Gracie Hays talks to HEAD OVER HEELS director Michael Mayer.
GRACIE HAYS: You directed and co-wrote the book for Green Day’s musical, AMERICAN IDIOT. Did that experience influence the way you’ve approached The Go-Go’s catalog?
MICHAEL MAYER: The fact that Green Day fans were so engaged with American Idiot gave me a lot of encouragement as we worked on HEAD OVER HEELS. I think that when you’re super familiar with a band’s material and you have a history you’re bringing to it, it’s very cool to be given a new way of hearing those songs—the audience forms an even deeper relationship to the music. So, it’s daunting only to the extent that you don’t want to completely mess it up, you know?
GH: How do you know when a show is ready to go?
MM: Well, you’re asking the wrong person (laughs). I’ve famously given notes to actors on closing night. I’m never totally satisfied, but I understand that at a certain point you just have to stop. Sometimes my collaborators and I can just feel when something’s ready. I really trust the people I work with, and in this particular instance, I’m working with a team with whom I’ve had really great experiences in the past. We’ll be in constant dialogue about everything: “Is this number as good as it could be?” “Does this scene lead into the song in the best possible way?” “Is there something else we can do with the lighting?” We’ll definitely freeze the show before we open it, but then we’ll probably unfreeze it again. It just keeps going! It’s really maddening!
GH: What’s been the most unexpected thing for you, working on HEAD OVER HEELS?
MM: I think the most unexpected thing was how of-the-moment the story feels. It’s unbelievably funny and sexy and delightful, but it’s also surprisingly moving. Where we are as an American culture, in these scary Trump years and in the middle of the #MeToo movement—you’ll see just how passionately the audience connects to this story. At the end of the day, the show’s about ending a kind of government that feels very similar to the one we have in this country right now, which is ideologically opposed to everything that I understand to be progressive, enlightened, feminist, all the things I believe in. In addition to that depiction of the doggedly insane patriarchy, there’s also the identity politics of the multi-gendered world we find ourselves in. Even though this is such a funny show, the message is absolutely there. It’s a total romp on one hand, but it’s saying something quite profound. And the fact that in the role of a gender-nonconforming character we have a trans woman actress, Peppermint—that is exciting. I don’t think that’s ever happened before, certainly not on Broadway, that a principal role is being created by a trans actress. It’s shocking to me, how different we are from some of the other shows that are being revived this year—MY FAIR LADY, CAROUSEL, PRETTY WOMAN. We just really feel like this is the work that we need to be making right now.
GH: Yeah, everything you’re describing makes the show feel like a very urgent work to me.
MM: Urgent is a good word. I love it. But I don’t want this to feel heavy to people—to me, it’s entertaining first and foremost. But I have to say, when I watch two of our female characters fall in love and own that, it’s like—when’s the last time we saw two women really at the center of a story, and their love for each other is what we’re rooting for? Not since FUNHOME, probably. Or Peppermint’s character, and the man who screwed her over basically getting his comeuppance and apologizing. When do you ever see men apologize to women and say, “You know what, you’re right, we’re wrong. YOU should be in charge of things”? It just doesn’t happen in musicals. And god bless, I love the men who are involved in this, who are so happy to be telling this story. I love that we have an all-female band. That’s very unusual, too, for Broadway. It fits with The Go-Go’s, but it seems right in general, too.
GH: HEAD OVER HEELS is having its pre-Broadway premiere at the Curran. What’s it been like, to work on the show here?
MM: There are so many great luxuries in getting to present our production in San Francisco. It’s very helpful for all of us to get to work together in a concentrated, uninterrupted way, far from the prying eyes of the New York theater. And the type of audience I know we’ll have—I’ve done a few shows in the Bay Area and in my experience, theatergoers here are very honest, very smart, and they tend to be very generous, too. It’s not like doing new work in New York, where sometimes you’ll get these audiences that just sit there with their arms folded. There’s a kind of willingness to go on the ride that I really appreciate.
"I remember sitting down on the floor with Carole and saying, “Okay, I’m working on this show called Head Over Heels, and you need to do it here. It needs to happen here." - Michael Mayer
GH: Tell us about the first time you visited the Curran, after its renovation.
MM: I visited last spring, and I almost didn’t recognize the place. I remember sitting down on the floor of the mezzanine lobby with Carole [Shorenstein Hays] and saying, “Okay, I’m working on this show called HEAD OVER HEELS, and you need to do it here. It needs to happen here.” Because the second I walked into the building, I thought to myself, Carole, god bless her, is telling a brand-new story in this old building, and she’s connected the history of this theater with our present moment. Seeing the Curran made me think of everything that I love about HEAD OVER HEELS—there’s this incredible sense of vibrancy, and relevance, and inclusivity. It’s the same kind of genius mashup, except with this classic proscenium theater in a twenty-first-century outfit. I got very excited and I thought, there’s no other place for us. I was quite adamant about it, really. Carole didn’t know anything about the script yet, so I almost acted out the whole show for her, right there on the spot (laughs).
GH: We’re so glad you did. Last question—do you have any favorite Bay Area hangouts?
MM: Well, when I was working on AMERICAN IDIOT at Berkeley Rep, I became a little bit friendly with Alice Waters. I ended up spending more time at Chez Panisse than most people are supposed to in their lives (laughs). There’s also another place in Berkeley, La Note. We had breakfast there every single day. We would start with a baguette with butter that we would dip into our coffees, and then we’d share a giant order of raspberry pancakes. Then we’d all have eggs of different varieties. I loved Berkeley Bowl, too—I had never seen so many varieties of plums, which completely freaked me out. And then in San Francisco, whenever I’m here, I have to go to Zuni and get the chicken. Must do that. And my new favorite clothing store is The Archive, near Union Square. They have the stuff I love, which is Japanese design, and almost everything is black (laughs).
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.