We first see Juliet in the Capulet tomb, devastated. She’s wakes up to see her Romeo dead. But before she plunges a dagger into her heart, she starts … singing. What comes out is, improbably, a Britney Spears hit.
“Oh, baby, baby. How was I supposed to know? That something wasn’t right here? Oh, baby, baby. I shouldn’t have let you go,” she sings, the opening lines of “…Baby One More Time.”
That such a pop song works perfectly in this august scene is a credit to playwright David West Read and the team behind the Broadway jukebox musical “& Juliet.”
They’ve taken an original story using “Romeo and Juliet” as a launch pad and mixed in some of the biggest pop hits of the past few decades by Spears, Celine Dion, NSYNC, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi, The Weeknd, Justin Timberlake, Pink and Backstreet Boys.
“I really tried to let story and character drive it,” says Read, an Emmy-winning writer from “Schitt’s Creek.” “It’s a long process to make it seem effortless, but it’s a lot of effort.”
The link between the songs is Swedish super-producer Max Martin, who has had a hand in writing such hits as “Since U Been Gone,” “Roar,” “Larger Than Life,” “That’s The Way It Is” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling,”
The musical starts when William Shakespeare’s wife challenges him to rewrite “Romeo and Juliet” with a happier ending for Juliet, sparking a journey of self-discovery for the young woman and nearly everyone on stage. Inspired in part by “Mama Mia!” it has multiple couples of different generations.
“I think the genius of David has just knocked all of us sideways,” says director Luke Sheppard. “I don’t think Max ever imagined that somebody would be able to find such a cohesive world for this.”
Read had been handed a playlist of over 200 Martin songs in 2016 and whittled it down to about 30. He challenged himself to not change any of the lyrics, although he altered some pronouns. Some hits — like Perry’s “California Gurls” and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” — were clearly never going to fit.
“Instead of going for what are the most popular songs, I tried to prioritize what are songs that are going to tell this story in the best possible way,” says Read.
Masterstrokes include turning Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want From Me” into an duet between arguing lovers, giving Perry’s “Teenage Dream” to an older couple looking back on their young romance and handing Juliet “Oops!… I Did it Again” after she’s found herself in a second romantic conundrum.
In one special move, Read gave Spear’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” to a new character, Juliet’s nonbinary friend, May, played by genderqueer Justin David Sullivan. It’s a landmark moment for Broadway, allowing a nonbinary main character to talk about being misgendered and what it’s like to date while trans.
Read also turned Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” into a duet between May and a male love interest. “I wanted it to be a queer love song sung by two unexpected characters that feel more representative of our current world,” he says. (Some audience members have walked out after that. “Clearly we still have a ways to go,” says Read.)
There are also nods to musical theater conventions: “Stronger” works as a callback of “… Baby One More Time” (“My loneliness is killing me” in the first song reappears in the second as “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”). And musical theater rules mean you need to have a song where a lead character makes clear they want something; the creators of “& Juliet” had one in plain sight — Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
Read even made a connection between Martin and The Bard himself: “Shakespeare was the pop writer of his time. We think of him as very highbrow now, but he was creating an entertainment for the masses. That kind of overlap between Max and Shakespeare seems like it could be a fun way to give a brand to someone who doesn’t have his own brand.”
The team got an early indication that the concept would work at the first workshop in which an audience was invited. Backstage, they waited for the reaction to “…Baby One More Time.”
“The audience didn’t laugh. And that was amazing. I was like, ‘OK, passed that test,’” says Sheppard. ”I felt the audience just lean in that moment and connect with that song and with that artist.”
Critics have been kind to the finished show, with Variety saying “& Juliet” “is exactly the musical Broadway needs right now: fun, exuberant, supremely joyful, hilarious and excellently performed by a talented and diverse cast.” Entertainment Weekly said Read’s work is “cleverly, sometimes ingeniously calibrated to sync with the songs.”
“The ones that really mean a lot to me are the critics who clearly come in with a hatred for jukebox musicals and reluctantly admit that there is a lot of craft in this one,” says Read.
He credits Martin for being open to outside-the-box ideas and allowing the show’s collaborators the flexibility to make what’s not another run-of-the-mill jukebox musical.
“Sometimes it feels like someone slapped their name on something, and they show up on opening night and people are maybe making the show for the wrong reasons,” says Read. “To have the artist working with us and collaborating with us, I think also separates this from other jukebox musicals where the artist is either dead or not involved.”
Read has since moved on — he is the creator and showrunner of the upcoming Apple TV+ series “The Big Door Prize” — but his experience with “& Juliet” has been so positive that he and Sheppard are working on another jukebox musical, this time with the catalog of Roy Orbison.
“We’re trying to tell a new story with his existing music and challenging ourselves to do something completely different from what we would did with ‘& Juliet,’” he says.
—Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press