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 from the 21st century to stardom.
Now, Swedish record producer and songwriter Karl Martin Sandberg, known professionally as Max Martin, is gearing up to add another credit to his resume: Broadway musical creator.
His ticket to the Great White Way is “& Juliet,” an introductory jukebox musical that combines some of Martin’s most famous pop anthems with a modern twist on William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, asking: what if Juliet continued to live after Romeo’s death? A box office success now in its fourth year in London’s West End, the new musical is currently at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto ahead of a Broadway arc, with dates yet to be announced.
This is a project over a decade in the making. Martin’s wife, Jenny, suggested to him about 12 years ago that he make a musical from his vast catalog of songs.
“It then started a quest for the story,” he said in an interview just before the preview performances began. “I didn’t want it to be just a regular musical in a jukebox, where you insert the songs and make it work. History has always been the main and shining treasure.
But the concept of the musical is not his.
“It’s a Canadian idea,” Martin admitted with a laugh.
In 2016, Martin, who is also one of the musical’s main producers, enlisted the help of playwright and Toronto native David West Read, whose previous writing credits include “Schitt’s Creek” and the play by Broadway’s 2012 “The Performers.” It was West Read who came up with the idea of fusing the works of Shakespeare and Martin, two cultural icons four centuries apart, into a feel-good story about empowering women.
“For a while we wondered if this was a fun juxtaposition of Shakespeare and pop music,” West Read said. “But Shakespeare was the pop writer of that 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 sense.”
West Read remembers going through hundreds of hours of Martin’s songs to find the ones that would best serve the story. The Swedish songwriter had given the Canadian his entire catalog, giving the playwright “all the tools” he needed to tell the story.
“I had a concussion at the time. I just hit my head against the kitchen cabinet,” West Read said. the dark and listening to hours and hours of Max Martin, which was really fun.”
“& Juliet” is West Read’s first musical but marks a return to the stage in a way. Although he was a famous Emmy and Golden Globe-winning television writer and producer, West Read’s first love was acting. He studied playwriting at Juilliard and New York University before taking a detour into television, and his first works were plays.
West Read worked on “& Juliet” at the same time as “Schitt’s Creek,” for which he also served as executive producer.
“It was good because writing for TV and theater are completely different processes,” he said. “The immediacy and liveliness of writing for the stage is a really fun counterpoint to working on TV.”
Having the North American premiere, the pre-Broadway production of “& Juliet” at the Princess of Wales Theater is also a significant moment for West Read. It was in the same theater that West Read saw his first musical, “Mamma Mia!” He is still a fan of this ABBA-inspired musical to this day.
The similarities between the two shows are uncanny. Both are jukebox productions that take existing pop hits and mold them around an original story (unlike most other shows in the jukebox genre, which typically use an artist’s biography as the narrative of the musical), and the two started out in the UK before jumping the pond in Toronto for pre-Broadway tryouts.
Opening on Broadway just after 9/11, “Mamma Mia!” brought New Yorkers and tourists back to theaters. He ended up touring for 14 years on Broadway. The producers of “& Juliet” hope the new musical can capture the same cultural spirit as “Mamma Mia!” did over two decades ago and is bringing COVID-19-weary audiences to Broadway.
“The heart of the show is a second chance and a fresh start,” said director Luke Sheppard. “It’s also about being proud of who you are and celebrating love and individuality in all its forms.”
The 25-member cast includes a mix of Broadway veterans and newbies. Lorna Courtney stars as the titular character, her first Broadway starring role after starring in “Dear Evan Hansen” and the 2020 revival of “West Side Story.”
“It really is a blessing,” the New York native said. “I’m sure we were auditioning for things before the pandemic happened and we didn’t get it, so we were either upset or disappointed. But then you have to remember that things happen for a reason.
“And then it happened.”
Broadway stalwart Betsy Wolfe, who plays Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, says she was drawn to West Read’s script and use of Martin’s songs.
“It’s not just a young love story; it’s a multi-generational love that spans different relationships at different times,” said Wolfe, who starred in “Waitress,” “Falsettos” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” on Broadway. “If you’re sitting there in the audience, you’re going to end up 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 debut with the show.
“The excitement hasn’t died down yet. I don’t think that will be the case for some time,” said Antonio, who is an ensemble member and stunt double for Romeo and Francis. “It’s crazy for me to be able to spend a summer in my hometown and perform the soundtrack of my childhood.”
Antonio quickly rose through the ranks of Toronto’s music theater scene. A 2018-2019 recipient of the prestigious Banks Award for Emerging Artists in Musical Theatre, he 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 “& Juliet”. The recalls were to take place in Toronto, but were moved to New York at the last minute. Antonio had recently started a full-time job at a health care clinic in Toronto.
He wasn’t sure he could do that reminder in the middle of the work week.
“But then I said, ‘What if? and “I just have to enjoy it,” he recalled. “So I called in sick, went to New York for two days and danced like crazy. And nailed it.
“It was one of those moments where I felt like it was all happening for a reason.”
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