The Bard takes a back seat to the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears in “& Juliet,” a jukebox musical that is being billed as a sequel to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” imagining Juliet’s life if she hadn’t killed herself when Romeo did. The plot winds up more busy and berserk than that description, and, in any case, the show is primarily a vehicle for the hits of Max Martin.
Over the last twenty-five years, Martin, a Swedish songwriter and music producer born Karl Martin Sandburg, has written or co-written more number one singles on the pop charts than anybody ever except Paul McCartney and John Lennon. “& Juliet” features a whopping thirty-one of Martin’s songs – made popular by more than a dozen pop stars, boy bands, and rock groups (See playlist below) – and sung by a cast with glorious pop voices and fine comic chops. The show has a silly and funny book by David West Read (“Schitt’s Creek”), who is often clever in the way he works in the songs, although that cleverness is less obvious if you don’t already know the songs and their original context. .
“& Juliet” begins with someone announcing the first-ever performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” whereupon William Shakespeare (Stark Sands) makes a dramatic entrance, rising up from below the stage and singing “Larger Than Life,” a 1999 hit by the Backstreet Boys (one of the six hits in the show by that group, a quantity matched only by Britney Spears.) To Shakespeare’s surprise, he is joined by his wife Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe.) She is visiting from Stratford-upon-Avon, feeling neglected, and annoyed that he has killed off Juliet in the play. “It seems like she’s got her whole life ahead of her, she’s only had one boyfriend. Maybe she doesn’t kill herself just because he killed himself?”
She insists he change the script so that she lives; he resists. They break into “I Want It That Way,” another 1999 hit by the Backstreet Boys. Martin reportedly had not yet mastered the English language when he wrote “I Want It That Way,” and even his co-writer on the song Andreas Carlsson has said that the lyrics make no sense. In “& Juliet,” they finally do; husband and wife are disagreeing over whether to bring Juliet back to life.
Anne wins out: Juliet doesn’t die. The next scene begins the supposedly revised “Romeo and Juliet,” with Juliet (Lorna Courtney) singing to a sarcophagus the Britney Spears hit “Baby One More Time” – which includes the lyric “I must confess that my loneliness is killing me now.”
But then Juliet attends Romeo’s funeral, and discovers Rosaline there already, who tells her she too dated Romeo, and then Portia, who also dated him, and soon a dozen other of Romeo’s former lovers. They all start singing the Backstreet Boys hit “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely.” Juliet feels liberated to pursue new passion, traveling to Paris to escape her parents, Lord and Lady Capelet, who want to put her in a nunnery.
During the plot, which we are meant to understand we are witnessing as it unfolds spontaneously in real time, William and Anne pop up on occasion to bicker about what happens next, and try to outmaneuver one another to push the story one way or another. Anne also inserts herself into the play as April, one of the many newly invented characters.
Read knows his Shakespeare well enough to sprinkle allusions in the show, and to take some well-aimed comic shots. At a party at a Paris castle, Juliet meets Francois Du Bois (Philippe Arroyo), they have a couple of duets and then spend the night together – chastely. She explains she’s not “looking to rush into anything right now. I just got out of a pretty serious relationship…”
How long were you together, Francois asks.
“Four days. Almost. But it ended pretty badly.”
But Shakespeare is just one of the inspirations for “& Juliet,” which has elements that reminded me of any number of recent shows: “Something Rotten” of course (both create a self-regarding character named William Shakespeare for some inspired silliness that would be libel to label Shakespearean,) but also “Head Over Heels” (both render an old classic unrecognizable and serve up a pop playlist; both also feature gay/queer/gender-fluid characters; LGBT love becomes central to the plot in “& Juliet”) and “Six” (both have a feminist spin, both mash together a little Tudor with a little punk, although Paloma Young’s costumes are more playful and less blunt-force mashup than Gabriella Slade’s in “Six”); plus every show determined to be Broadway Entertainment (they employ what I refer to as the Broadway Effect: bright lights flashed in our eyes; loud thumping music blasted in our ears; barrels of confetti dumped on our heads.)
Director Luke Sheppard isn’t shy in acknowledging what is most likely to draw in an audience to “& Juliet.”. The show begins with a giant jukebox on the stage. Then, at one point, there is a medley of boy band hits from twenty years ago, performed by the men with the exact costumes of the boy bands from that era (courtesy Paloma Young) and their spot-on moves (courtesy choreographer Jennifer Weber) and their whimsically excessive set (which is a good description of most of what scenic designer Soutra Gilmour does in this show) — which together re-create a boy band concert from twenty years ago precisely and hilariously.
