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Queer creator blends Shakespeare with iconic music of Pat Benatar

Could LA’s production of ‘Invincible’ make it to Broadway?

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Kay Sibal and Khamary Rose star in ‘Invincible.’ (Photo by Jamie Pham Photography)

For millions of GenX-ers, the music of Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo – Benatar’s longtime lead guitarist, collaborator, and producing partner, and her husband since 1982 – has been an iconic generational touchstone for more than four decades. This might be especially true for queer GenXers, who found inspiration during their formative years in the defiant spirit that resonated through many of the duo’s songs.

One of those queer GenXers was Bradley Bredeweg, the out co-creator of another queer touchstone, television’s “The Fosters,” which became a hit for five seasons on FreeForm with its story of a lesbian couple raising five adopted children. Now, Bredeweg – a self-described “theater kid” – is helping to bring Benatar and Giraldo’s music to a new generation of rebellious youth with “Invincible,” a new musical that intricately weaves the couple’s legendary catalogue with inspired new songs to re-imagine Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for the 21st century.

“When I got into writing for television, I realized that I missed the equal exchange that happens between the people on the stage and the audience,” explains Bredeweg, who spoke with the Blade ahead of his show’s Nov. 22 opening at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Center for the Performing Arts. “I love film and television, obviously, I’m so grateful for it, but after a couple of years of doing it, I was like, ‘I miss that inner theater child, so I’m gonna moonlight.’”

The result of his “moonlighting” turns Shakespeare’s classic Verona setting into a modern, war-torn metropolis, and places his timeless tale of star-crossed lovers in a time of great transformation. Love and equality are forced to battle for survival as a newly elected chancellor works to return the city to its traditional roots and destroy a progressive resistance that is trying to imagine peace in a divided world – and if you think that sounds familiar, it’s by design. Its current run at the Wallis is its world premiere, but if things go as hoped, this is just the first step toward Broadway.

According to Bredeweg, however, it’s far from the beginning of his show’s journey.

“About 12 years ago, I realized I hadn’t read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ since high school and decided to read it again,” he tells us. “The next day I had to take a road trip – this was back in the era when I still had a CD book in my car – and I came across the “Best of” album of Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, so I popped it in and started driving. And because the story was obviously fresh in my head, I was listening to all these songs and realizing that if you line them up a certain way they totally tell the tale of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I wrote a first draft a couple of weeks later and then I just put it away and forgot about it.”

Much later, in 2015, he walked into a Los Feliz bar called the Rockwell (“It was this really cool kind of spot that we don’t have a lot of in LA, because we’re not a theatrical town”), where cabaret performances were sometimes mounted by visiting Broadway talent and Jeff Goldblum would do a gig every Wednesday night. Inspired by the vibe, he suddenly remembered, “this thing I had come up with all those years ago” and impulsively pitched the idea of putting it on to the bar’s manager. I said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea where I want to combine Shakespeare with Pat Benatar,’ and she said, ‘That’s insane, but I’m a huge fan of your show and I love it, so let’s do it.’”

This early incarnation (then called “Love is a Battlefield”) was an unprecedented hit, enjoying a six-month run to sold out houses – that is, until Benatar and Giraldo’s manager attended a performance and recorded a video of the whole thing on his iPhone. He showed it to Benatar and Giraldo, and they were intrigued; but at the time, unbeknownst to Bredeweg, they were working on developing their own life story as a musical using their songs, so they sent a “cease and desist” letter to the Rockwell and the show was forced to shut down.

“It was heartbreaking, for all of us,” says Bredeweg, “because we knew we had something with real potential.”

Then, a year later, he got a call from a producer who told him Benatar and Giraldo wanted him to come to New York and discuss his musical.

“Of course, I said yes and got myself there immediately. We took a meeting on their tour bus, and we started talking about the musical they were developing, and suddenly we all started to move in the direction of doing ‘Love is a Battlefield.’ By the end of it we were all laughing about how we had started out with a ‘cease and desist’ order and here we were talking about coming together to do a show.”

In part, says Bredeweg, the couple was convinced to change course by their discussion of the proliferation of so-called “jukebox musicals” that have increasingly populated Broadway in recent years. 

