‘It’s a perfect blend of heart and humour’: & Juliet coming soon to the Shaftesbury Theatre
Since 1999, Swedish composer Max Martin has written an astonishing 22 Billboard 100 Number One hits for a wide range of artists including Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion and Taylor Swift. What better songbook to weave into a brand new musical? & Juliet will head to the Shaftesbury Theatre in autumn 2019.
Approached by American producers to dream up a story that could be fitted to Max’s music, writer David West Read, first immersed himself in the Swedish composer’s prolific collection of hits.
‘I was helped,’ he says, ‘by the fact I’d just concussed myself by hitting my head on the door of a kitchen cabinet. It was a good time to close my eyes and listen to music over and over again.’
The producers had said they weren’t looking for a catalogue musical or the life of a boy band. ‘So I cleared my mind and tried to come up with a totally different concept which would allow the music to be heard in a completely different context as part of a timeless and universal story.’
Many of Max Martin’s songs are about love. ‘In time, I started thinking about the quintessential young love story and that led me quite quickly to Romeo and Juliet. And that in turn led me to asking myself how the modern Juliet would behave.’
And so the idea was born that Juliet, rather than using the dagger to fatally stab herself on the discovery of Romeo’s lifeless body, determines to choose life not death. ‘Max’s songbook comprises about 150 songs; you could make five musicals from his output.’
David chose 30 that fitted his idea and then placed them in an order that made sense as the plot unfolded. ‘I set a rule for myself that I wouldn’t change any lyrics unless I absolutely had to. It was surprising how seldom I had to do so.’
About two-and-a-half years ago, Luke Sheppard received an email from an American producer who’d seen a number of shows he’d directed – In The Heights, for instance, and the musical version of Adrian Mole – and asked him to have a look at a new piece of work.
‘I immediately saw a way I could make & Juliet work,’ says Luke, ‘both as a spectacle and as a piece of entertainment with real heart. I was struck by its originality, the fact that it can’t easily be categorised in a particular genre.
‘There is nothing safe about this show. It’s bold. It takes risks and I like that. Juliet chooses life, not death and responds like any young woman would: she resolves to make her own decisions.’
‘I really believe we have something pretty special that the world doesn’t yet know a huge amount about. It’s like having a secret you want to share with everyone.’
In Spring 2018, Miriam-Teak Lee was invited to audition for the title role in & Juliet. ‘I was immediately intrigued,’ she says. ‘Then I read the script and I was totally hooked.’
She loved the fact that Juliet determined to channel her grief into something positive and take off to Paris with the Nurse for a roller coaster adventure. ‘I really responded to the idea of her taking power into her own hands, the fact that she put herself in the driving seat of her own life.’
Miriam-Teak was also impressed with the way that the songs – Britney Spears’s ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, the first song Juliet sings at Romeo’s tomb, as well as ‘Everybody’ (Backstreet Boys), ‘Problem’ (Ariana Grande), ‘Since You Been Gone’ (Kelly Clarkson) and ‘Love Me Like You Do’ (Ellie Goulding) – were worked into the action.
Says Miriam-Teak, a veteran of musicals like Hamilton and On The Town with Danny Mac at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park: ‘It’s like a pop legend of the 16th century teamed with the pop music of the 21st century. So clever.’
When he first heard about & Juliet, actor Oliver Tompsett, thought it was going to be a pop spectacular, he says, a bit of a jukebox musical. ‘And then I read the script. It’s so original, so funny. I immediately wanted to be a part of it.’
Oliver plays William Shakespeare in a constant running battle with his wife Anne to come up with an alternative ending to Romeo and Juliet. ‘It’s built on the premise of “what if”, a type of Sliding Doors scenario. But he thinks his ideas are better than his wife’s.
‘It’s clear from the get-go that he’s narcissistic, a bit of lad who has few doubts about his talent. He’s a modern-day rock star kind of a figure which probably isn’t too far off the mark given Shakespeare’s popularity in Elizabethan England.
‘But & Juliet doesn’t claim to be taking you back in time to something historically correct. Yes, we’re in the 16th century but we wear American-style high-top sneakers. The best way to describe it is a fantasy land which gives us massive poetic licence to interact with the modern-day pop music featured in the show.’
Oliver has his fingers crossed it will be a smash hit. ‘I’ve not been more excited about a piece or a job in my entire career.’ Quite a claim from a man who’s been in We Will Rock You, Kinky Boots and Wicked, among much else.
‘It’s got originality and real integrity,’ he says, ‘but it’s also a bucketload of fun which doesn’t take itself too seriously. To me, it’s a perfect blend of heart and humour.’
Similarly, Cassidy Janson reacted immediately to the script. ‘I got all in a tizz. I loved what I saw as the dry, English humour. Turns out David West Read is Canadian. Either way, it has a quality of Blackadder about it which I loved.’
What she also loved was being in at what she calls Ground Zero. ‘I’ve taken over in a number of musicals so it’s great to be able to create a role from scratch. I had real input into how my character, Mrs Shakespeare, would speak and behave. For instance, Oliver is very tall and I’m very short so he and I have added some height jokes.’
She’s a huge fan of Max Martin’s songbook. ‘And what’s so clever is the way they’re dropped into the story at precisely the right moment. Clearly, each of them was originally created to stand alone and yet they work so well in this context. David has barely had to change even a pronoun. It’s extraordinary how each song seems to push the plot along.’
Cassidy is associated with rather intense characters like Carole King who she played in Beautiful or the politically motivated Florence in Chess or the dramatic role of Aldonza, Don Quixote’s love interest, in Man of La Mancha. ‘This, by contrast, is uncomplicated fun from start to finish. It’s so exciting.’
So, will audiences go home with a tear in their eye or a smile on their face? Miriam-Teak is giving very little away. ‘But let’s just say I’d like to think they’d be smiling.’
Interview by Richard Barber