Juliet’s taken a sleeping potion and Romeo thinks she’s dead, so he drinks a vial of poison. When Juliet awakens and discovers his corpse, she stabs herself in the heart.
“O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath,” she says, before collapsing onto Romeo’s lifeless body.
But what if she didn’t? What if Juliet dropped the dagger and ran off to Paris to rebuild her life?
That’s the jumping off point for a new West End musical, & Juliet, which depicts the heroine on a post-traumatic journey of self-empowerment, while belting out the hits of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake.
If this all sounds like the product of a concussed writer’s fever dream, that’s because it is.
Major pop hits
Playwright David West Read came up with the idea four years ago, after slamming his head into a cupboard in the kitchen of his rented apartment.
He’d recently been asked to pitch a musical based on the songbook of Swedish pop powerhouse Max Martin so, after briefly ignoring his symptoms to watch a 3D screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (“the worst thing I could have done”), he retired to bed and started researching.
“I didn’t actually know who Max Martin was until I Googled him,” he confesses, “But in my concussed state, I made this Max Martin playlist which was, like, 150 tracks; and I suddenly realised that he’d written so many of my favourite songs from the past 25 years.”
In fact, Martin is the third most-successful songwriter in US chart history, with credits on 22 number one singles. Only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26) have more.
He is the man who introduced us to indelible choruses like, “Oops! I did it again”, or “I kissed a girl and I liked it”, or “Hit me baby one more time”; and who helped Taylor Swift mastermind her transition from country music to globe-straddling pop megastardom.
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As Read delved into the playlist, one thing became clear.
“You could make five musicals with the material that was there,” he says. “But there’s a lot of songs about love, a lot of songs about heartbreak, and a lot of songs about second chances. So I came to this idea of Romeo and Juliet, and a new beginning for Juliet.”
The key to unlocking the character was one Britney Jean Spears.
“She became a through-line for Juliet,” says Read, “because there’s these two Britney songs: …Baby One More Time, which has the line, ‘My loneliness is killing me’; and Stronger, which is, ‘My loneliness ain’t killing me no more’, which became this perfect bookend to her story.”
But & Juliet isn’t just concerned with its titular character… In fact, the musical opens with William Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, arguing about the ending of his great tragedy. Hathaway grabs control of the quill, and the couple tussle over the development of the play – cleverly deploying the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way as the soundtrack.
“Max is the first to admit that the lyrics to that song don’t really make sense,” laughs Read. “Basically every other line contradicts the line that came before it. So the natural way to make sense of that is it’s an argument between two people.”