“We talked about how they have a shelf life, especially if they’re focused on a specific artist. They have a built-in audience, but beyond that, how can they stand the test of time? The real test of a timeless musical is if, in 40 years, every high school is doing it. I think that’s why we went back to using their iconic music to reinvent this epic, timeless tale.”

Another part of the appeal was how aptly the couple’s songs fit into Shakespeare’s classic – a coincidence, perhaps, but one that might be better described as synchronicity.

“When Pat and Neil met back in the late ‘70s it was supposed to just be a working relationship, but they fell head over heels in love with each other,” Bredeweg says. “When I got close to them, they told me they had been called the ‘Romeo and Juliet of the music world’ because the labels and managers and PR people were trying to break them up. They wanted Pat to stand on their own and Neil to just be her producing partner, and so much of what the two of them were creating at that time was about that struggle, about fighting that music industry system and saying, ‘let us figure this out for ourselves.’ That’s why so much of their music works inside of this story.”

For Bredeweg, the chance to realize his vision struck an intensely personal chord, too.

“I was always obsessed with the classics, but as a gay kid growing up in the ‘80s, I knew I felt different from everyone else, and as much as I loved them, I couldn’t really ‘attach’ to any character inside them. Nothing felt familiar to me, everything was from the point of view of a white cisgender person – and I always had these dreams, if I ever had any say, that I would love to tackle these classics in a different way and reposition them for a more diverse audience.”

In keeping with this mission, “Invincible” doesn’t just make Verona into a more modern city, but a more diverse one as well. The Capulet and Montague houses are run by the women, whose husbands are both dead; Romeo’s chum Benvolio is nonbinary, and falls in love with Juliet’s nurse; Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is secretly in love with her would-be husband, Paris; Paris himself is the city’s new chancellor, seeking the marriage as a means to control the vast Capulet fortune and deploy it to shore up his political power. In Bredeweg’s updated take on the tale, it’s a story about powerful men with powerful motives, with a matriarchy fighting against the traditional patriarchy and a younger generation trying to take control of its own destiny – and to ensure that it includes the freedom to love who they want.

“That’s obviously something the queer community can really understand,” says Bredweg. “We’ve been there and done that, the fight for marriage equality is all about that. It’s very much at the center of the show, and it was a big reason why I wanted to tackle the story, why I’ve rewritten so many characters with queer identities – taking these figures we thought we knew and giving them a more modern point of view.”

“Our culture is shifting in such huge ways,” he continues. “It goes back to my experience of not being able to find myself in these old tales. We are looking at our past, and pieces of art or the written world, or things in our politics, and we’re trying to reinvent these pinnacle moments in a way to make sure that history doesn’t always repeat, to move forward in different directions that are better for all of us. Especially the younger generations – they’ve stepped into this world where they’ve had no say in how chaotic things feel, and they are trying to take control of their identities and their path forward. That’s really what’s at the heart of our show.”

“Invincible” is not, of course, the first time “Romeo and Juliet” has been deconstructed and rebuilt as a musical; apart from the obvious example of “West Side Story,” the recent London import “& Juliet,” now a hot ticket on Broadway, presents an alternative version of the story in which the title character doesn’t kill herself, set to the music of pop songwriter Max Martin – responsible for hits from Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Céline Dion, among others.

Bredeweg isn’t worried about the competition.

“I never think about that kind of thing,” he tells us. “There’s always room for interpretation with classics of this stature. There’s space for both.”

His production, of course, has the added advantage of showcasing the music of two deeply beloved icons whose recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has catapulted their names back into the public arena in a big way – not that they were ever very far out of it.

For Bredeweg, though, the Benatar/Giraldo connection has always been much more than just a way to make his show marketable. It’s the whole reason “Invincible” even exists.

“Pat captured my heart as a young gay kid for obvious reasons. There was something about her music, and her energy and messaging.

“It made me feel that if someone as powerful as her could exist, then I could, too.”

“Invincible” continues its run at the Wallis until Dec. 18. For tickets and more details, visit their website.

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