Since bursting onto the Los Angeles scene in 1978, the Go-Go’s have gone through the highs and lows common to rock bands: No. 1 hits and undervalued deep cuts, hard partying and rehab, splits and reunions. No wonder the all-female new wave group’s members have long fielded, and rejected, offers to dramatize their story.
The writer and actor Jeff Whitty’s idea for a Go-Go’s musical was decidedly different. As “Mamma Mia!” did for Abba, “Head Over Heels,” now in previews at Broadway’s Hudson Theater, fits songs pulled from the band’s catalog into a new story. Well, sort of new: Bridging the 1580s and the 1980s, the show’s plot is based on Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century prose poem “The Arcadia.”
The premise: An oracle (Peppermint, from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) sends the royal court into a tizzy with the warning that Arcadia could lose its life-sustaining beat if four prophecies come to pass. Add to the mix a shepherd in drag and princesses pining after unlikely suitors, and all hell joyfully breaks loose.
“The Go-Go’s have a sense of humor, there is an edge and a twist to us that isn’t always apparent, and to me the show captures that,” the band’s bassist, Kathy Valentine, said by telephone.
All was not merry in the show’s run-up, however. Mr. Whitty departed after working on the 2015 premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and remains credited for concept and book; James Magruder adapted the book. (According to a statement from the producers: “Jeff Whitty’s original book was tied to specific language and arrangements of the Go-Go’s music. Incoming director Michael Mayer had a different vision for ‘Head Over Heels’ and Mr. Whitty chose to leave the production. All concerned wish one another success in their future endeavors.”)
To illustrate the journey from Billboard to Broadway, we looked at how five Go-Go’s songs evolved into musical-theater numbers; the tracks appear in their stage order.‘We Got the Beat’
Anchoring the band’s 1981 debut album, the chart-topping “Beauty and the Beat,” this song now opens the musical with an ebullient bang — or rather the drummer Gina Schock’s immediately identifiable intro.
Charlotte Caffey, 64, Go-Go’s guitarist: I was trying to write a song all day and I gave up at the end of the night. Then suddenly the floodgates opened and I just channeled this whole thing in minutes. It spilled out of me, there was no effort whatsoever. I still have the original cassette recording.
Kathy Valentine, 59, Go-Go’s bassist: There are a lot of great drummers but not a lot of them can make a song have a hook. Gina gave a hook to the song.
Richard Gottehrer, 78, “Beauty and the Beat” co-producer: I mixed the album with what I thought would serve the songs best and reach a wide audience. The girls hated it and it was months before I talked to any of them again. Eventually they said thank you [laughs].
Michael Mayer, 58, “Head Over Heels” director: The show used to start with talk but [at a 2016 residency] at Vassar we decided to open with “We Got the Beat.” The way we have it now, it’s a big opening number celebrating the summer solstice and the legacy of the beat that the gods gave.
Tom Kitt, 44, “Head Over Heels” orchestrator/arranger: I’m a big fan of pop songs that begin with an energetic, iconic drum groove. Then you have the catchy chorus, the breakdown at the end of the song with the hand claps — it’s a galvanizing pop-music statement.‘Automatic Rainy Day’
This cut from the 2001 reunion album “God Bless the Go-Go’s” — the band’s last — has been fashioned into a duet where the vain Princess Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and her lady-in-waiting, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), turn into dueling divas.
Gina Schock, 60, Go-Go’s drummer: That was a song I’d done with my writing partner at the time, Steve Plunkett. I played the demo and everyone [in the band] loved it. They just wanted a bit of a touch-up lyrically to make it feel more Go-Go-ish so [guitarist] Jane [Wiedlin] came in.
Mayer: It used to be a little more ferocious in the show but now it’s more playful. These two women sing their faces off, brilliantly, and yet it’s all rooted in character. It was Tom Kitt who decided we should do a riff-off.
Kitt: The riff-off came out of rehearsal. It was something I thought could work and the actors took it to the umpteenth level. I added glockenspiel in the choruses. Green Day used glockenspiel on “Wake Me Up When September Ends”; it’s an instrument that’s been used really well both in pop and in musical theater.‘Vacation’
The title track of the second album by the Go-Go’s, and its biggest hit, was released in 1982, with Mr. Gottehrer producing once again. Ms. Valentine had penned the bulk of the song before joining the band, then completed it with Ms. Caffey and Ms. Wiedlin. In the show, Mopsa takes off on a solo holiday only to realize someone’s missing.
