Tanya Reynolds had only one reaction to learning her character Lily would direct a sexy intergalactic musical based on Romeo and Juliet in the Season 2 finale of Sex Education. "Space plus Shakespeare plus sex?! I really don't see how you can get a more perfect concoction than that," she says. Reynolds is right — the final result, from the writhing dancers in vagina hats to the penis-tree set pieces to the heartfelt performances, is much like the series itself: tongue-in-cheek yet earnest, and very, very horny.
Achieving such rich levels of "filth," as director Ben Taylor puts it, was the result of months of collaboration with writer and series creator Laurie Nunn, costume designer Rosa Dias, and a host of other musical and theatrical pros who were called in to ensure that the musical lived up to its raunchiest potential. That they pulled it off on such a grand scale is impressive given that the team had no idea what the subject of the season's climactic musical would be when they started filming Season 2.
Nunn went into the Season 2 writers room knowing that she wanted to do some sort of musical or play at the end of the season. "It's such a common teen trope, and everybody can remember that from their own high school experience," Nunn tells Bustle. So she started sprinkling in story cues that Lily, arguably the series' horniest character who also happens to write alien erotica, would be writing and directing the school play.
But that was all the information Nunn doled out to the production team. It took months of procrastination — "We have this whole show to produce, eight hours of television, and now we're talking about a bloody musical," Taylor jokes — and brainstorm meetings between Taylor, Dias, and the production, sound, and lighting teams to figure out that the only piece of theater Lily would write would have to involve space and sex. And so it was decided that the students would be putting on an "erotic voyage to the planet of Verona" to tell the story of two star-crossed lovers in space.
Setting The Scene
Taylor had a "mind map" on a whiteboard of the key elements of the show that he wanted to take back to Nunn. "It was so weird that anyone who came in and saw it would have no idea what we were talking about it," he says. "But the gist of it was 'eroticism,' 'phalluses,' 'spaceships,' 'jungles,' 'neon,' 'underwear,' 'simulated sex.'
Once they decided on Romeo and Juliet as the source material, the mission was clear: the musical had to accommodate the series' real star-crossed lovers, Eric and Adam, who have their sweet hand-holding moment during the show. But the play also had to be so crass that it would make headmaster Groff storm the stage to yell at sex educator Jean (Gillian Anderson) in order to conclude the season's narrative arc.
"The gist of it was 'eroticism,' 'phalluses,' 'spaceships,' 'jungles,' 'neon,' 'underwear,' 'simulated sex.'"
That's where costume designer Dias' imagination came in. Since most of the lighting in the musical is pink light, some colors get drowned out and others pop. But there was an easy solution to this problem that also fit into Lily's preferred aesthetic.
"I thought, if they were all in silver, the pink would bounce beautifully off the silver and it would all be very sexual," she says. "The only pink I wanted to bring in was with the vagina hats and the penis helmets." Yes, those...
The Vagina Hats & Penis Helmets
Although there are penises and vaginas literally all over the auditorium — the tree branches on the set's backdrop are made of penises, the tentacles the dancers wear have penis tips on the end, Jackson's Romeo costume has a penis jutting out of his chest, and the actors enter and exit the stage via a vaginal canal — it's the vagina hats and silver penis helmets that really steal the show.
The hardest part of designing them, Dias says, was striking a balance between making them look "spectacular and beautiful," but not so well done that the viewer couldn't imagine a bunch of school kids DIY-ing their high school musical costumes. "I didn't want it to be so sleek that you might stop and think 'How the hell did these kids get the money to do these silly costumes?' So, we made the penis hats and the vagina hats with papier-maché and willow sticks — materials that kids could have used," she explains.
Both of the risqué hats had to be light enough for dancers to wear, which took a couple tries. Especially the penis hats. "At first the penis hats were full-on penises — quite high and pink and heavy, and the balls were sort of at the side of the head [with] a really jutting penis. But once we saw them on the kids, they were hitting the doors."
"At first the penis hats were full-on penises... But once we saw them on the kids, they were hitting the doors."
Thankfully, she devised a convenient solution. "I came up with the idea of a homemade, intergalactic penis helmet, and it's just the tip of the penis that goes around the head."
D*ck Hands & "The Rudest Choreography"
While Dias was busy remodeling penis helmets and drilling recycled CDs onto Romeo and Juliet's silver outfits, Taylor was hard at work envisioning the actual show. Though viewers only see parts of the play edited together, Sex Education actually shot a full show, albeit an "aggressively edited" one. "We knew we wanted to get to the balcony scene and we were highly influenced by the [Leonardo] DiCaprio version," he says. Still, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version most definitely did not have "dick hands" set free to grope random audience members at will.
According to Taylor, the key requirement for achieving his vision was that the music needed to actually be good — or at least danceable. He enlisted his friend Oli Julian to write the score. "We wanted it to be quite synth based, sort of futuristic '80s," Taylor says, adding that the soundtrack to the movie Drive was a major inspiration. "Oli went off and came back with these amazing songs and we are blessed with amazing singers, and everyone was so excited and jealous of them."
Although Lily is technically the musical's director, Taylor, in an act he calls his "dirty little secret," actually called in one of his other friends, Rob Hastie, a director of the Sheffield Theaters' Crucible Theater, to help block out the musical.
"He directed Lily's show as if he was Lily, as if we were going to see the whole show, because we had to do this thing where he could run the show, so we could film the show. He came in with his choreographer, who just did the rudest choreography. It's just absolute filth," he says. "A lot of the Kama Sutra is visible with the background dancers and no rude stone [was left] unturned by the end of it."
"A lot of the Kama Sutra is visible with the background dancers."
Reynolds says watching Hastie work was a highlight of the whole production. "It was genuinely very inspiring to watch him work and see the utter intergalactic sex fest that was the fruits of his labor."
Just like any good orgy, the "intergalactic sex fest" the Sex Education cast and crew pulled off at the end of Season 2 was the result of meticulous planning, bold imagination, and yes, a well-placed phallus here and there.