeoning Sapphic romance and eventual coming out is given the same dramatic gravitas afforded to the play's straight romantic plot line.
And even that one ain't entirely straight. Cross-dressing resulting in an unwitting same-sex attraction has been a part storytelling for centuries, from Shakespeare to White Chicks. But most those plot lines are 'happily' resolved with the status quo restored: the cross-dresser reveals their gender and a same-sex relationship ensues. Head Over Heels turns that on its, well, head. When male lead Musidorus (Andrew Durand) reveals his sartorial subterfuge, he makes it clear that his wig isn't going back in the closet. The play goes out its way to establish that drag helped the lead discover previously unexplored inner territory; at the end, Musidorus explains he feels both like a son and a daughter (the Rocky Horror-esque scene where Durand furiously ping-pongs between male and female expressions flirtation is a standout). Unlike most romcoms involving drag, gender isn't a costume to be taken f in Head Over Heels – it's a nuanced spectrum that's different from one person to the next.
Which takes us back to Peppermint. Head Over Heels is the first Broadway play to feature a trans woman creating a principal role (the oracle Pythio), but it goes further than that. The dialogue makes it clear Pep's character is to be referred to with they/them pronouns, and the ending addresses the difficult coming out as non-binary and being rejected by those you love – and where you go from there. No, we're not talking about Pose-level dramatic depths, but the fact that these elements are represented in a light-as-air romcom musical soundtracked by the hits a beloved '80s band is fairly groundbreaking.
Hell, even the choreography in Head Over Heels is exceptionally queer – and when it comes to Broadway, that's an achievement. Naturally, LGBTQ talent is an indelible part Broadway, but queer performers are sometimes pressured to masc it up or tone it down depending on the play. But here, the magnetic backup dancers are set free, vogueing and striking fabulous poses with a palpable sense liberation.
A lot shows open each year, and the world has seen more than its fair share jukebox musicals. But the combination a mostly forgotten (don't @ me, BritLit postgrads) piece 16th century literature and the exhilarating new wave the Go-Go's has brought an entirely fresh beat to Broadway.