Shakespeare’s Juliet singing Britney Spears’ “Oops…I Did It Again” is certainly a surprising and unexpected juxtaposition. While there is every reason to be skeptical of a Shakespearean jukebox musical, “& Juliet” makes it work remarkably well. It’s the most fun you’ll have in a Broadway theater right now.
“& Juliet” features 32 songs by Max Martin and a rotating group of collaborators (officially credited as Max Martin and Friends), ranging from the 90s to today and including songs made popular by Robyn, the Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, P!nk and more. The playbill includes a note that Martin has had more number one hits than any other artist this century, and boldly claims “He’s basically the Shakespeare of pop music.” At the very least his catalog is unquestionably impressive — and his songs make for a surprisingly fantastic jukebox musical.
The book of “& Juliet,” by David West Read (“Schitt’s Creek”), takes us on a metatheatrical journey as Anne (Betsy Wolfe) fights with her husband William Shakespeare (Stark Sands) to rewrite “Romeo and Juliet” with a happier ending for Juliet. Instead of dying, Juliet (Lorna Courtney) here learns that her beloved is a melodramatic jerk with many other lovers, and so she runs away to Paris and quickly gets embroiled in another romance.
All this could have come across as a high school English class assignment, but Read manages to make it work. He clearly has respect for and knowledge of the source material but also isn’t afraid to highlight just how ridiculous the play really is. (As we are reminded here, Romeo and Juliet only knew each other for four days.) Though he keeps the characters true to the original, there are slight tweaks for modern sensibility, as when Anne brings Juliet’s age up from 13 (yikes) to her mid-20s.
“& Juliet” builds on a rich but also very specific theatrical heritage: It’s as if “Six,” “Something Rotten!”, “Head Over Heels” and “Moulin Rouge!” all had a baby. “& Juliet” is an Elizabethan jukebox that draws on Tudor chic, contains a bevy of well-researched Shakespeare jokes and historical references (including the factoid that Shakespeare left Anne nothing but his “second best bed” in his will), and uses beloved pop songs to spread a palatable feminist message.
The musical’s structure feels fittingly Shakespearean, though more in line with the Bard’s comedies. From the moment we meet the characters it’s abundantly obvious who will end up with whom and that everything will end happily. In fact, the musical could use more conflict, and although this is acknowledged by Shakespeare at the top of the second act, Read doesn’t manage to do anything substantial about it, leaving some of the action to feel belabored.
What the show lacks in plotting, it more than makes up for musically. It is a jukebox, but it’s a smart one, using the songs in deft, humorous and unexpected ways (including some great puns on character names). The songs are frequently chosen for the lyrics to the verses instead of the choruses, an approach that makes the songs feel fully integrated into the scenes and true to the characters. The show also never takes itself too seriously: It even mocks the simplicity of some of Martin’s lyrics, especially his hollow and generic love songs.
Visually, the show is a bit of a mixed bag. Jennifer Weber’s choreography combines classic moves from drag and trendy TikTok dances, often translating to little more than simple, jerky arm movements. The set (by Soutra Gilmour) and video and projections (by Andrezy Goulding) feel generic: Gilmour does almost nothing with the Parisian setting, other than including a miniature (anachronistic) Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge windmill, and Metro sign.
Paloma Young’s gorgeous costumes, however, flawlessly meld corsets and doublets with Doc Martens and joggers. The costume design is one of the strongest elements of the show and will undoubtedly inspire many a fan recreation.
The performances are consistently high caliber. Courtney makes for a first-rate Juliet and has a powerful belt: If Bonnie Milligan (“Head Over Heels,” “Kimberly Akimbo”) is the belting queen of Broadway, Courtney is the princess. Daniel Maldonado, the understudy who stepped into the role of Romeo at press performances, performed admirably and got a substantial number of laughs.
The cast standout, especially in terms of acting, is Wolfe as Anne. She fully embodies her character’s transformation from shy, wine-drinking mom on a night out to a quill-wielding, playwriting, suffer-no-fools wife, and gives a performance that is funny, touching, and vocally fierce. Melanie La Barrie as the Nurse and Philippe Arroyo as a new love interest round out the principal cast and lend laugh-out-loud comedy.
For a show ostensibly about heterosexual coupling, the musical is undeniably queer, frequently celebrating gender nonconfirmity as well as racial and body diversity in its casting. The whole ensemble (which features several nonbinary performers) feels like a very hip, very queer BFA cohort.
This delightful queerness is best exemplified by May, Juliet’s nonbinary BFF played by the effervescent Justin David Sullivan. It’s a landmark moment for a Broadway musical to feature a nonbinary major character who gets a romantic plotline and a happy ending, is given ample space to talk about being misgendered, the difficulties of dating while trans, as well as experiencing gender dysphoria and gender euphoria – and is, very importantly, played by a genderqueer actor (who looks stunning and gives a standout performance). As a nonbinary critic who has written many pieces about transphobia and nonbinary erasure on stage, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see something like this on Broadway. After watching Sullivan’s authentic and beautiful portrayal of May, my heart was full.
In contrast to the musical’s skillful inclusion of May, the feminism of the show, especially as expressed in Juliet and Anne’s plots, leans a bit too heavily on the “girlboss” vibe — after all, Juliet’s big final song is “Roar,” not exactly known as an intersectional anthem. Likewise, the show doesn’t entirely stick its ending — or rather endings: It has about four of them, each tweaking the messaging a bit, which muddles things by the final curtain.
“& Juliet” has big “yaaaas!” energy — which the script admits, references and pokes fun at. Perhaps it’s fine that the musical doesn’t offer a new, complex or fully coherent take on gender, authorship or agency; it doesn’t have to be that deep. “& Juliet” is exactly the show Broadway needs right now: fun, exuberant, supremely joyful, hilarious, and excellently performed by a talented and diverse cast. The amount of confetti may be gratuitous (they seem to be trying to outdo “Moulin Rouge!”), but honestly, why not? The world is crumbling around us; we might as well dance to pop songs and throw some glitter in the air.