Hey Niche Readers! Like many TV fans, I’m sure a lot of you have seen Season 2 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. Like us, I’m sure your hearts were warmed by the themes of friendship, found family, and the power of love to conquer adversity characteristic of the show. However, also like us, I’m sure many of you were dissatisfied by the show’s heteronormativity and slightly overdone 1980s Spielberg Kitsch aesthetic. Never fear! Here to help are Hannah and Seph, with an LGBT-friendly spinoff known as the Boy Actor AU, or Trans Elizabethan Stranger Things: The Musical.
Let’s backtrack for a moment to 2016. After the first season of Stranger Things aired, Hannah (@lesbianmikewheeler on tumblr), along with her friends Win (@alisounbechdel on tumblr) and Sam (@thestateonmtv on tumblr), developed a reading of the show that came to be known as the Trans Stranger Things Conspiracy, or TSTC for short. The Elizabethan Stranger Things Musical is heavily derived from TSTC, so before we proceed, let’s lay out TSTC’s basic principles:
- Mike Wheeler is a (baby) trans femme lesbian.
- El is a (baby) butch lesbian with a complicated relationship to gender.
- Mike and El’s love story is strongly rooted in the solace they find in their friendship as trans kids who are figuring out their gender identities together.
- Will Byers is gay, and has a crush on Mike, who hasn’t come out as trans yet.
- Dustin, Max, and Lucas are also Members Of The LGBT Community, although their exact identities are a bit more nebulous and free-floating.
- Mike and El’s animosity toward Max is Baby Lesbian Drama.
- Jonathan Byers is a butch trans lesbian who sometimes goes by Jo.
- Nancy Wheeler is, like her sister, a femme lesbian, who may or may not also be trans.
- Steve, Jo, and Nancy briefly have a Weird Thing Going On before Jo comes out as trans and Jo and Nancy realize that they’re lesbians and kick Steve out of the relationship.
- This forces Steve to do some soul-searching, realize he is gay, and start going out with a Nameless Twink who is not currently a canonical character on the show. (This Nameless Twink is played by either Ben Schwartz, Harry Styles, or also Joe Keery, parent-trap style.)
- Joyce Byers might be a lesbian, although this is more up in the air.
- Who knows what’s going on with Hopper.
To summarize, here is a helpful TSTC family tree that Seph made (note that Joyce and Hopper aren’t gay in this particular iteration):
Got it? Good!
This year, Seph and Hannah developed a concept for an AU of TSTC, which is largely inspired by Seph’s BA thesis research on Elizabethan boy actors, as well as Seph and Hannah’s love of Shakespeare and musical theatre. Here are the basic principles of what came to be called The Stranger Things Boy Actor AU:
- Mike and Nancy are the star boy actors of a fictionalized version of Shakespeare’s theatre company known as Harrington’s Men. Because of their long history of working together (they were in another company together before they joined this one, which they left because of their fellow actors’ abusive behavior), Mike and Nancy think of themselves as sisters. Nancy is approaching an age where she would ordinarily transition out of playing female roles, a fact which causes her intense anxiety.
- Dustin and Lucas are also boy actors / actor’s apprentices of slightly lesser stature with the company.
- Steve Harrington, or Count Steven, is the pampered, dandyish son of the patron of Harrington’s Men (hence the name). He believes himself to be in love with Nancy, who rejects his advances.
- Joyce Byers is the widow of a tailor, Alonso Byers, and has taken over her late husband’s business in his absence. Much of her work comes from making and selling theatrical costumes and properties to Harrintgon’s Men. (Side note: if you’re interested,here is a very interesting article on women’s involvement in the Elizabethan theatre via the textile industry and other trades!) As a result, she has developed a friendly professional relationship with the company’s leading actor-manager, James Hopper.
- Joyce has two children by her late husband: Will Byers, a very sweet boy who has become good friends with the children of Harrington’s Men, and Mike in particular; and Jo (remember her?), a shy, aspiring playwright and poet with a crush on Nancy.
