How '& Juliet' Combined BSB and the Bard to Conquer Broadway
Songs penned by Max Martin (think Britney, Kelly Clarkson, and more) get remixed with Shakespeare in this exuberant new musical. Writer David West Read explains how it all came together.
Before a single note is sung at the new Broadway musical & Juliet, audience members filing into the Stephen Sondheim Theatre will see a jukebox placed prominently on the stage. Given the show’s Shakespearian-ish title, that prop might be surprising—until you find out about its top-notch pop playlist.
Yes, & Juliet is a jukebox musical, but not one in the biographical vein that follows an artist’s life and career soundtracked to their hits. (See: The Cher Show, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jersey Boys.) Instead, it features the catalog of Max Martin, the Swedish hitmaker who’s collaborated with everyone from the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC to Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Céline Dion, Bon Jovi, and many more.
That pop pedigree explains why JC Chasez, Simon Cowell, and two Martins—Max and Coldplay frontman Chris—were among the guests at opening night a few weeks ago. That big debut was a night fit for a show stacked with pop bangers. Stars walked an electric pink carpet, billboards in Times Square lit up with the show’s heart-and-headphones logo, and—considering the show’s sonic source material, this part is very important—an afterparty at the Edison Rooftop where the DJ understood the assignment.
“[It] was one of the most fun Broadway parties I've ever been to,” & Juliet’s writer, David West Read, told Thrillist the day after the fete. “The music was great, everyone was dancing, everyone stayed until they kicked us out. I think that at a certain point every one of the songs from the show was played, which is really fun.”
While Martin’s chart-toppers form the song list for the musical—you’ll find nearly 30 of them listed in the Playbill—the plot remixes those tracks into a remix of its own: What if Juliet didn’t die at the end of Romeo & Juliet?
The idea to mash-up the works of Martin and William Shakespeare (who also features as a character in the show) stemmed from needing a driving force for the narrative that wasn’t the songwriter himself, 51, who has mainly stayed out of the spotlight despite the long list of hits he’s written or co-written that have ruled Top 40 radio airwaves for decades. “I knew that this music means so much to everyone who might be coming to the theater, but it would be helpful if there was something else that they could identify with to get them in the door,” explains Read, who was also a writer and producer on Schitt’s Creek. “And just thinking of how many of his songs were about young love and heartbreak, [I wanted] to do something really unexpected so that you would immediately be hearing the songs in a different way.”
It’s a clever conceit that means Juliet (Lorna Courtney) can lament that her loneliness is killing her, “...Baby One More Time” style, when she wakes up to learn that her lover is dead—and later belts out anthems like “Since U Been Gone” and “Roar” as she goes off on a journey of post-Romeo self-discovery. Her new narrative comes courtesy of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe), who implores her husband (Stark Sands) to change Romeo & Juliet’s bummer ending before grabbing a quill and demanding they partner up on the revisions. To make things even more meta, they also write themselves into the story.
“The more I got into researching Shakespeare and the more I got to know Max, I took pleasure in finding these similarities in terms of, ‘How could one man be behind so much popular art?’” Read continues. “And I say pop art because when I studied Shakespeare, I thought of it as very highbrow. But in his time, Shakespeare was making it for the masses and everyone was going to his plays. So it felt weirdly organic to weave Shakespeare and Max together.”
Read began the process of developing the show back in 2016, immersing himself in a playlist he made with more than 200 songs and narrowing in on which ones had the “best narrative drive.” The specific, often emotional connections people have to many of these songs are something he had to consider as well. “I never wanted it to seem like we were making fun of the music, because even the stuff from the ‘90s, people listen to it today in an unironic way. You don’t listen to it to laugh at it, or to laugh at when you liked it,” Read notes.
That meant sometimes leaning into how you might expect to hear a breakup ballad or a party track—the opening number sees Shakespeare being hailed as “Larger Than Life” by an adoring public—but other times subverting it. “In order for a pop song to really worm its way into your brain, there's a lot of musical repetition but also lyrical repetition,” he adds. “And so with each verse and each repetition of the chorus, trying to find a way [to keep] the story moving and something new being said.” For example, & Juliet transforms the BSB hit “I Want It That Way” into an argument between William and Anne, while Perry’s “Teenage Dream” becomes a duet about lost love sung by Juliet’s nurse, Angelique (Melanie La Barrie), and an old flame, Lance (Paulo Szot). In another moment reflective of this modern retelling, Juliet’s best friend May (Justin David Sullivan) sings about their gender identity via Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”
It all comes together in an uplifting show that puts a fresh spin on a story everyone thinks they know, with songs they can’t get out of their heads. Shakespeare aficionados will appreciate the interweaving of Bard hallmarks—clever wordplay, love triangles, surprise returns—which feel right at home in a narrative about wanting to take control of your own story.
“There's the story within the story, which is the retelling of Romeo & Juliet with the new ending,” says Read. “But then there's this bigger story about balancing life and relationships and how do you navigate love when you're also seeking love from the world.”
With & Juliet now running both in London’s West End and on Broadway (with an Australian production to come next year), audiences all over the world are getting to enjoy the musical’s pop pleasures, including the musicians whose songs are featured. Case in point: A certain boy band that recently saw the show. “The Backstreet Boys finally just went in London; they were on tour and they called Max [Martin] after,” Read shares. “And AJ [McLean] was like, ‘I could never sing these songs again without thinking of them in a new way.’”
The responses from artists, and audiences, have meant a lot to Read. “It's hard to articulate, but a lot of people have reached out and said, ‘I've been through a rough time in the last year, the last few years, the last week—[and] I needed to see the show this week,’” he adds. “The best thing I could hope for is that people leave the theater happier than when they went in and that they feel like they have a little burst of joy brought into their lives.”