BWW Exclusive: An Ode in Praise of HEAD OVER HEELS, the Most Radically Queer Show in Broadway History
I'd like to propose something worthy of 16th century Arcadia: an Ode in Praise of Head Over Heels.
For those who don't know, last month a new musical, Head Over Heels, opened on Broadway. The music combines a Renaissance source text, Sir Phillip Sidney's "Arcadia," with the music of the Go-Go's to create an adult fairy tale. Not only is the musical incredibly fun, hilarious, and heartwarming, but it is also incredibly important.
Although nothing about a description of the show would imply it, Head Over Heels is the most radically queer show Broadway has ever seen. It has an openly trans actor, a plus size actress, a nonbinary character, several lesbian characters, a character who explores drag, and Broadway's first all-female band.
Somehow, Renaissance drama and 80s' rock have magically combined into a groundbreaking and historic new musical. The Arcadia of Head Over Heels is quite different from the inspiration. In fact, in the Arcadia of Head Over Heels, it seems like the majority of the characters are queer in one way or another, which is unique for a Broadway musical.
Although musical theater is a very queer genre, most musicals are still about a straight couple falling in love, which is why the overwhelming amount of queer characters in this show is so refreshing and exciting.
In addition to the large amount of queer characters, one of the most remarkable parts of the production is its diversity in casting. In particular Peppermint (of RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE, Season 9)- a trans woman of color- and Bonnie Milligan- a self-described plus-size woman- provide representation to types of people that are not usually seen on the Broadway stage.
When asked about this on the opening night red carpet, Peppermint said, "Knowing that there's people in the audience that it will resonate with, who feel different; a lot of those people are queer, many of those people are gender non-conforming, either trans or nonbinary; [they are] as sure about themselves as they can feel, [but] they rarely ever get to see, or never get to see, themselves reflected back; which means they have no support. And so knowing that we could provide that for people just feels great."
Since Peppermint is the first openly trans actor to originate a principal role on Broadway, the show is making history; her character is a nonbinary oracle, Pythio, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they."
When Pythio is first introduced, a character asks, "Art thou man or woman? Things need to be one thing or another."
Pythio quickly provides the character- and the audience- with a much needed education, "My qualities transcend your rude opinion! Pythio is a nonbinary plural," teaching that they are, "neither he nor she, but... they."
Pronouns have become rather political recently, and the fact that this Broadway show manages to teach people about nonbinary pronouns, and forces characters to use them, is a major achievement. The pronouns and gender identity of Pythio (and Peppermint) created an online controversy when Ben Brantley's review in The New York Times made jokes about nonbinary people and their pronouns.
Although he may not have learned a lesson in gender or grammar from Head Over Heels, many audience members will leave with some new information about the gender spectrum- and others will leave with a smile on their face, happy to finally see a gender non-conforming character onstage, especially one played by a trans person.
In addition to providing visibility for trans and nonbinary people, the show also has an amazing message of body positivity. Bonnie Milligan plays Princess Pamela, the most beautiful damsel in Arcadia; her size is never mentioned and never made fun of- something practically unheard of in musical theater.
Like Peppermint, Bonnie Milligan is proud to play a character who is treated in a way that people usually don't get to see onstage. During a recent interview she said, "I feel privileged to do something where I feel like a lot of people that don't feel represented, or haven't ever been able to see themselves on stage, see themselves on stage."
She also commented on the body-positive message of the musical, stating that, "As a plus-size actress, getting to play the beautiful character where there's nothing in the script about my size, the amount of young girls that have approached me [saying] that it means the world to them has been wonderful. I feel the importance of it, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
In another interview, this time with TDF, she elaborated, saying, "I think it is important to see a big woman singing about how she's beautiful and everyone on stage saying, 'Yeah, she is.' So Pamela is never funny because she's big."
Not only does the show have unprecedented representation, it also has a wonderfully inclusive message about exploring gender and sexuality. Over the course of the show, many characters discover important things about themselves.
Mira embraces her non-binary gender, transitions, and comes out as Pythio. Pamela and Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) discover they are lesbians and fall in love. Musidorus (Andrew Durand) experiments with drag and decides that his drag persona (Cleophila) is an important part of who he is. Queer characters are never punished or shamed for their sexuality, but are embraced and celebrated.
This fierce queerness extends to the ensemble, which is made up a group of extremely sexy and talented dancers dressed in gender-queering, Renaissance-inspired outfits complete with boots, corsets, skirts, and puffy sleeves. The group; complete with vogueing-inspired choreography, same-sex dance partners, and fans; looks more like backup dancers for a drag performance than a standard Broadway ensemble.
From the romantic leads to the dancers in the background, the musical has a message of acceptance and love- something radical in our current political climate. It is a joyful Broadway musical, but it also has an important message that the world needs right now.
Head Over Heels ends with three happy couples: two lesbians, a woman and a drag queen, and a man and his nonbinary former spouse- a certainly unparalleled amount of queerness. The couples look forward to a life in a queer utopia, now ruled by a woman, the new queen of Arcadia (Rachel York), who promises an end to patriarchal monarchy and "traditional values." If only we in America could be so lucky.
HEAD OVER HEELS is playing at the Hudson Theatre; tickets can be purchased here.