- Jane Ives is a young runaway working as a thief in a thieves’ gang run by the evil, Fagin-like Martin Brenner (who, as a point of interest, is in no way Jewish). The ringleader/Artful Dodger of the group is an older girl named Kali. Kali and Jane are good friends, although both long for a better life.
- Max Hargrove is another pickpocket. unaffiliated with Brenner’s Thieves’ Guild. Lord Billy Hargrove is her wicked, aristocratic stepbrother, who refuses to support her on the excuse that she is not his “real sister” and allows her to fend for herself on the streets.
- Also a member of Harrington’s Men is that Nameless Twink we mentioned earlier. He is slated to play Mercutio in the company’s upcoming show, The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet.
Got it? Great! Let’s move on.
Now that you’re fully briefed on the premise, here is the plot of Stranger Things Boy Actor AU, The Musical!
The curtain opens on the middle of a street in the South Bank of late sixteenth century London. The ensemble carries through a marketplace, the ACTORS conversing and buying wares as the THIEVES GUILD stealthily and silently pickpockets various members of the crowd (“I Have A Song to Sing, O!”). During the chaos, a young silent street urchin (EL/‘JANE’) gets swept up amongst the THIEVES GUILD, and is pulled away.
The child is quickly nicknamed ‘JANE’ and introduced to the lifestyle of child thieves by their ringleader, KALI, a charismatic older thief. In a split scene, KALI and NANCY both celebrate and lament their hardscrabble lives as a thief and a boy actor, respectively (“It’s A Fine Life”). Living among the THIEVES’ GUILD, ‘JANE’ is forced into their servitude by the slimy adult leader BRENNER, with no alternative but to spend the rest of her life on the streets in hiding. She spends days under KALI’s tutelage, learning to steal and beginning to starve, speaking to no one but privately lamenting her own misfortunes (“Where Is Love?”).
One night ‘JANE’ is sent out on her first solo job to the local tavern by BRENNER (“Be Back Soon”) and slips inside to see HARRINGTONS’ MEN, a troupe of actors, celebrating after a successful show, with the tailor’s widow JOYCE leading the joyful rabble in song (“Oom Pa Pa”). ‘JANE’, fascinated by the warmth and energy of the actors, becomes distracted and is caught stealing the purse of NANCY, a beautiful boy actor. After an outcry, she escapes, and MIKE, an eager-to-please boy actor and NANCY’s younger sister, chases her down an alley, where ‘JANE’ collapses from hunger. MIKE, mistaking her for a boy and taking pity on her, helps her up and takes her back to MIKE’s home.
‘JANE’ is nursed back to health by MIKE’s makeshift family, which consists of MIKE and NANCY, two teenage boy actors, the tailor JOYCE, her daughter JO, an aspiring playwright deeply in love with NANCY, and her son WILL, a quiet young boy and MIKE’s best friend. They are quickly taken with ‘JANE’, who does not speak to them but strives to make herself useful, and convince her to stay amongst the ACTORS (“Consider Yourself”). MIKE, who has fallen in love with ‘JANE’, convinces their master of revels, HOPPER, to take her on as an apprentice, and calls her by a new name every day, still unaware of her identity.
NANCY teases MIKE about ‘JANE’ amongst the rest of the actors, and they playfully jibe with one another (“Sisters”) before MIKE returns home with WILL. NANCY, a popular boy actor who dreads coming to an age where she will no longer be able to play women’s roles, both revels in and bemoans her life as an actress (“Life Upon The Wicked Stage”) in earshot of an eavesdropping JO. JO steels herself to approach NANCY and confess her love (“Johanna”), but NANCY is instead approached by COUNT STEVEN, the son of the ACTORS’ patron and a handsome aristocrat deeply infatuated with NANCY. They flirt briefly and STEVE reads her a poorly devised sonnet of his own creation (“Johanna (Reprise)”), but NANCY rejects him and they fight. STEVE leaves in a huff and JO, discouraged, returns home before NANCY can find her.
