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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Steph Harmon

‘Theatre and pop at its absolute excess’: William Shakespeare meets Britney Spears as & Juliet comes to Australia

The Broadway production of & Juliet
‘Unapologetic, maximalist’: featuring the songs of Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, & Juliet opens in Melbourne in February. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

It’s hard to think of a jukebox musical that has been touched by quite so many pop stars. Since & Juliet opened on the West End in 2019 and Broadway in 2022, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys have all come to the show. Kelly Clarkson features on the US cast album, Jessie J on the UK one – even Robyn and Harry Styles have come to early developments. “It was just him, sitting in a rehearsal room – just right there, it was crazy,” says the show’s writer, David West Read, best known for his work on Schitt’s Creek, while speaking with Guardian Australia in New York.

That stars of this calibre would take such an interest makes sense given one extra fact: every song in the show is by Sweden’s legendary hitmaker Max Martin, who has written for almost all of them and then some.

& Juliet – which has its Australian premiere in Melbourne this month – is a feelgood, feminist and gen Z-friendly retelling of Romeo and Juliet that begins when Romeo dies and asks what would happen if she just moved on. (The answer, more or less: “Yasss, get it!”)

The show feels as much like a big pop concert as it does a piece of theatre; its director, Luke Sheppard, describes it as “unapologetic” and “maximalist”. There are huge numbers from Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Kesha, Perry, Ariana Grande and Bon Jovi. There are lightning-quick costume changes, stadium show-worthy dance breaks, more than 1,200 lights and 236 speakers. Sixty kilograms of biodegradable confetti is shot out of cannons each month for the production. At one point, a character swings from a chandelier. “You have theatre and pop at its absolute excess, combining in one,” Sheppard says.

The West End production of & Juliet
‘Unapologetic’: the West End production of & Juliet, which opened in 2019. Photograph: Johan Persson

In Australia, Rob Mills will star as the cocky William Shakespeare, who opens the show rising from the stage like the world’s biggest pop star, belting out Backstreet Boys’ 1999 hit Larger Than Life. Shakespeare has just finished writing Romeo and Juliet, but his wife, Anne Hathaway (played in Melbourne by Amy Lehpamer) has notes on the ending. Perhaps instead of having a 13-year-old stab herself to death because a melodramatic man she barely knew ate poison, Juliet might like to … live her own life?

After duking it out with her husband – a duet to Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way – Hathaway wins and starts rewriting. And so the play within a play begins. After only a short period of mourning by Juliet (“My loneliness is killing me,” she sings, to the Britney Spears track), she grabs her nurse, Angélique, and best friend, May, and the trio flee Verona for Paris (Jessie J’s Domino; Robyn’s Show Me Love) – to party, flirt, fight, fall in love and sing some of the biggest songs of the pop music canon. Juliet may well be the star but the most poignant moments come from May: a character who identifies as non-binary and who is writing their own story too.

Shakespeare drives Juliet, Anne, Angelique and May to Paris, on a toy horse
Shakespeare drives Juliet, Anne, Angélique and May to Paris on a toy horse. Photograph: Johan Persson

If it sounds like a fever dream, that’s because it was: the plot revealed itself to Read while he was lying in a dark room, recovering from concussion after walking into a cabinet.

Martin had wanted to turn his catalogue into a musical for years but hadn’t landed on the right concept. Read, a playwright, was a relative unknown force when he was asked to pitch. “No one was a Schitt’s Creek fan back then,” he says with a laugh – and he didn’t know who Martin was, either. “Which, when I saw how many songs he’d written, and which songs they were, I felt kind of bad.”

The show has the sweetness and humour that Schitt’s Creek fans would expect.
The show has the sweetness and humour that Schitt’s Creek fans would expect. Photograph: Johan Persson

And so Read, newly concussed, created a playlist and put it on repeat. “It was like, hundreds of songs. I was just lying in the dark listening to his music and trying to let the story come out of it,” he says. “And all the songs are about, like, heartbreak and young love, so the idea of Juliet kind of surfaced from that.”

The show has the sweetness and humour that Schitt’s Creek fans would expect – with an extra dollop of earnestness because, well: musical theatre. The sincerity of the genre makes it a perfect fit for Martin’s songs, who has described Swedish pop as being like “dancing with tears in your eyes”. It’s often sad, almost always deeply sincere, but ultimately – and most importantly – it will make you feel good.

David West Read, Luke Sheppard and Max Martin at the Toronto premiere of & Juliet
David West Read, Luke Sheppard and Max Martin at the Toronto premiere of & Juliet. Photograph: George Pimentel/Rex/Shutterstock

“And I just liked the parallels between Shakespeare and Max, too,” Read says. “Of like, how could one man be behind so much popular culture?”

