& Juliet is a new jukebox musical that’s based on Shakespeare’s most famous love story and is full of the songs of Max Martin. It’s narrated by William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, who argues that Juliet deserves a better ending. Anne enters the story herself, taking a very-much-still-alive Juliet to Paris with her best friend May – where the two of them meet eligible singleton Francois Debois (that name is important later) and end up in a complex romantic entanglement. Then, Romeo comes back from the dead…
What follows is a transcript of 90s music sceptic Alice Saville and Britney superfan Rose Johnstone’s actual conversations during and after the show, with some (but by no means all) of the cringey bits edited out.
Rose Johnstone: Do you want a wine?
Alice Saville: This is definitely definitely a wine-at-the-interval show
RJ: Rosé. It’s a real rosé kind of show. Wow, Max Martin. This one guy writing all these pop songs that sound so different: he’s like Sia, the way that he can turn his voice to so many styles
AS: A versatile songwriter. Are you happy you bunked off choir?
RJ: Yeah. sorry Ruth. I’ll learn the songs later. It takes me back to when I saw Britney at Brighton Pride. SO GOOD.
AS: You’re a gay man trapped in a gay woman’s body.
RJ: Nooo… [sings] ‘Oh baby baby’. You gotta do the real vocal fry when you do a Britney impression.
AS: This thought popped into my head while I was watching it – and I don’t know if it’s fair – but it was: this is like reliving the 90s in pop, but with people who can actually sing
RJ: It’s true in a way because Britney sucks at singing
AS: She doesn’t have much versatility. Hearing the songs sung by properly good singers, you get so much more out of them.
RJ: All these songs are quite simple in a way but it’s what you do with them, what instruments you put behind them…
AS: I was expecting more Renaissance stylings…
RJ: Oh yeah?
AS: Plinky plonky harpsichord and stuff. But this is more of a 90s nostalgia tribute show. They give the audience little nods; like the bit where Juliet and her friends all put on tiny backpacks because they’re going off to Paris. I was like… ahhh yes
RJ: The whole aesthetic reminds me a bit of Sex Education
AS: Oh yeah, where it’s not really set in any one time period
RJ: Yeah, those weird vibes, it’s retro but also really woke
AS: How cute was it when the two pre-teenage girls sat next to us started hissing ‘kiss kiss kiss’ when May and Francois had their scene together?
RJ: SO cute! Can you imagine being a 12 year old and having a non-binary main character in a mainstream musical that you’re actually rooting for
AS: There was so little queerness in the musicals I grew up watching! I guess you kind of have Rocky Horror with songs like ‘Sweet Transvestite’
RJ: But there queerness is kind of monstrous, you know? They’re literally aliens – the idea of the trans or gender fluid character just being like human, very themselves, is a gamechanger. I didn’t have these things as a child.
After the show:
AS: I love the audacity of just putting a big jukebox in the middle of the stage at the end of the show and saying: we are not ashamed of what this is. It’s a jukebox musical, and it’s great! It was really weird because Michael Billington’s review he basically said that the only song that was used intelligently was when May sings ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman’
RJ: That’s not true!
AS: I really don’t agree with that – that was probably one of the clunkier song choices. But in other bits I really liked the way they divided up the lines within songs, turning solos into conversations.
RJ: …and when they sang ‘Debois are back alright’!
AS: Arrrghhh I thought was an awful play on words. As soon as they introduced that Francois’s surname was ‘Debois’ I was like, oh no why are they making such a big deal of this… and then it was to make a weird version of the Backstreet Boys.
RJ: It was incredible! That song is a fucking banger!
AS: But also, that’s their first song and it’s about coming back! Where did they go?
RJ: No one knows.
RJ: I didn’t realise there was a connection between two Britney Spears songs until now. In ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ she sings “My loneliness is killing me”, and then in ‘Stronger’ she sings “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”. I thought for a moment they’d added that line in, but no, it was always there.
AS: But what’s even weirder is that you realise it’s Max Martin writing Britney’s life, writing her development as a teenage girl. The songs were marketed so much in the context of the artist, of their story. I was thinking that with the Kelly Clarkson song ‘Because of You’ too.
RJ: Yeah, because it’s meant to be about her abusive father.
AS: It’s weird that here it’s turned into this like sweet song, or at least not a song about abuse. It’s divorced from that context.
RJ: What I’m trying to work out is – were his songs from the 90s better? Or was it that my emotions are different? With all the 90s songs I was like YES! YES! YES! And then with ‘Roar’ I was like, it’s a good song, it’s objectively a well-written song, but…
AS: Whereas the 12 year olds next to us were going crazy.
RJ: They were like AHHHHHH. But songs like ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ – I was low-key trying to work out what it is about those songs that do something in your brain like YES. It’s in a minor key, it builds and builds, it’s so exciting.