In a brief timeskip, a still nonverbal ‘JANE’ has been apprenticed to HOPPER for several weeks, and, while fascinated with the theatre and determined to remain useful, struggles with her work (“Who Will Buy?”). She is seen on the street, briefly, by KALI, who nearly approaches her, sees her amongst friends, and decides to leave her be. MIKE, utterly devoted to ‘JANE’, spends all her free time rehearsing lines with her, eventually offering her the name ARIEL. Delighted by it, EL speaks for the first time, and recites back a line from MIKE’s rehearsals from her (“Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized/Henceforth I never will be Romeo”). MIKE, stunned, embraces her before exiting, intending to petition HOPPER into allowing EL to act alongside her in the troupe’s productions. EL, alone, fantasizes about her new name and the identity she can forge for herself among the troupe (“El For Short”).
JOYCE and HOPPER are drinking together and reminiscing about their youth when MIKE approaches HOPPER. HOPPER, to JOYCE’s surprise, allows for EL to join the troupe as an actor. JOYCE commends him for it, and they talk briefly about their tribulations (widowhood and losing a child, respectively) before celebrating each other’s strengths (“It Takes Two”). After HOPPER leaves, JOYCE privately reflects on how her life and self-image have changed since the death of her abusive husband, Alonso Byers (“Back To Before”). A drunken NANCY wanders out of the same bar to encounter JO, who has been privately working on a play for NANCY to star in. NANCY flirts with JO as they walk home together, and JO, unsure of her sincerity, struggles with telling NANCY her own feelings (“Perfectly Marvelous”). NANCY attempts to proposition JO, dragging her into bed before falling asleep, and a dazed JO falls asleep beside her. COUNT STEVEN, attempting to serenade NANCY with another sonnet (“On The Street Where You Live”), sees them in bed together, and leaves in despair.
The next day in the theatre, NANCY complains to MIKE about STEVE’S advances as MIKE’s various theatre friends and fellow actors, WILL, LUCAS, and DUSTIN, gather to train EL. MIKE mocks STEVE’s flirtations with NANCY to the amusement of her friends, and NANCY invites EL onto the stage to imitate MIKE’s declarations of love as acting practice; EL’s reprise to MIKE, however, is completely in earnest (“I’d Do Anything”). They are interrupted by the arrival of MAX, a prickly but kindhearted pickpocket with whom LUCAS is entangled in an ongoing belligerent flirtation. Afraid MAX will reveal her as a ‘girl’ and a member of BRENNER’s gang, EL runs out, and MIKE briefly argues with MAX and LUCAS before excusing herself.
In an effort to relax EL, MIKE shows her the ropes of boy actor makeup and costume, explaining to her how she and NANCY became sisters in their early acting days by creating small spaces in which to be girls together. EL professes her feelings to MIKE once again (“The Dress Looks Nice On You”), and they share a dance and a brief kiss before EL is whisked away by NANCY and JOYCE. MIKE gushes over her feelings for EL and Will and Dustin playfully tease her (“I Feel Pretty”). (For WILL, however, this teasing has a bitter edge to it, as he still has feelings for MIKE.)
On the other side of town, LUCAS chases MAX up the street, trying to appease her after the fight with MIKE. They pass COUNT STEVEN, who is bemoaning the loss of NANCY alongside a well-dressed actor from HARRINGTONS’ MEN who looks extraordinarily like him (“Agony”). MAX asks why LUCAS is friends with a pickpocket like her, and LUCAS stutteringly attempts to confess his own feelings (“If I Loved You”) before MAX, overwhelmed, runs away. NANCY returns to the house with EL and encounters JO, who attempts to excuse the night before as NANCY’s drunkenness before NANCY, in frustration, kisses her before hurrying away. EL and JO, both dazed and tense from their encounters with MIKE and NANCY, soliloquize separately on how withholding from ones they love is fracturing their sense of identity (“If You See Light”). Meanwhile, KALI stands outside the theatre, wrestling with her dilemma of whether to betray the THIEVES’ GUILD by warning the ACTORS that BRENNER is on a hunt for EL/’JANE’; she she sees NANCY leaving the theatre and decides to follow her home (“Cry for Judas”).
