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Max Martin’s “@ Juliet” At The Stephen Sondheim Theatre, November 26th, 2022 Reviewed

To coin a phrase that William Shakespeare missed: well, there’s that.

What the world needs now is not exactly a musical version of “Romeo & Juliet”. At the Stephen Sondheim Theatre the new musical by Max Martin and David West Read retells the tragedy with a big switcherino: Juliet Capulet (Rachel Webb) survives and becomes a harbinger of wokeness as she, her best friend the homosexual May (Justin David sullivan -quite charming) , her nurse Angelique, and Shakespeare’s wife Anne head to Paris . Meanwhile the cast sings along to Max Martin composed, arranged, sometimes produced pure pop from the 2010s not unlike the jukebox on stage as you walk in.

With the main exception of Paulo Szot -the great Brazilian baritone who blew us all away in 2008 in the Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific”, the cast is indifferent touring company performers. That’s not bad but it’s not great and while rumor has it the Juliet who didn’t perform Saturday afternoon, Lorna Courtney, takes a star making turn, that isn’t true of Rachel who is both lovely and transparent.

The question here is clear, why is Max Martin doing this: his ensemble seem to exist in one place only, the stage, where they go out of their ways to insult no one in the tri-state area, while the teen girls swarming the theatre are zonking on the show, those of us who are not immersed but submerged for an evening of open-mindedness that is also closed off from reality so thoroughly it is condescending. To change a story written by a man into female empowerment is stupid, it is belittling to women unlike the play itself where Ladies Montague and Capulet are bloody minded women at war and quite as harsh as their male counterparts, Lady Capulet railing at Tibalt is more woman power than the entire “& Juliet”. Why change that? How does it help either woke culture or English literature to take famous characters and then shoot out the wheels taking them to their destination? I don’t care if you have an Ethiopian man portray Juliet, as long as he is true to the role his ethnic background is irrelevant, he would be ACTING. This is not that.

We wake with a just woken woke Juliet going on the lam (on the best looking stage on Broadway) in search of freedom from her family and then discovers Romeo was a philanderer and the man who invented both of them is being re-written by his wife.

Why do this to Romeo (& Juliet), why gut it and add nothing remotely close to the same level? The musical has everyone singing Max Martin hits interwoven weakly into the storyline and while listening to “Teenage Dream” (with Lance -aka Paulo) seducing the nurse Angelique is better than listening to “It Roars” (“Mean Girls” theatre buffs) (indeed “Roar” near the shows end), it doesn’t fit quite. With a small rock band plus synth bass, viola and violin, the sound is so iffy that I thought it was canned at first, the band try to bring to life songs that are prophetically miscalculated. Really, a musical of Backstreet Boys and Katy Perry songs is what it boils down to and on their best day neither could open a Broadway musical.

Martin is a master song craftness, he isn’t an artist, or at least, he isn’t a rock artist, Max is a pop art-ist. The Swedish star is like Phil Spector if Spector lacked that ego, he is Jack Antonoff except Max doesn’t just augment, he also creates. Swedish personality characteristics include humbleness, open-mindedness, honesty, creativity, quietness, competitiveness, and fairness and that’s one reason Martin has attempted to hide behind the curtain, he has given a very rare set of interviews to publicise the play, interviews for the first time in twenty years (With the New York Times here). according to Joe Coscarelli “…Martin’s impact on mainstream music cannot be overstated. Beginning with his work in Stockholm on the multiplatinum teen pop of the late 1990s and early 2000s, he has been one of the primary architects of the sound of the modern Top 40”. The actual interview is a dog with flies, Joe can’t get Max to speak, let alone open up. Adding to all of this is that like ABBA before him, English is his second language and he can sound clumsy., and does lyrically.

But the problem with “& Juliet” is not the songs, the problem here is the entire and unnecessary: I think it is fine to introduce gender fluidity and girl power though if it’s fine to find another way to focus on the text. I don’t think you do that by changing Romeo into a himbo with few scruples and few skills is a travesty, imagine if they made a movie called “Mrs Gandhi”, same thing. The fifteen year old Romeo killed himself for love, why change him into a slut? Forget Shakespeare’s wife for a moment and consider the characters of Romeo And Juliet, the play was published in 1597, and the teen lovers were rebellious and willing to risk, and indeed, did risk everything, to be together. That is vastly more entertaining than the roundelay at the heart of “& Juliet ,” Juliet gets engaged to the man her best friend, also a man, is in love with, this leads to May’s big moment “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”(I saw Britney at MSG singing it on a swing when it first came out) which made less sense when all these wild to mild teens are given a decade and are 20 something. Sadly, none of the songs he wrote with Taylor Swift made it though “I Knew You Were Trouble” would have been a good add. The book, written by David West Read, is exceptionally indifferent considering that Read also helped write the sitcom Schitt’s Creek: the words never sparkle and sure, they shouldn’t in the sense that if he tried too hard to write a Shakespearean play he would have died the death of a thousand cuts: He had to keep his prose prosaic and in service to moving the songs into the stories.

So no great acting except for the both members of the older couple, Lance and Nurse Angelique (a superb Melanie La Barrie), great songs yes, great decor sure, boring and misguided book but plenty of too good for words sexual advocacy and welcome for kids and parents, especially transgender teens who need help coming out to their parents… to a degree. From “Jagged Little Pill” to “Six” to “Kpop” to “Almost Famous”, we are stuck in a Broadway hellbent on attracting Gen Z teen girls, and this matinee (it was sold out when I saw it) promises the musical will have legs even if they are simplistic to a degree.

I would like to take my great niece (my late brother’s granddaughter), Juliet Lababedi, with me. She is in college at New Patz and is finally at an age where we can hang out, she loves music and she loves theatre, and if she ever decided not to become a vet would be welcome onto Broadway. My sense is that the 20 year old woman would love it; its open heartedness would appeal to her, the songs are her exact age group, its sexual openness would appeal to her (Though I’ll add that I wish I had gotten her to “Jagged Little Pill”) even as I find @J, er, much ado about nothing. If you are a teen or twenty-something woman give it a go, if not run for your life.

Grade: C

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