A chat with James Magruder

GRACIE HAYS: HEAD OVER HEELS was based on Sir Philip Sidney’s sixteenth-century prose work The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) wrote the original concept and book of the new musical based on the poem with an adaptation by James Magruder. At first blush, a lot of people might not see an immediate connection between the music of The Go-Go’s and Elizabethan Romance literature—how did you find the harmony between these two elements?

JAMES MAGRUDER: I read the Arcadia early on, but I didn’t feel bound by it. It’s a romance, so it’s partly written in verse and partly written in prose. And then in our show, there’s a pulse and a rhythm and a sense of craziness to the poetry in the dialogue, and there’s the pulse of The Go-Go’s. I think the madcap spirit of the show matches the anything-goes spirit of their songs. For me, HEAD OVER HEELS is about personal transformation, and I think that what [music director] Tom Kitt has done, arranging and orchestrating these songs—they are such transformations in themselves, without betraying what’s so amazing and infectious about The Go-Go’s.

GH: Tell us what it’s been like writing in iambic pentameter, for HEAD OVER HEELS.

JM: It’s actually not so hard once you start. It was kind of fun to count to ten for a few months. I think some of the actors were afraid of it at first, but now it just rolls right out of their mouths. Most people don’t know this, but as English speakers we naturally fall into a pentameter. I was very careful to stay in rhythm, though, because the beat plays such an important role. Everything depends on that rhythm.

James Magruder, writer of the HEAD OVER HEELS adaptation.

GH: You went from working in the theater to mostly writing fiction, in recent years. What was it like to shift back to playwriting?

JM: I was a dramaturge for about fifteen years before I attempted fiction. Fiction is still a harder discipline for me—there are all these terrible lines you have to write in a novel or a short story that are no fun to write, but they’re necessary. “He got up, crossed the room, and closed the door.” In the theater, the director takes care of that. When you’re writing for the stage, though, the audience is only hearing your words once. They can’t read the sentence over; they can’t go back; they can’t stay on the page and savor a scene. Everything you write really has to hit. You can’t tread water in theater. In fiction, you can, and it’s often a delight just listening to the narrative voice. If you have a very funny narrator, they don’t have to do anything for forty pages, they can just make you laugh. It’s a very different skill.

GH: Is there a character in HEAD OVER HEELS whom you identify with?

JM: I would say it’s Musidorus, the shepherd who’s trying really, really hard and who does anything for love. He’s kind of awkward, and when he’s nervous he starts talking in this shepherd’s tongue that none of the other characters can understand. He’s not trying to be a smarty-pants, but there’s something about a writer and his ego that says Look at me, and pay attention to my language. At the same time, though, you can wind up hiding behind that language.

GH: Tell us about your approach to the humor in this show. During the pre-Broadway run at the Curran, how will you decide whether a joke stays or gets cut?

JM: If there’s a joke that’s designed to get a laugh and it doesn’t work two performances in a row, it’s on the chopping block. We either pull it out of the show, or I have to write a better joke. On the other hand, you don’t want to get the wrong laugh—you can get a huge laugh, but it takes the audience out of the moment, or it changes how they feel about a particular character. We could get a huge laugh if we just threw in Tide Pods or if suddenly Mopsa said #MeToo, but it’d be all wrong.

"When you’re writing for the stage, the audience is only hearing your words once. They can’t read the sentence over; they can’t go back; they can’t stay on the page and savor a scene. Everything you write really has to hit." -James Magruder

GH: How do you think your creative process has changed, over the years?

JM: I’m less apt to question myself, now. If I get stuck with my writing, I don’t panic anymore, because I’ve already gone through hell writing and rewriting stories. One of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written was rejected by sixty-five literary journals before one of them finally wound up taking it. I believe in myself now in a way that I never used to. It’s taken me a long, long time, but I finally view myself as an artist. I’m a late bloomer. As a writer, I think the first thing you have to allow yourself is the title of artist. It took me three novels and fifteen short stories, and a failed Broadway musical, to realize, Jim, you are a writer; no one can take that away from you.

GH: What’s it like to be working on Broadway for the second time in your career?

JM: Michael Mayer and I made our Broadway debut together with TRIUMPH OF LOVE in 1997, and it was a fluke. We’ve stayed best friends, and I’m just blessed to be working with Michael again after all these years. Even though I was a show queen growing up, I never set out to be a Broadway book writer, so when it happened, and failed financially, it didn’t really destroy me, because it wasn’t my whole life. Twenty years later, I know just what a miracle it is to have this happen. I’m older, I’m more appreciative, and I just feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.

HEAD OVER HEELS performances begin on April 10th at the Curran. This limited engagement leaves the Bay Area for Broadway on May 6th.

Single tickets can be purchased here. Tickets are also available as part of #CURRAN2018, our first-ever subscription offering, featuring four extraordinary shows: three brand new works and the smash hit DEAR EVAN HANSEN.