NANCY goes to the BYERS’ to talk with them about her concerns for EL, who has been on edge lately. When she arrives, she meets JO, who talks to her about the play she has been writing for her. KALI then arrives on the BYERS’ doorstep; she explains that she followed NANCY there from the theatre, and has come to warn them that BRENNER may attempt to re-capture EL/‘JANE’ for the THIEVES’ GUILD. NANCY is both relieved that her suspicions were founded and frightened for EL; she promises to keep a watchful eye out for her. NANCY and JO ask KALI about her life among the thieves, and the three of them collectively bemoan their circumstances and share their longings for a better life (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”).
At the Byers’, a despondent and lovesick WILL talks briefly with MIKE about the upcoming unnamed production, but MIKE is still lost in the dream of her dance with EL; finally, JOYCE and HOPPER tell her its late and she ought to go to bed (“I Could Have Danced All Night”). JOYCE and HOPPER are seen making plans for the next show. STEVE sees NANCY leaving the Byers’ with JO and KALI, but foregoes talking to her to remain by the side of the WELL DRESSED ACTOR; LUCAS serenades MAX from below a window with a heartfelt letter apologizing again for his awkwardness at the theatre (“Dear Friend/Finale”). Meanwhile, WILL finally confides in DUSTIN about his feelings for MIKE. DUSTIN responds that he would have had to be blind not to see WILL’S feelings for MIKE, and that he loves and supports him (“Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”). JO, NANCY and KALI arrive at the theatre as the curtains draw on Act One.
About six months have passed since the end of Act One; the ACTORS are reveling in new success after the addition of EL to their number. MIKE and EL have just finished performing As You Like It as Rosalind and Celia to high praise; JO is finishing her play for NANCY, who is determined to perform one more female role with HARRINGTONS’ MEN; HOPPER and JOYCE discuss the next play to be put on in secret, with much anticipation from all the actors.
A carefree MIKE and EL travel through the marketplace together, buying various items for dinner and secretly picking up small gifts for one another (“Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (Instrumental)”). Thinking she sees BRENNER in the crowd, EL panics, breaks away from MIKE, and runs home, where JOYCE gleefully informs her she will playing Romeo to MIKE’s Juliet in their next production.
Thrilled by the prospect, MIKE leads EL through a whirlwind of rehearsals and costumes (“O Valencia!”), with the other ACTORS coming into roles around them–notably NANCY as the Nurse and COUNT STEVEN’s well dressed actor as MERCUTIO. MIKE and NANCY bittersweetly reflect on their time together as partner actresses, and promise to always stay together (“I Will Never Leave You”). Trying to put MIKE out of his mind, WILL buries himself in tailor’s work, until DUSTIN recalls him back into their friend circle with an emphatic declaration of devotion (“Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me”). JOYCE and HOPPER, both overwrought with working on the show and worrying over WILL and EL, encourage each other in tandem to DUSTIN’s promise to WILL (“You’ll Never Get Away From Me”).
Time passes quickly through dance and echoing lines from the play (“Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (Reprise)”), and ends with MIKE and EL behind the curtain of Romeo and Juliet’s opening night. MIKE attempts to tell EL she loves her, but is interrupted by the start of the show- they are separated and reunited throughout the first two acts, each time with MIKE attempting to tell EL of her love backstage before being pulled away again. Meanwhile, STEVE sees his friend play MERCUTIO and falls madly in love with him (“Ten Minutes Ago”).
BRENNER, in the audience, recognizes EL on stage during the third act, directly after Romeo’s murder of Tybalt. He shouts out for JANE, and EL, terrified, runs offstage (“The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”). She is apprehended outside the theatre by KALI, who calms her down and promises to take her to safety. NANCY runs to tell MIKE, who is practicing the ‘Romeo banish’d’ speech backstage, that EL has disappeared mid-show and that LUCAS will have to stand in for her. MIKE breaks down onstage in the next scene, and she too runs out of the theatre to find EL but is swiftly captured by BRENNER. The show dissolves into chaos, and WILL, NANCY, LUCAS, DUSTIN, and MAX attempt to chase after MIKE but are stopped by LORD BILLY HARGROVE, the wicked aristocratic elder brother of MAX. He attempts to attack the ACTORS and kidnap MAX, but is intercepted by COUNT STEVEN, who challenges him to a duel (“The Duel”). COUNT STEVEN is quickly incapacitated and brought close to death, but MAX wrests his sword from his hand and bests LORD BILLY in combat, making him swear an oath to leave the theatre forever. The handsome actor who played MERCUTIO takes the injured STEVE home with him.