There’s another parallel between Shakespeare and Martin: an inventiveness with words. In & Juliet, Shakespeare brags about how many English phrases he’s coined. Martin, for whom English is a second language, is infamous for lyrics that often make no sense – “hit me baby one more time” being the most perplexing, controversial example.

Still, Read set himself a challenge: other than a pronoun here or there, he wouldn’t change a word. “I was really strict with myself and maybe no one else cares,” he says. But it leads to some excellent punchlines for savvy audiences, who will hear lyrics they know in a whole new way. At least that’s what happened to the Backstreet Boys. “They came to the show the other night in London and I heard that they were saying like, ‘Finally [I Want It That Way] makes sense to us. We’ve been singing it all these years.’”

Martin has been present throughout the entire creative process and is due to arrive in Melbourne before the show opens. A millionaire many times over, he didn’t mind his lyrics being turned into punchlines. “He doesn’t have anything to prove,” Read says. “There’s a real kind of humility and confidence in being able to say, ‘Yeah, make fun of my music.’”

The production prides itself on the fresh and diverse faces among its casts: the Australian company features the musical mainstays Mills, Lehpamer and Casey Donovan (as Angélique) but less than half the cast is white – and seven are making their professional debut.

Lorinda May Merrypor leads the Australian cast of & Juliet in a preproduction performance at the 2023 Australian Open
Lorinda May Merrypor leads the Australian cast of & Juliet in a preproduction performance at the 2023 Australian Open. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The title role will be played by Lorinda May Merrypor, an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander who has appeared in touring productions of the Sapphires and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Playing one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters and singing some of the most famous pop songs of all time is a big step up “by a long shot”, she tells the Guardian. “Just the scale of this show is insane.” It’s also, quite simply, a dream role to sing. “I love musical theatre, it’s my absolute passion, but I also have always loved singing pop music.”

Merrypor, 26, relates to Juliet, “probably too much”, she says. “Juliet feels things so passionately. Every single emotion is 100% – and she can switch on a dime … It’s also something I feel like a lot of people go through in their 20s, you know? Trying to figure out who exactly they are. That’s something I’m going through too.”

For Jesse Dutlow, who plays May, the role couldn’t have come at a better time.

May is discovering what it means to live outside the gender binary: deciding between the men’s and women’s bathrooms; singing I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, as they reckon with their identity; having I Kissed a Girl sung to them after a party pash, before interrupting: “OK, but you know that I’m not a girl, right?”

Dutlow is 26 and began using they/them pronouns last year. “Growing up, it was always a struggle for me to choose which box that I fit in … I was always caught in between,” they say of gender binaries. “I grew up in a really religious conservative environment and the LGBTQ+ community just wasn’t available to me. Church wasn’t a safe space for me – but theatre has been.”

‘It takes a lot of courage to be queer and be out’: Dutlow with Merrypor at a rehearsal
‘It takes a lot of courage to be queer and be out’: Dutlow with Merrypor at a rehearsal. Photograph: Charlie Kinross

Dutlow, a recording artist, competed in The Voice in 2017 – but their first role in a musical wasn’t until 2022’s Fan Girls. Blake Appelqvist, who is non-binary, played that production’s lead.

“Meeting them for the first time was huge,” Dutlow says. “At first I was scared to mess up their pronouns and then days later, I’m like, ‘Not only do I get this but, like, this feels right. This feels like me.’” The conversations they had about gender led to Dutlow’s pronoun shift. “It was huge.”

Dutlow and Appelqvist are sharing a stage again in & Juliet, with Appelqvist playing Romeo in a cast that has six other performers who identify outside the gender binary. That power in numbers has been of huge comfort to Dutlow, who performs the most nerve-racking song in the show: I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.

The Broadway production of & Juliet
‘You’re going to come out of it feeling good’: the Broadway production of & Juliet. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

In overseas productions, having a non-binary person assert that they are “not a girl” via a Spears hit has provoked some mean-spirited laughter from the audience; others have heckled, even walked out. Dutlow is aware of the stakes. “I can’t lie and say that I don’t worry about what people might think, or even what people might do. It takes a lot of courage to be queer and be out … I’m just grateful that I’m not doing it alone.”

Read tells Guardian Australia: “I hold my breath at the beginning of that song more than any other moment in the show because I just don’t want people laughing. … But if anything, it just makes me so glad that we are telling this story.”

The show’s mass appeal, its pop bombast, its glitter cannons and celebrity co-signs make the message of inclusivity all the more important. “Sometimes there’s a kind of snobbishness about creating things for the masses, but to me, that’s the ultimate goal: to connect with as many people as possible. If you’re going to sit in a theatre – which is still scary for a lot of people – and you’re going to spend a lot of money on it, it’s nice to know that you’re going to come out of it feeling good.”

  • & Juliet opens with previews in Melbourne from 26 February. Guardian Australia travelled to New York as a guest of Michael Cassel Group

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