While searching for the perfect narrative to stage a musical around the catalog of Swedish superproducer Max Martin, producer Theresa Steele Page had two off-limits storylines: “No boy bands and no little girl from a tiny town who becomes a pop star.”
After all, Steele Page and her production partner Tim Headington already had front-row seats to those real-life success stories: As part of Johnny Wright’s Wright Entertainment Group in the 1990s, they worked closely with pre-fame Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC as they started scaling the Billboard charts with Martin-helmed smashes. This time around, the duo was much more interested in a narrative jukebox musical akin to the ABBA-soundtracked Mamma Mia! versus a Jersey Boys-style biopic.
As it turned out, the famously private Martin and his wife, Jenny, had also been contemplating the idea of a musical around his songs. “It was almost like we collided,” says Steele Page, adding that then-rookie writer David West Read (Schitt’s Creek) won over the production duo and the Martins almost immediately by pitching a story from the 1590s instead of the 1990s: Romeo & Juliet.
“I basically made a playlist of Max’s music and just listened to it on repeat and tried to let the music drive the story,” says West Read. “There are so many songs about heartbreak and young love,” a realization that got West Read thinking about “the ultimate story of heartbreak and young love.”
The result was & Juliet, a musical that opened on London’s West End in 2019 and will begin Broadway previews on Oct. 28 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, with direction from Luke Sheppard and orchestration by Bill Sherman. The project reinvents both Martin’s pop oeuvre (with six Backstreet Boys songs, five Spears tracks and music that runs the generational gamut from Céline Dion to Ariana Grande) and Shakespeare’s star-crossed tale, imagining what would happen if Juliet (played by Lorna Courtney) hadn’t taken her own life in the name of teen love.
While Martin was hands-on through the nearly decadelong process, he wasn’t precious about how his music could be used. Says West Read: “I wanted every song to feel like it was written for this musical,” and he notes that he didn’t change any lyrics beyond a character name or pronoun. “We have to make it feel like even if you had never heard a Max Martin song and you came to this musical cold, you would still completely follow everything, and he was so understanding of that.” That intention has already been put to the test: “We had an older woman go up to Max in London and say, ‘You wrote the music? You wrote all of these songs just for this musical?’ ” West Read recalls. “She had no idea that any of them were pop songs.”
Since its 2019 debut, the show has been praised by some of the marquee artists whose music is used in the musical, including Katy Perry (“Roar,” “I Kissed a Girl”), Adam Lambert (“Whataya Want From Me”), Robyn (“Show Me Love”) and *NSYNC’s Lance Bass and JC Chasez (“It’s Gonna Be Me”), who have all seen & Juliet in London. That praise extended to helping clear dozens of hit songs for the show, since Martin wasn’t always the sole stakeholder. “Not one person called and said, ‘I refuse to let you use my music,’ ” says Steele Page.
She is hoping its Broadway home will make it even easier for more pop stars to drop by — and set the stage for a growing fan base. “I’m not really looking for anyone to say, ‘This is so smart!’ or ‘The way you put this together, you’re such a genius!’ ” West Read says of his story. “It’s so much nicer to hear people say, ‘The show made me happier, and I left feeling better than when I went in’ — and that’s pop music. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s just a pleasure.”