AS: I probably don’t feel as nostalgic as you do for 90s pop, I think I spent the whole time trying to pretend I was too cool for that stuff, listening more to American indie, so I associate those songs with horrible school discos and stuff. But I still definitely know the tunes, and suddenly I found myself warming to them. When I heard them sung really really well with people with incredible voices it made me appreciate almost on a more abstract level.
RJ: I know what you mean. I think my Dad really instilled in me that this wasn’t ‘good’ music. He was like – you can have your crap music but now sit down and listen to Led Zeppelin.
AS: Absolutely. I really strongly internalised the message that this isn’t music that’s worthy of respect – and this show almost feels like Max Martin putting it in one big package and saying like, this is worthy of respect.
RJ: Yeah. This is my body of work, and it’s amazing.
AS: It’s undeniable, when you hear it all together.
Later, while eating a delicious pancake:
RJ: From a purely capitalist perspective, this must be an absolute dream because for people our age, these songs strike to the heart of that kind of teenage zone where you have all the feelings. Like when Romeo says that “I’m just a man with a tight body and lots of feelings”. But then it also gets in younger people, because Max Martin’s songs span so many years.
AS: He’s gone from Bon Jovi to Backstreet Boys to Kelly Clarkson to Katy Perry…
RJ: Yeah, and even to people who now embarrassingly I don’t even know… (I think Pharrell had a song in there?)… and also the wokeness of it. But it didn’t feel like it was just trying to get woke points. Something like Sex Education I think is teetering a little bit on the boundary of being too manufactured in its wokeness, but to me this genuinely felt like they were trying to include everyone as much as possible.
AS: I think they were trying to make May feel like a real character. I kind of worried that she’d just be – oh we’ve chucked in a peripheral gender queer character. But she had a more nuanced role than that.
RJ: I felt that too… but as soon as she came on, I also knew they were going to do ‘It’s gonna be May’
AS: You called that so early on, the second she appeared you whispered ‘It’s gonna be May’
RJ: But it’s like the classic joke about N’Sync right, you see those memes on April 30th that are like ‘It’s gonna be May’?
AS: (Looks confused) oh really?
AS. Okay. But what do you think about Anne Hathaway as a character? It was weird that she was slightly undermined, shown as a bit awkward, a bit nerdy – but maybe it would have been too didactic if she was just an omnipotent perfect authoress goddess.
RJ: Yeah, I don’t know yet how I feel about that. In some ways, there’s something quite old-school about having her and Shakespeare as de facto hosts, in that vaudevillian way where the curtain comes down and they come out the front and go “heeeey!” She was an object of humour.
AS: There were quite a lot of kind of ageist jokes about her being old.
RJ: Yeaaahhh, and part of me doesn’t know how I feel about the ending. It’s kinda messy in a way, the message kept shifting. It was like ‘Juliet’s gonna be single, it’s gonna be awesome!’.
AS: But she also still loves Romeo…
RJ: Yeah, and it felt a bit unnecessary to include a parallel between Romeo and Juliet’s rocky relationship and Anne and William’s marital problems. And then when both couples decide to stay together, it was almost as if William got more redemption than he needed to get? They went in with saying “he’s a douchebag, he’s a mansplainer, a straight white man…”
AS: And then out of the blue it was all “oh, but he’s a nice dude, he’s okay” – it kind of wanted to have its cake and eat it, like the fundamental message was pretty ambiguous.
RJ: Yeah: “women can be single, but everyone wants to be in love really”. And in some ways you could argue – although maybe this is being a bit too nitpicky and unfair – that even the relationship of May and Francois at the end is a bit heteronormative. May is meant to be non-binary but he calls her a girl throughout their relationship, and the ending really frames it that way…
AS: Yeah, this is marketed as a super queer musical, and it’s not NOT that, it’s trying, but it still fundamentally ends with three monogamous couples neatly bowing at the end, just like a trad Shakespeare play.
RJ: I say all this stuff but actually I was just fucking loving it the whole time, do you know what I mean? There’s something that happens to my emotions when I see four or five boys doing those jerky campy moves to cheesy boyband music, it’s like I’m hardwired to be like ‘YESSSSSS’.
AS: You’re more straight than me…
RJ: I don’t fancy them. The whole aesthetic is exciting.
AS: Okay I think you’re more tolerant of heterosexual men then me.
RJ: What do you think of Juliet?
AS: I love her. Her character is fundamentally quite incoherent, or at least underwritten, but I think that Miriam Teak-Lee manages to make her likeable and interesting. I loved her voice too. I think a lot of Max Martin songs are very gutsy, they’re designed to be belted, and her voice did have that quality but at the same time it’s very sweet.
