Interview: David West Read on blending Shakespeare and Max Martin-penned pop for & Juliet

What if Romeo’s ending, was Juliet’s beginning?

The Emmy-winning writer of TV’s Schitt’s Creek flips the script on Shakespeare in this hilarious and poignant story of self-discovery and second chances. Legendary songwriter Max Martin delivers one of the most addictive and joyous soundtracks to ever hit the stage, in this inspiring new musical that proves there’s life after Romeo.

After premiering on the West End and earning a staggering 8 x Olivier Awards nominations, & Juliet has also been one of the most unexpected and spectacular theatrical triumphs on Broadway, with Forbes Magazine boldly saying: This is easily the best musical of the year”.

Alongside this laugh-out-loud and heart-warming story, comes a playlist of songs that is truly second to none in the world of pop music including, Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’, Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’, Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, Backstreet Boys’ Larger Than Life, Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling and much more! & Juliet creates a mind-blowing concert-like atmosphere that our own Penny Spirou hailed 4 stars, as a blend of “Shakespearean storytelling, 90s pop music, and gender-bending progressiveness”; you can read the full review here.

To celebrate the show’s Australian season, Peter Gray spoke with writer David West Read about bringing the catalogue of the “greatest pop writer of all time” to life, his concert research, and how he brought Shakespeare and pop music together here.

Congratulations on the show.  The music in this is very much the soundtrack of my youth.  I’m a pop lover through and through, and I think Max Martin is one of the greatest pop writers of all time.  Before getting into the show itself, do you have a favourite Max Martin-penned song?

That’s such a tough question.  I agree, I think he’s one of…well, I think he’s the greatest pop writer of all time.  I mean, of course I’m a little bit biased (laughs), but I think, within the show, I really love this Celine Dion song called “That’s The Way It Is”.

I very much know that song.  I feel like it’s almost a deep cut when you look at all of the songs on his resume.

In the show there’s very much outliers.  There’s Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Katy Perry…you know, all the people that everyone is aware of who he’s written for.  But then there are the one-offs, like the Bon Jovi song (“It’s My Life”) or the Celine Dion song.  You can’t believe Max has written for these people as well.  He’s had quite a career.

I understand this concept was presented to you.  Was the idea already formed that it would be based on “Romeo & Juliet”?  Or did you bring that idea to it?

That’s something I brought to it.  Max’s wife (Jenny Petersson) suggested doing a musical based on his work.  They didn’t really have a story in mind, but they knew they wanted it to be really unexpected and not just the story of a pop star or a boy band.  Nothing that was in the world of the original source of the music.  I actually didn’t know Max Martin by name when I was asked to pitch on the musical.  He had done very few interviews at that point.  He was very Swedish and very humble, just putting the artist first and staying away from the spotlight.  Then I realised he had written all my favourite songs (laughs), so I made a playlist of his songs and just listened to it over and over.  I wanted to see what would come out of that.

There are obviously so many great pop songs about teenage young love and heartbreak, so that led me to the ultimate story of young love and heartbreak, “Romeo & Juliet”.  I thought if we’re going to reinvent and repurpose Max’s songs, then it makes sense to do the same to a story we already know.  So there’s this synergy of Shakespeare and pop music being reinterrogated together.

How do you decipher which songs to use? Are there certain songs that they want you to use? Or you have the catalogue at you disposal?

At the beginning it was to do as I will with the songs.  There were some songs that I brought up and Max would tell me that if he didn’t contribute enough to the song, then it didn’t warrant a place in the final show.  The way pop music is written is that you could be just one person in the room and contribute one idea versus what Max often does, which is write the song by himself.  So there were those that didn’t feel like iconic Max Martin songs. As we got deeper into the process it got to stuff like, “Well, it would be nice to have “Can’t Stop The Feeling” in there, which is arguably one of the biggest pop songs of the last 10 years, but it came down to being about what songs were best for the story.

Had you seen any of the artists featured live on tour at all? Or did you go and research by attending live shows to see what songs hit more with audiences?  Something to gage a certain reaction for when you’re putting your list together.

I wouldn’t say I had to (laughs), but I did go see some.  There was almost a cross-education happening during the making of the show, because we took Max to see Hamilton and Mamma Mia, introducing him to musical theatre, and then I went with Max to see the Backstreet Boys, and I saw Taylor Swift, and Justin Timberlake.  We wanted to merge that feeling of a pop concert with a traditional theatre show, so part of the process was each learning about the other’s world.

Is there a difference, for you, in writing a musical and writing a straightforward play?

Yes.  There are a lot fewer words in a musical (laughs).  This is going to sound like I did nothing (laughs), but there’s maybe 30 pages of actual dialogue.  But the flip side to that is that each line has that much more pressure on it to achieve its impact outside of the music.  It can be really challenging.  With a play, you have a little more longitude.

And compared to television, I imagine there’s a certain pressure with live theatre feeling like a brand new show every night.  Television is probably more a guaranteed structure?

Yeah, it’s exactly that.  When you write a TV show or film, most people are going to watch that within the first year of its release.  And if you watch it after however long, you see it through a different lens of appreciating it as a product of its time.  With a musical, and I started working on this in 2016, and obviously a lot has happened since 2016, you’re trying to create something timeless, but to so many audiences it also has to feel fresh and original.  The amazing thing about theatre, and I saw this when watching the Australian production, is that the energy and the liveness makes no two performances exactly alike.  The cast really elevate the material and make it feel fresh.  The biggest difference is trying to create something that endures.

Do you find that with each international production there’s a song that hits more than others?

I know there is a slightly different calibration.  I’m trying to think of which songs were slightly more popular in America versus here.  There’s a Demi Lovato song in the show called “Confident”, and I know that was more of a hit in the US over the UK, so there’s a few examples of songs like that.  We always tried to make it in a way, from the beginning, where the show was culturally bulletproof (laughs).  You won’t feel left out if you don’t know a song.  Part of the pleasure is making these lyrics sound as if they were written strictly for the musical.

I was looking at the figures for this.  You have around 1200 lights, 1700 lighting cues, the 9-piece live band playing every night, a 1.6 second quick change…are you thinking of that when you’re conceptualising the narrative?

I was there when those things were getting figured out.  It’s such a collaboration.  I’ve worked on TV where I’m the showrunner, but in theatre I’m not that.  You need everything to feel like one cohesive vision, and Luke Sheppard (the West End production director) really brought in some talented designers and choreographers, and we all kind of brought something to the table.  Never in the script did I think there’d be a costume change that would be that quick (laughs).  That’s been really fun.

Was Max precious about any of the songs? Did he have any he held in high regard? Or is it like they’re his children, so technically no favourites?

I think they’re all his children.  There all from different phases of his life, and they’re all from different artists.  If I can speak on Max’s behalf, his career, as a whole, is represented by the show.  The cast of this show essentially got to make a Max Martin record.  They got to be in the studio with him, and get notes from him, and be a part of that process, just as if they were, like, Ariana Grande (laughs).  It all just speaks to how much of a fan Max is of this musical.  He couldn’t be a bigger supporter.

& Juliet is now playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre until June 2024. For tickets, please click here.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.