He has five Grammy Awards to his name and a slew of Billboard hits like “ … Baby One More Time,” “I Want It That Way” and “That’s the Way It Is” — songs that have catapulted some of the most popular singers of the 21st century to superstardom.
Now, Swedish record producer and songwriter Karl Martin Sandberg, professionally known as Max Martin, is gearing up to add another credit to his resumé: Broadway musical creator.
His ticket to the Great White Way is “& Juliet,” a coming-of-age jukebox musical that pairs some of Martin’s most famous pop anthems with a modern twist on William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, asking: What if Juliet kept living after Romeo died? A box-office hit that is in its fourth year in London’s West End, the new musical is currently at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre before a Broadway bow, with dates yet to be announced.
It’s a project more than a decade in the making. Martin’s wife, Jenny, suggested about 12 years ago that he make a musical out of his vast catalogue of songs.
“That then started a quest for the story,” he said in an interview just before preview performances began. “I didn’t want it to be just a regular jukebox musical, where you shoehorn the songs in and kind of make it work. The story has always been the main, shining treasure.”
But the concept of the musical is not his.
“It’s a Canadian idea,” Martin admitted with a chuckle.
In 2016, Martin, who is also one of the musical’s lead producers, enlisted the help of playwright and Toronto native David West Read, whose previous writing credits include “Schitt’s Creek” and the 2012 Broadway play “The Performers.” It was West Read who came up with the idea of melding the works of Shakespeare and Martin, two cultural icons four centuries apart, into a feel-good story of female empowerment.
“For a while, we were wondering if it was a funny juxtaposition of Shakespeare and pop music,” said West Read. “But Shakespeare was the pop writer of this time, writing for the masses. And that’s what Max has been doing for decades.
“So, in a way, combining Shakespeare and this music makes complete sense.”
West Read recalled poring over hundreds of hours of Martin songs to find the ones that would best serve the story. The Swedish songwriter had handed the Canadian his entire catalogue, giving the playwright “whatever tools” he needed to tell the story.
“I had a concussion at the time. I just hit my head on the kitchen cabinet,” West Read said. “So I had nothing to do but lie in the dark and listen to hours and hours of Max Martin, which was really fun.”
“& Juliet” is West Read’s first musical but marks a return of sorts to the stage. Though he is a celebrated Emmy and Golden Globe-winning television writer and producer, West Read’s first love was theatre. He studied playwriting at Juilliard and New York University before detouring into TV, and his first works were plays.
West Read worked on “& Juliet” concurrently with “Schitt’s Creek,” for which he was also an executive producer.
“It was nice because writing for television and theatre are completely different processes,” he said. “The immediacy of it and the liveness of writing for the stage is a really fun counterpoint to working in TV.”
Having the North American premiere, pre-Broadway production of “& Juliet” at the Princess of Wales Theatre is also a significant full-circle moment for West Read. It was in the same theatre that West Read saw his first musical, “Mamma Mia!” He’s still a fan of that ABBA-inspired musical to this day.
The similarities between both shows are uncanny. Both are jukebox productions that use existing pop hits and mould them around an original story (unlike most other shows in the jukebox genre, which typically use an artist’s biography as the musical’s narrative), and both started in the U.K. before hopping the pond to Toronto for pre-Broadway tryouts.
Opening on Broadway just after Sept. 11, “Mamma Mia!” ushered New Yorkers and tourists back to the theatres. It ended up running for 14 years on Broadway. The producers of “& Juliet” hope the new musical can capture the same cultural zeitgeist as “Mamma Mia!” did more than two decades ago and lure COVID-19-weary audiences back to Broadway.
“The heart of the show is about second chances and new beginnings,” said director Luke Sheppard. “It’s also about being proud of who you are, and celebrating love and individuality in all of its forms.”
The 25-member cast comprises a mix of Broadway veterans and newbies. Lorna Courtney stars as the titular character, her first leading role on Broadway after appearing in “Dear Evan Hansen” and the 2020 revival of “West Side Story.”
“It’s really a blessing,” said the New York City native. “I’m sure we were auditioning for things before the pandemic happened and we didn’t get it, so we were upset or disappointed. But then you have to remind yourself that things happen for a reason.
“And then this came along.”
Broadway stalwart Betsy Wolfe, who plays Anne Hathaway, wife of Shakespeare, says she was drawn to West Read’s script and the use of Martin’s songs.
“It’s not just one story of young love; it’s a multi-generational love that spans different relationships at different times,” said Wolfe, who has starred in “Waitress,” “Falsettos” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” on Broadway. “If you’re sitting there in the audience, you are going to find yourself somewhere in this show.”
The cast also includes four Canadians: Matt Raffy, Brandon Antonio, Alaina Vi Maderal and Bobby “Pocket” Horner. All four will make their Broadway debuts with the show.
“The excitement hasn’t settled yet. I don’t think it will for a while,” said Antonio, who is a member of the ensemble and understudies Romeo and François. “It’s insane to me that I get to spend a summer in my hometown and perform the soundtrack to my childhood.”
Antonio has quickly risen through the ranks of Toronto’s musical theatre scene. A 2018-19 recipient of the prestigious Banks Prize for emerging musical theatre artists, he most notably starred in the Mirvish production of “Next to Normal” in 2019, for which he was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award.
But Antonio almost didn’t make it into “& Juliet.” Callbacks were supposed to be held in Toronto but were moved to New York City at the last minute. Antonio had recently started a full-time job at a health-care clinic in Toronto.
He wasn’t sure if he could make that callback in the middle of the work week.
“But then I said, ‘What if?’ and ‘I just got to take advantage of this,’” he recalled. “So I called in sick, went to New York for two days and danced my butt off. And I nailed it.
“It was one of those moments where I felt all of this is happening for a reason.”
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