RJ: And she has that genuine emotion as a performer as well – when she and Romeo were on that carousel, I did feel a genuine chemistry, which is amazing considering how Romeo is this ridiculous posh over-emotional drama queen.
One thought I had during the show was: why choose Romeo and Juliet for Max Martin’s songs? You could have put anything on them. But then his songs are so ridiculous in their emotions – like in ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, one of the lyrics is ‘The reason I breathe is you’ – and that is Romeo and Juliet, you know?
AS: Extreme emotions
RJ: I like it when she said ‘My previous relationship was really intense – it lasted three and a half days’.
AS: It’s weird that one level this is just a jukebox musical, but there’s this whole other level where it’s a metatheatrical comment on Shakespeare’s play – like it made me think a little bit of The Watsons, and the way Laura Wade breaks apart a Jane Austen novel…
RJ: Me too, but it didn’t go as far. There was a bit that was super like The Watsons: Anne Hathaway breaks Shakespeare’s quill in half, as if it’s this magical thing that allows them to change the characters’ destinies, and then it’s like no one can really influence what Juliet does. But then nothing really changes in the way that the show works. Whereas in The Watsons, that’s the moment where everything changes.
AS: I guess what’s weird about it is that you think & Juliet is going to be about destabilising authorship, and asking who gets to write stories and what it means and all that, but its discussion of authorship doesn’t go very deep. Its basic conclusion is ‘ah, if you had a woman she’d make Shakespeare’s female characters have happier marriages’ and that’s quite straightforward.
RJ: Yeah, everyone ends up essentially married.
AS: Anne Hathaway doesn’t really want to break Shakespeare’s authorship or break genius as a concept, she just wants accommodations within his plays. I think I felt quite aware that this was written by an all-male team.
RJ: There was this weird moment where I imagined them all as puppets…
AS: Oohh that’s a bit on the nose…
RJ: Well not literally, but it’s also like what we said before about this middle-aged dude creating a story for Britney Spears that’s potentially not even real. I don’t really think this play really interrogates that in any way, that level where Max Martin is a bit like Shakespeare in this play.
AS: I didn’t even think of that whole level! But yeah if you start to think about Max Martin’s relationship to Britney Spears, it feels a bit like Shakespeare’s need to control Juliet’s story here. Britney’s work is styled as very confessional, and then it’s weird to be made aware that it’s an older man who’s authoring it.
RJ: ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman’ – that’s a really vulnerable space, but written by this older guy who’s crafting a whole narrative.
AS: There’s also no storyline in & Juliet that doesn’t revolve around love – neither Anne nor Will can conceive another plot, another ending for Juliet. Whereas something like Emilia was all about that idea of finding another ending for a woman who’s trapped in Shakespeare’s orbit. Still, I quite liked that the whole fourth act just gave up so conclusively on trying to sort it all out – let’s just have a massive pop concert!
RJ: That’s the thing, we bring up all these issues but it’s almost like – what would you have expected from a show that hinges around this music?
AS: Yeah, and it is very silly, full of plot holes and bits that don’t make sense. But it’s always slightly smarter than you are, and it’s really good at slightly second-guessing you.
RJ: I liked the bit where Shakespeare constantly uses all the well-known phrases he’s invented, and the fact that that becomes a source of exasperation, everyone’s like ‘stop’! Was the second best bed bit true as well?
AS: Yeah, there was a whole poem we did about it at school, Carol Ann Duffy writes this really beautiful thing about it that’s narrated by Anne Hathaway. It’s the bed they shared together, the best bed was a starchy guest bed.
RJ: Did he leave her anything else?
AS: Money I hope! But I totally think you could read that as a romantic gesture.
RJ: I know it sounds harsh but I just didn’t really care about their love story.
AS: You don’t stan their love.
RJ: Haha no. But the fandom for this is going to be so intense.
AS: Absolutely. Like Six the musical! Another show with great songs, a slightly questionable storyline and 00s-meets- Renaissance costume.
RJ: It’s the joy of watching people do all your favourite 90s pop songs who are actually amazing singers and dancers. It’s genuinely very clever as well, and I didn’t give it that going in. For all its flaws, it’s more more ambitious than it needed to be.
After thinking about it for a few days, Rose isn’t so sure that & Juliet is as uncomplicatedly woke as she first felt it to be. Maybe the powerful 90s nostalgia had a numbing effect on her brain… but she’s fine with that.
Alice’s temporary love for the sounds of the 90s burst mere hours after she left the theatre, like one of those inflatable blow-up chairs being punctured by a studded denim jacket. Still, fun while it lasted.
& Juliet is now playing Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End. More info and tickets here. For more on November 2019’s smorgasbord of new musical theatre, read Frey Kwa Hawking’s review of Dear Evan Hansen.