Three inaugural Thespian Criticworks winners attended the 2018 International Thespian Festival to observe productions and readings, consult with professional critics, and improve their writing. This is the first Criticworks essay published in Dramatics.

ONE CAN SAY that the greatest pieces of theatre reflect the wondrous diversity of the human community. Even with a double whammy of time-traveling artistic conventions, the recent Broadway musical Head over Heels creates, as one of the show’s characters sings, a “vision of now-ness.”

Head over Heels is the marriage of the discography of The Go-Go’s and the plot of the 16th-century pastoral The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney. What results is a jubilant, stylish, and regal celebration of life and love. Tunes from the 1980s and a story of nobles from the 1500s may call to mind traditional narratives — prince meets princess or king saves kingdom — but Head over Heels’ cast of characters is royally representative of identities one rarely gets to see in any medium of popular storytelling. There’s a plus-size princess falling for her lady-in-waiting — and, in the Broadway production, this was a biracial relationship. And there’s the strong queen who embraces leadership with her head and heart.

 
Alyssa Sileo talks with theatre critic Peter Filichia at the 2018 International Thespian Festival.

Alyssa Sileo talks with theatre critic Peter Filichia at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

We’ve seen instances of body positivity onstage before, such as Lisa Howard’s acclaimed visibility as a plus-size actress in the musicals It Shoulda Been You and Escape to Margaritaville. There have also been queer women’s narratives, such as Fun Home and The Prom. Finally, Broadway is beginning to feature numerous strong female roles — especially in the past few years — in shows like Come from Away and If/Then. But something we have barely seen in musical theatre are transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming characters. Head over Heels gives the microphone to characters with genderqueer identities.

Here’s a quick rundown of genderqueer identity, if you are just learning about it now. The experience of gender is much more complex than the simple dichotomy of “male” and “female.” The national Trans Student organization describes genderqueer identity as an umbrella term for individuals who “may identify as neither male nor female, may see themselves as outside of or in between the binary gender boxes.”

There are more than two definitive ways that gender can look or be experienced. Genderqueer and transgender people have existed in communities for generations and have been advocating for visibility just as long. Many indigenous cultures have acknowledged the complexity of gender identity and expression. One example in South Asia is the long-acknowledged gender identity of “hijra,” which has described people in the Indian subcontinent who don’t identify as men or women but prefer feminine expression.

Meanwhile, some indigenous North Americans use the modern term “Two-spirit” to recognize indigenous people who engage in both masculine and feminine expression. In the mainstream, however, genderqueer identities have been largely silenced. Stories like the one told in Head over Heels have the potential to shine a light on the broader complexities of gender.

By starring in the Broadway production, the artist Peppermint, a finalist from the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, became the first transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway. She portrayed Pythio, a nonbinary oracle whose pronouns are they/them. They deliver a prophecy of the kingdom’s impending fate to the king and his viceroy Dametas. My research cannot find any other nonbinary identities portrayed on Broadway before Head over Heels or pronouns other than he/him or she/her being used by characters.

Another character, the shepherd Musidorus, identifies as a man at the start of the show. The Arcadian princess Philoclea is forced by her family to break off her relationship with him because of his social status. The shepherd is encouraged by Pythio to put on the disguise of an Amazon woman warrior to fool the family and continue seeing Philoclea. After this chance to explore gender expression, Musidorus asserts a desire to continue expressing both the Amazon identity as well as the original male identity, pointing to gender fluidity.

There have been several musical theatre characters who exhibit fluid gender expression — such as Angel from Rent, whose pronouns alternate between he/him and she/her — but Musidorus in Head over Heels allows the audience to experience a discovery of gender expression never before depicted onstage.

The placement of this narrative in a time of castles and sword fights sends pertinent messages of universality. The oracle’s gender expression and pronouns are both validated and respected by the royals. In fact, Pythio appears at the end of the story, revealing their identity as the viceroy’s spouse who was originally cast away after coming out as nonbinary. Dametas expresses his remorse, and the family is reunited. Additionally, Musidorus’ revelation of gender fluidity is celebrated by the royals.

Groundbreaking, progressive plot points are portrayed in front of ancient architecture and by figures in tights, corsets, and crowns. This suggests to the theatre community that genderqueer identity belongs in every era and storytelling genre. The musical’s dialogue, set in an often-rhyming meter that suggests a Shakespearean script, beautifully communicates the diversity of gender and marks the journey of queer awakenings. Certainly modern theatre can include those who are too often marginalized. Theatre shows us what makes us human. One of those things is rarely being able to fit in one box.

I cannot think of many better ways to honor the queer and genderqueer community than with a bright, victorious, and important musical like Head over Heels. People standing up for and teaching about nonbinary expressions of gender are the reason the LGBT community has acquired what rights and respect we have today. For example, it was transgender women of color — Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major, to name two — who marched in the first protests for LGBT liberation and organized shelters for homeless queer and trans youth in the 1960s and 1970s. These are true leaders, deserving a royal tribute of the best jokes, sharp costumes, Go-Go’s bops, and more.

Head over Heels collapses eras of history in a way that helps audiences consider what is universal in every story. How exciting this is for gender-nonconforming theatre students who aim to write their stories and put them onstage — and how wonderful for Broadway veterans who have been waiting to see positive representations of their experiences. Head over Heels closed January 6, but I hope the historic firsts in this musical open the gates to genderqueer royalty in many more pieces of theatre, with the heartbeat of self-affirmation.

This story appeared in the April 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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