Admittedly, the way we’re brought to this moment is not in the same universe as “plausible.” But that’s true of most of “& Juliet.” The story seems largely guided by the songs rather than the other way around. This works better in comic moments than in the mercifully rare attempts at heartfelt ones, even when those supposedly serious emotions are assigned to a belting voice during a thrilling pop aria.
Building the plot around specific moments does sometimes pay off. One of the subplots is that Francois’ bullying father Lance (Paulo Szot) happens to be the long-lost lover of Juliet’s nurse Angélique (Melanie La Barrie), which leads to a long breathless monologue by La Barrie that is an absolute highlight of the show. Indeed, it feels like an attempt to break Daveed Diggs’ record of 19-words-in-three-seconds during “Guns and Ships” in “Hamilton.”
But most of the highlights are in the songs – or, more accurately, the very beginning of the song, when we first realize the clever way the show has twisted it to shoehorn it into a given situation – such as when May (Justin David Sullivan), who lives outside gender binary labels, launches into Britney Spears’ hit “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” which of course was about her age; May makes it about gender transition.
I’ve managed to avoid the one big surprise in “& Juliet,” although I could argue that a “spoiler” is impossible in a show where the plot matters so little. To hold it back seems misleading to the would-be theatergoer, and unfair to the actor, and besides, anybody who looks at the cast list would be tipped off. So here goes: William Shakespeare, annoyed at the way his wife Anne Hathaway has changed his play, decides to fight back by also bringing Romeo back to life. This is a good thing for the audience, because swivel-hipped bad boy Ben Jackson Walker is one of the stand-out comic performers in a cast that has no wrong note. It also means that “& Juliet” is more accurately described, not as a sequel, but as a rewrite of “Romeo and Juliet,” though it is nothing close to that.
Stephen Sondheim Theater
Running time: Two and a half hours including intermission
Book by David West Read
Music by Max Martin
Directed by Luke Sheppard
Choreographed by Jennifer Weber
Scenic design by Soutra Gilmour, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Howard Hudson, sound design by Gareth Owen, video and projection design by Andrzej Goulding, hair, wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas
Cast: Lorna Courtney as Juliet, Paulo Szot as Lance, Betsy Wolfe as Anne Hathaway, Stark Sands as ‘Shakespeare,’ Justin David Sullivan as May, Melanie La Barrie as Angélique, Ben Jackson Walker as Romeo, and Philippe Arroyo as Francois, Brandon Antonio, Michael Iván Carrier, Nico DeJesus, Nicholas Edwards, Virgil Gadson, Bobby “Pocket” Horner, Joomin Hwang, Megan Kane, Alaina Vi Maderal, Daniel J.Maldonado, Joe Moeller, Brittany Nicholas, Veronica Otim, Jasmine Rafael, Matt Raffy, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, and Rachel Webb.
Playlist, along with the original singer or group
Prologue. Larger Than Life/ I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys, 1999
1. …Baby One More Time – Britney Spears, 1998
2. Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely – Backstreet Boys, 1999
3. Domino – Jessie J 2011
4. Show Me Love – Robyn, 1997
5. Blow/ I Wanna Go – Kesha, 2011/Britney Spears, 2011
6. I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman – Britney Spears, 2002
7. Overprotected – Britney Spears, 2001
8. Confident – Demi Lovato, 2015
9. Teenage Dream/ Break Free – Katy Perry, 2010/ Ariana Grande, 2014
10. Oops! I Did it Again – Britney Spears, 2000
11. I Kissed a Girl – Katy Perry, 2008
12. It’s My Life – Bon Jovi, 2000
13. Love Me Like You Do/ Since U Been Gone – Ellie Goulding (50 Shades of Grey), 2015/Kelly Clarkson, 2004
14. Whataya Want From Me – Adam Lambert, 2009
15. One More Try – the only song Max wrote specifically for “&Juliet”
16. Problem/ Can’t Feel My Face – Ariana Grande, 2014/The Weeknd, 2015
17. That’s the Way It Is – Celine Dion, 1999
18. Everybody/ As Long As You Love Me/ It’s Gonna Be Me – Backstreet Boys, 1997 /Backstreet Boys, 1997/NSYNC, 2000
19. Stronger – Britney Spears, 2000
20. Shape of my Heart – Backstreet Boys, 2000
21. Fuckin’ Perfect – Pink, 2010
22. Roar – Katy Perry, 2013
23. I Want It That Way (Reprise)
Epilogue. Can’t Stop the Feeling! – Justin Timberlake