Valentine: I wrote it when I was 21 years old, on an airplane napkin. Because we’d been working so hard we didn’t have the opportunity to write as many songs for the second record as for the first, and I thought this seemed perfect for the Go-Go’s.
Gottehrer: “Vacation” was an anomaly on the second album, which really wasn’t as good as the first one. They were queens of the L.A. world and I’m sure they had boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever, along with people giving them substances, and that is reflected in the music. I wish it’d get to the chorus sooner but I guess you needed to set up the story; the song is very good, but the chorus is amazingly good.
Mayer: It’s always going to be a tricky song because of the cognitive dissonance between the tempo, the melody and the lyric. We thought that maybe it should be a ballad so that you deliver this sort of rueful lyric with a melancholy music. We tried that and you just want to scream, it’s so wrong — it’s not in the DNA of the song.
Kitt: I added the “Head Over Heels” motif at the beginning, which the Go-Go’s really liked. And then of course we deliver the exact feel you would hear on the record but with [a new] vocal arrangement. With that sort of tag we put on at the end, it feels like it has a traditional musical-theater journey.
Valentine: If I had to boil down the message, it would be: Learn who you are, accept who you are. It’s the same lesson I would teach my daughter — it’s just a basic truth.‘Head Over Heels’
Cowritten by Ms. Caffey and Ms. Valentine, the most famous track from the band’s third album, “Talk Show” (1984), peaked at No. 11 and features a whirligig of a piano break, followed by a catchy bass-and-drum bridge.
Belinda Carlisle, 59, Go-Go’s singer: That was the beginning of the end, that album. We were run ragged, we didn’t know how to say no. The song has an upbeat, cheerful melody and lyrically it really captures the darker side of fame and fortune — I had an appreciation for the lyrics then but not like I do now in hindsight.
Mayer: The idea that love can turn you upside down is so much of what the show is about. “Head Over Heels” opens Act 2, and for me the opener of Act 2 in musical comedy brings the audience back to where they left off.
Kitt: There’s a little bit of a puzzle as to how I get to all the characters and they’re singing in the right ranges for them. But it was important for me to keep the piano solo in the exact key and the exact feel from the album. I love the way we put the hand claps in the choreography. I didn’t want a sample — it’s much more gratifying when the actors actually do it.‘Here You Are’
Marking a tonal shift toward the end of the show, this number from “God Bless the Go-Go’s” provides a breather from the general exuberance. It’s one of the rare Go-Go’s songs to include an outside co-writer — Jim Vallance, now a co-writer of the “Pretty Woman” musical.
Allen Kovac, 63, founder/owner of the Beyond label: There was a guy named Bruce Fairbairn — he did Bryan Adams, he produced Aerosmith, a bunch of different bands — and we called him up and said, “The Go-Go’s are an interesting group, had a lot of great records, but I need a ballad.” Bruce and I connected the band with Jim Vallance.
Sean Slade, 60, “God Bless the Go-Go’s” co-producer: He got it in his head that the album needed a ballad. It was a typical record-company kind of thing. When I heard the song I said, “Oh God, this is fine, I don’t think it’s a hit — it’s got a nice melody but it doesn’t have enough going for it.” But I didn’t mind, it didn’t really mar the album and it has a really nice, pretty chorus.
Jane Wiedlin, 60, Go-Go’s guitarist: Charlotte and I were at a songwriting gathering at Miles Copeland’s castle in France. On our record it’s a good ballad — I’ve never been a ballad person [laughs], I tend to gravitate toward more punk-rock songs — but in the show it’s spectacular. To me it’s the best part of the musical as far as the songs go.
Caffey: We’d never written a ballad with the Go-Go’s so the challenge for Jane and I was to write something that was true to us. With Jim Vallance it just came together.
Kitt: I made the cello solo from the original track into a vocal arrangement so that line is actually being sung by the actors. Because of the very emotional moment the song is serving and its staging, it’s a unique moment in the show.
Wiedlin: I always really liked that song but it wasn’t until they put it in the musical that I really fell in love with it.