Jeff Whitty's 'Head Over Heels' premieres at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s zany, romantic “Head Over Heels” is an unusual mash-up of Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century romance “Arcadia” with the music of the 1980s all-female rock band the Go-Go’s.
Playwright Jeff Whitty, a veteran of Broadway, got the idea to create a “jukebox musical,” one based on existing rock music, and, in a seemingly incongruous move, to make it work with a classic Elizabethan novel.
"It’s about contrasts," says Whitty, now happily living in Ashland.
The play, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, is about the clashing and blending of opposites in life and love. The king of Arcadia gets a bad oracle and seeks to overcome his fate with power and control.
He has two beloved daughters, Pamela (played by Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Tala Ashe), one gorgeous, the other plain, but Whitty writes it so the plain one is loved for her beauty while the pretty one is overlooked.
“Everyone has obstacles to overcome,” says Whitty.
One of the girls is lesbian, but this, he notes, is a time when no one’s heard the word.
“It’s not preachy about that or anything. I let the audience play with it, so it’s their judgment,” he says.
“We made it so the show threatens to be adult and racy, but it doesn’t go all the way, so you can bring your 10-year-old child. If we get a complaint from someone that they heard a dirty word in their head, well, we can say, ‘You must have a dirty mind, then,’ ” he jokes.
"Head Over Heals" premieres this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The show previews Wednesday, June 10, opens Saturday, June 13, and runs through Oct. 10 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre on the OSF campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Curtain is at 8 p.m.
Tickets start at $30 to $105 and can be purchased at www.osfashland.org or by calling 800-219-8161.
The message of this musical? There isn’t one, Whitty says.
“My goal is not to send any message but to allow my audience to find the moral of the story themselves and really laugh hard and experience beauty and perhaps be touched if they’d allow it. Laughter shakes the bark off people.”
The literary basis for the musical, Sidney’s “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,” was written in the late 1570s to make his sister, noted author Mary Sidney Herbert, laugh. It’s a romance on the ancient Greek model using duels, battles, rapes, abductions and nasty politics.
Whitty, a graduate of the University of Oregon, read and loved the book in college and somehow saw it meshing (and clashing) with the music of the Go-Go’s, “a group of scrappy, troubled rock stars who will tell you the great stories behind their music," he says. "They’ve been through it. I saw them live last year. They’re sober now and still performing. This will be so much fun, a blast for the audience." Whitty adds the Go-Go’s plan to see the production.
Whitty was born and raised in Coos Bay and got his first inspiration for theater as a boy while attending OSF. He went off to New York and wrote the book of the wildly successful musical “Avenue Q,” for which he won a Tony in 2004. It’s a coming-of-age comedy that shows how kids raised with “Sesame Street” to feel special and believe anything is possible often find quite the opposite is true as adults.
He wrote “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler,” produced at OSF in 2008.
The prolific Whitty is working on three more musicals, one with Elton John and another with model-actress Tyra Banks.
After a couple of decades away, Whitty loves being back in Oregon and finds OSF “the best place in the world you could ever work. It has a sense of family you don’t get anywhere else, and a dedication from people in every department, a great repertory schedule and an outdoor theater, and you can see eight plays in four days.”