Forty years ago, Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey were shredding punk clubs and belting cuts that would appear on the Go-Go’s blockbuster 1981 debut Beauty and the Beat. On April 18, they’ll be seated at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre for the opening night premiere of Head Over Heels -- a musical built around their timeless catalog of new wave hits -- where it will enjoy a brief run before heading to Broadway in June.
Sitting in the lobby of the Curran a few weeks before the big day, Wiedlin admits the band was concerned that the story of the Go-Go’s career wasn’t appealing fodder for a theatrical production.
“I think one of our only trepidations is that we weren't sure about doing a biographical musical,” she says. “Our story, aside from the fact that we're women, is pretty typical of a band. The other thing is you're going to have people delving into things that happened between us that maybe we resolved years ago but all of a sudden it's like opening fresh wounds.”
Fortunately when a writer named Jeff Whitty approached the band back in 2011, the story he wanted to tell was something else entirely.
Inspired by English poet Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century prose poem Arcadia, the book Whitty shared with Wiedlin, Caffey, and the rest of the Go-Go’s was an Elizabethan romp ripe with innuendo and gender non-conformity that follows a royal family tasked with preventing a ruinous prophecy from coming true. Somehow, songs like “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Our Sealed” managed to perfectly complement the refreshingly unique narrative.
“[Jeff] sent us some pages,” Caffey recalls, “and on the second one was a picture. It was Shakespeare in an Elizabethan collar and then a plus sign and then it had a picture of the Go-Go's and then an equal sign and Head Over Heels. I started reading it, and it was so funny. I was laughing out loud, and I thought, 'this is what we want,' because it embodied the band. It's a little twisted, and it's a little outside of the box, and we're all that way.”
Head Over Heels first came to the public’s attention at the 2015 Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Wiedlin and Caffey were both in attendance. While the band had already made the entirety of their discography -- both as the Go-Go’s and their individual catalogs – available, the Oregon run provided them with their first opportunity to offer input.
James Magruder was brought in to adapt Whitty’s book, and over the course of many workshops, a talented creative team began to take shape. When seasoned Broadway presence Michael Mayer -- American Idiot, Spring Awakening, Hedwig & the Angry Inch -- came aboard to direct, the Go-Go’s knew they had something special on their hands.
“It seems like every single person that has signed on to do this is at the top of their game,” Wiedlin enthuses. “That really created a lot of momentum, because seven years is a long time to keep a project alive and moving forward.”
The team currently in place includes choreographer Spencer Liff (Spring Awakening), scenic designer Julian Crouch (Hedwig & the Angry Inch), and costumer designer Arianne Phillips, who has served as Madonna’s stylist. The cast features Taylor Iman Jones (Groundhog Day), Tom Alan Robbins (The Lion King), and Andrew Durand (War Horse).
Notably, Head Over Heels will also mark the big stage debut of RuPaul’s Drag Race fan favorite Peppermint, who is set to become the first transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway.
Peppermint is no stranger to breaking the mold. She became the first openly trans woman to be cast on RuPaul's Drag Race, where she finished as Season 9’s runner-up to eventual winner Sasha Velour. In fact, it was the gender-bending narrative of the show that first attracted the multi-talented performer to the character of Pythio.
“It's definitely not lost on me,” Peppermint says of the opportunity to play a trans character in a major theatrical production. “There are so many people who aren't queer, who aren't trans or non-binary, who are going to get a chance to be exposed to some of our issues and fall in love with these queer characters while tapping their feet and listening to the music of the Go-Go’s.”
Growing up, Peppermint says she found herself most inspired by shows like Rent and Angels in America -- productions that featured a message, specifically ones that members of the LGBTQI community would find relatable.
“I'm a queen, so I love some musicals,” she laughs, “but I think the thing that attracts me to theater, more than just song and dance, is issues. Now with Head Over Heels we have a chance to add to the collection of shows that tell queer stories and feature queer characters.”
Coincidentally, Peppermint isn’t the only drag queen in the San Francisco Bay Area currently preparing for a big debut.
Across the Bay in Berkeley, fellow Drag Race contestant (and Season 8 winner) Bob the Drag Queen (Caldwell Tidicue) will soon be seen as Belize the nurse in an upcoming remount of Angels in America. The two productions share more than their inspired drag queen casting: like Head Over Heels, Angels in America was first performed in San Francisco in 1991 before eventually moving to Broadway.
Peppermint says she’s thrilled to have some family in the neighborhood.
“Bob is my drag niece in a way,” she explains. “We've been connected for years. It's so poetic that we are both here, getting a chance to perform in shows that we love -- that we know are going to resonate with the community -- and getting a chance to do something a little bit different than what we've been doing. I will be at Bob's show and I know Bob is going to be here. I'm happy to have a sister very close by."
For the Go-Go’s, having their music associated with a production that challenges gender constructs and prominently features a talent like Peppermint is a dream come true.
“It couldn't have a better home than with us,” Caffey affirms.
Now the time has finally come for the curtain to rise on Head Over Heels—a show which proves yet again that the timing is always right when it comes to the Go-Go’s gleeful brand of power punk.
“We couldn't be more thrilled,” Wiedlin says. “If you had told us in 1978 that this was going to happen, we would be like, 'You are cracked.' I had never even seen a Broadway show back then. Now we're here, and it's amazing.”
Head Over Heels plays at San Francisco’s Curran from April 10 to May 6. The show opens on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre on July 26 (previews begin June 23).