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Musical Mash-Up: Renaissance Romance Meets Songs by The Go-Go's

An Interview with "Head Over Heels" director Carl Menninger and music director Kristin Stowell

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Liv DeLorenzo as Pythio. Photo: Noah Puzzo.

The AU Department of Performing Arts hereby invites you on a quest to recover the missing “beat.”  

The musical Head Over Heels, live at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre from October 20-28, is inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1593) and follows the escapades of a royal family on an outrageous journey to save its beloved kingdom from extinction. This laugh-out-loud love story is set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-female rock band The Go-Go’s.  

Tickets are free for AU students with ID; $10-15 for the public.  

Kristin Stowell (left) and Carl Menninger (right)

Ahead of the production’s premiere, we spoke with Carl Menninger, director, and Kristin Stowell, music director. Head Over Heels is Stowell’s first production as a full-time faculty member at AU.  

Q: The play brings together something old (Sidney’s Arcadia) and something new (the play, featuring music from The Go-Go's.) How do you think these two worlds speak to each other?  

CM: Sidney’s story is playful, and the core lends itself well to musical theatre. Head Over Heels takes a lot of liberties with the original text in Arcadia, but they’re connected by the love stories in it. There’s a romance between women that’s not in the original, and it features a non-binary character—the Oracle. It’s very modern in terms of looking at the world in ways that musical theatre typically doesn’t. There have been musicals about gay men, but not many about women. They also speak in heighted language because the play is written in verse.  

KS: It’s almost like iambic pentameter, but it’s very accessible and easy to understand. Professor Tara Giordano came in to help the students with the verse, and with using their voices to emphasize those words—slow down sentences, raise your voice, find what the key word is in a sentence—things like that.  

Q: How do the set designs, music, and costumes bring this idiosyncratic world together?  

KS: It’s rock music so we have lighting like a rock concert. It’s a silly story matched with silly music—it’s super fun, every song is upbeat, and I think the world matches that. There’s lots of comedy, and things move quickly. The music of The Go-Go's amplifies the playfulness.  

CM: It’s anachronistic—rock music set against these Renaissance-inspired costumes and set designs. But we’ve really leaned into it—the whole mash-up notion. It makes it silly in the best way, I think as a result the students feel the fun of this play and they really celebrate that.  

Q: Kristin, what’s it like for you directing a jukebox musical (which features popular music) versus a Broadway musical?  

KS: The challenge is making sure the lyrics tell the story, because they weren’t written for the play. The show does a good job of that, and the songs make sense where they fall. We’ve always been able to find the connection between the lyrics and the story. I think it’s a very successful example of the jukebox musical for that reason. There are challenges, and we ask questions like “What are we getting at with this line?” But we’ve always been able to work through that.  

Q: How have the students approached working on Head Over Heels during rehearsal?  

KS: They’re all active, enthusiastic, and willing participants every step of the way. It’s such a great group, and they’re all so excited to learn the next thing. There’s a lot of moving parts to the music; it sounds simple, but there’s a lot of back and forth, so putting things together can be challenging.  

CM: The music is much more complicated than I thought it would be, and the students have risen to the challenge for sure. The ensemble does a lot—there’s a lot of backup signing that happens. They’re in a lot of numbers, so for them it’s more fun for them to be engaged throughout the whole show.  

We’ve seen the students’ commitment to the story, to themselves, to each other. Working with students this talented, kind, and respectful is a joy. For me, that’s been a real pleasure and a real gift in terms of working on this show. 

Q: What do you hope audiences will come away with?  

CM: We need a little escapism. It is fun, it has a distinct message, but we’re not weighing the world down with it. There’s so much in the world going on that is weighty, and it’s a wonderful way to feel uplifted, upbeat, to have a good time, and to really just leave everything at the door for two hours. 

Head Over Heels

  • Songs by The Go-Go’s
  • Based on ‘The Arcadia’ by Sir Philip Sidney
  • Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
  • Adapted by James Magruder
  • Department of Performing Arts
  • Directed by Carl Menninger
  • Music Direction by Kristin Stowell
  • Choreographed by Cate Ginsberg