KALI, fearing for EL’s life, attempts to sneak her on a ship that will carry her to France, but EL realizes she must face her past and return to London to save her family (“Papers”). She convinces KALI to go to the theatre and tell the ACTORS about BRENNER’s hideout, and sets out alone to rescue MIKE. She first confronts BRENNER, who she accuses of abuse and who in turn admonishes her for her ungrateful nature (“The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)”). He attempts to attack her, and with the pickpocketing techniques he had taught her in Act One and Romeo’s stage combat learned in Act Two, she evades and kills him. She breaks into the thieves’ den and finds MIKE tied up. Tearfully, EL apologizes to her for putting her in danger. She then apologizes for lying about her origin as a thief and a ‘girl’, and says she will leave the troupe. MIKE, overcome with relief, finally tells EL she loves her and promises her that the theatre will always be a home for her; the ACTORS and KALI then break into the thieves’ den as a unit to save MIKE and EL and bring them home (“Somewhere”).
Meanwhile, STEVE wakes up in bed with his MERCUTIO and marvels that he has been falling in love with him all along (“What More Can I Say?”). Back in the theatre, after cleaning up MIKE and EL and sending them, along with WILL, DUSTIN, LUCAS, and MAX, to bed, the elders of the troupe somberly discuss what is to be done about BRENNER’s death. KALI raises a mocking toast to him, with NANCY echoing in concern for her sister (“I Raise My Cup To Him”). HOPPER offers to dispose of BRENNER, and encounters the young group of ACTORS eavesdropping on their conversation at the door. JOYCE attempts to distract them by beginning early Christmas celebrations with the backing of NANCY, JO, and a reluctant KALI (“We Need A Little Christmas”). When this appeasement fails, JOYCE, joined by HOPPER, instead frankly tells them that the past is full of darkness and cannot be done, and the future is uncertain, but that they will continue to stand by one another’s side as a family, whatever happens (“No One Is Alone”).
JO brings NANCY out of the tavern in private to finally present the play she has written for NANCY to star in; a romance between a beautiful actress and her hapless admirer (“Epic”). JO promises NANCY the female lead in any play she might write; NANCY tells her they should reconcile with COUNT STEVEN to gain his patronage for JO’s shows (“Soon It’s Gonna Rain”).COUNT STEVEN, across town, is being brought back to health by his MERCUTIO when NANCY and JO come to him, and, moved by their romance and finally satisfied by his own, the three (or four, counting STEVE’S MERCUTIO) make peace (“Unlikely Lovers”).
HOPPER returns to the thieves’ den to find the lawkeepers unbothered by BRENNER’s murder and instead remarking on how the culprit has probably saved dozens of children. He quietly returns to the theatre, and tells EL that she no longer has to hide and may act and live as she pleases. EL, overjoyed, reclaims the name Ariel and reasserts her identity without fear (“White Cedar”). JO and NANCY tell the ACTORS that COUNT STEVEN has given patronage to JO’s play, after they perform another attempt at Romeo and Juliet. The young ACTORS return to the homestead, celebrating their reunion, and JOYCE is left on the stage to reflect on the events of the past few months and her hopes that the next generation will learn from her own mistakes (“Children Will Listen”). The curtain closes, one final time, on the entirety of the extended ACTOR family beginning to practice JO’s play together.
You can listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify here. For a full listening experience, please mark the footnotes on tracks 9 & 12 in the first act, and tracks 7 & 9 in the second act. Enjoy!
- I Have A Song To Sing, O! / ENSEMBLE / (originally from The Yeomen of the Guard)
- It’s A Fine Life / KALI & NANCY / (originally from Oliver!)
- Where Is Love? / EL / (originally from Oliver!)
- Be Back Soon / BRENNER, EL & THE THIEVES’ GANG / (originally from Oliver!)
- Oom-Pah-Pah / JOYCE / (originally from Oliver!)
