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'Head Over Heels' marries English verse and punk pop in laughter

IWU Theater presents an adaptation of the comedy juke box musical Head Over Heels this weekend streaming on line.
IWU Theater presents an adaptation of the comedy juke box musical, "Head Over Heels," this weekend streaming online.

Punk rock and Elizabethan poetry might not seem like a natural combination. But Illinois Wesleyan University makes it work in a new production of the musical, "Head Over Heels," streaming Friday through Sunday.

Director Scott Susong said "Arcadia," written by Sir Philip Sidney in the 1500s, has more in common with the music of the Go-Go's than you might think.

"A lot of the tropes we find in Shakespeare's work, particularly in his comedies, come out of the 'Arcadia.' That's where we first hear about the Forest of Aarden," said Susong. "This idea of going into the forest and trying to work ... out romantic complications out and then ending with you know, a happy ending and a bunch of weddings. And the interesting thing is that there's something about that that iambic pentameter, that Shakespeare uses those heartbeats, that stressed and unstressed beat of five, that actually finds itself into the same kind of lyrical work and the beat work that we find in a lot of the punk into pop rock of the Go Go's."

The score for "Head Over Heels" includes the hit songs “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.” The love story originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and played on Broadway from 2018-19 at the Hudson Theatre. It's what is known as a juke box musical, something Susong said is popular right now.

"Jeff Whitty, who most people know from Avenue Q, said you know what, this reminds me a lot of my undergraduate study at theater history of Elizabethan poets. So it was originally his concept," said Susong.

Shakespearean language can be magisterial and difficult for modern ears to access yet the adaptor James Magruder made is so, said Susong.

"It's blank verse. He wrote in some contemporary idioms, but in blank verse. We had to do verse work just like we would for Shakespeare," he said. "The only things that are not blank verse are the lyrics and the songs, and yet those feel like it's the same language because of the the kind of stressed and unstressed nature of the lyrics and the songs."

Susong saw the show in New York, and wanted to do it at IWU.

"It's challenging musically. Its got something to say for the LGBTQ+ community, but yet it's not heavy handed. And I think the way we put our mark on it was to buy into the Renaissance quality of it, that kind of, we're in a Victorian theater, but we're doing a Renaissance play. And as an MTV, you know, early music video. We spent a lot of time on the language of the story, trying to represent the entire spectrum of gender identities and sexual identities without being over the top," said Susong.

He said the gender swapping and cross dressing in Sidney and Shakespeare also is modern.

"The whole show is kind of about generational divide and about, we need to as an older generation, to see what the younger generation feels about these things," said Susong.

The show is available to stream anytime from Friday to Sunday. Tickets are available online at the IWU Theater page.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.