By: Brendan Manning
This past week I had the pleasure of viewing & Juliet, a musical in the West End featuring the music of Max Martin (the Swedish pop songwriter / producer behind some of the greatest 90s and 2000s songs). The story takes on a “what if” scenario and follows Juliet in a modern-feminist coming of age story where she realizes she doesn’t need Romeo to make her happy.
Following Romeo’s death, Juliet puts the dagger down and escapes her parents’ wish to send her to a nunnery by running away to Paris with Nurse and a few of her other friends. The costumes and set pieces combined a 90s / early 2000s aesthetic with the Elizabethan era roots of Shakespeare’s original play. It made me realise how much I would have enjoyed reading Romeo & Juliet in school, if only my teacher had played Britney Spears as the accompanying soundtrack.
It was refreshing to hear throwback songs such as “Baby One More Time” by Spears and the Backstreet Boys hit “I Want it That Way” in a theatrical setting incorporated into the plotlines. The production and performance styles of each number differed from the ways that these songs were originally performed. On multiple occasions it took me a while to remember the title of certain songs because they were so disguised, including a mashup of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Ariana Grande’s “Break Free.”
Notably, the show starred Miriam-Teak Lee, an award-winning actress as Juliet. There was something powerful in watching a woman of colour take centre stage to reimagine a rather old-fashioned story with songs originally performed by white artists such as Perry and Spears. In an effort to expand diversity and inclusion in a traditionally white setting, I appreciated how her race was never brought into question; she was just a strong and powerful woman looking for her place in the world.
The show also starred Alex Thomas Smith as Juliet’s non-binary best friend, May. As a subplot, the audience is dazzled by a queer romance between May and Francois, a closeted French man. Their duet of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” with politically conscious pronouns, was one of my favourites. To take on so many social issues in an all-inclusive way is a difficult task for any musical, but & Juliet makes it look easy.
The main highlight for me was “Since U Been Gone,” originally performed by Kelly Clarkson, which came right after the intermission break where Juliet, with backup from her girls, stood up and put the leading man in his place. I grew up listening to many of these songs but I had almost forgotten how good they were until viewing them in this production.
Earlier this month, a special sing-along performance was hosted at the Shaftesbury Theatre where members of the audience were encouraged to follow-along with the lyrics projected onto screens placed around the room. It’s a shame not every performance could be like this, as I had a hard time keeping my mouth closed for the duration of the show. Max Martin is a musical genius who has assisted the likes of Taylor Swift and The Weekend for some of their most catchy and radio-friendly pop songs. To see his music come to life on the stage was just a reminder of how important music is to our everyday lives, and how it can help us to relate to the world and get through hard times.
& Juliet is currently booking until 2023. Tickets are available here.