- Consider Yourself / MIKE & HARRINGTON’S MEN / (originally from Oliver!)Sisters / NANCY & MIKE / (originally from White Christmas)
- Life Upon The Wicked Stage / NANCY / (originally from Show Boat)
- Johanna / JO / (originally from Sweeney Todd)1
- Johanna (Reprise) / COUNT STEVEN / (originally from Sweeney Todd)
- Who Will Buy? / EL / (originally from Oliver!)
- El For Short / EL / (originally from Fun Home)2
- It Takes Two / JOYCE & HOPPER / (originally from Into The Woods)
- Back To Before / JOYCE / (originally from Ragtime)
- Perfectly Marvelous / NANCY & JO / (originally from Cabaret)
- On The Street Where You Live / COUNT STEVEN / (originally from My Fair Lady)
- I’d Do Anything3 / NANCY, MIKE, EL, & HARRINGTON’S MEN / (originally from Oliver!)
- The Dress Looks Nice On You / EL / (Sufjan Stevens)
- I Feel Pretty / MIKE, DUSTIN, & WILL / (originally from West Side Story)
- Agony / COUNT STEVEN & FRIEND / (originally from Into The Woods)
- If I Loved You / LUCAS & MAX / (originally from Carousel)
- If You See Light / EL & JO / (The Mountain Goats)
- Cry For Judas / KALI / (The Mountain Goats)
- There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This / KALI, NANCY, & JO / (originally from Sweet Charity)
- I Could Have Danced All Night / MIKE & WILL / (originally from My Fair Lady)
- Dear Friend / “Finale” / LUCAS & MAX / (originally from She Loves Me)
- “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” / DUSTIN & WILL / (The Beach Boys)
- Love Is A Many Splendored Thing / INSTRUMENTAL / (old standard)
- O Valencia! / MIKE & EL / (The Decemberists)
- Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me / DUSTIN & WILL / (originally from Waitress)
- I Will Never Leave You / NANCY & MIKE / (originally from Side Show)
- You’ll Never Get Away From Me / JOYCE & HOPPER / (originally from Gypsy)
- Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (Reprise) / ‘MERCUTIO’ / (old standard)
- Ten Minutes Ago / COUNT STEVEN / (originally from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella)4
- The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid / EL & BRENNER / (The Decemberists)
- The Duel / COUNT STEVEN, LORD BILLY, ‘MERCUTIO’, & MAX / (originally from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812)5
- Papers (Hades Finds Out) / INSTRUMENTAL / (originally from Hadestown)
- The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise) / (The Decemberists)
- Somewhere / MIKE, EL, WILL, DUSTIN, LUCAS, MAX, NANCY, & JO / (originally from West Side Story)
- What More Can I Say? / COUNT STEVEN / (originally from Falsettoland)
- I Raise My Cup To Him / NANCY & KALI / (originally from Hadestown)
- We Need A Little Christmas / JOYCE & HARRINGTON’S MEN / (originally fromMame)
- No One Is Alone / JOYCE & HOPPER / (originally from Into The Woods)
- Epic (Part II) / JO & NANCY / (originally from Hadestown)
- Soon It’s Gonna Rain / JO & NANCY / (originally from The Fantasticks)
- Unlikely Lovers / COUNT STEVEN, ‘MERCUTIO’, JO, & NANCY / (originally from Falsettoland)
- White Cedar / EL, MIKE & ENSEMBLE / (The Mountain Goats)
- Children Will Listen / JOYCE, HOPPER & ENSEMBLE / (originally from Into The Woods)
- When My Boy Walks Down The Street / CURTAIN CALL / (The Magnetic Fields)
- This version includes a full minute of Bernadette talking about how much she loves Stephen Sondheim at the beginning, which you can skip.
- Tragically, this song is no longer on Spotify (it was cut from the show upon its transfer to Broadway), so you’ll have to listen to it on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djTo707lNCw
- Please skip the third verse; Fagin/Brenner is not present for this song.
- You can also skip Laura Osnes’ verse on this song, since it is not a duet in this case.
- Please skip to 4:25 for the relevant part of this song.