What would Juliet’s life have been like if she didn’t die for Romeo?
Broadway’s new performance of the 2019 hit & Juliet aims to answer this question with iconic pop songs and fun new twists on the classic story. The musical also features multiple queer characters—none of whom are demonized or end up dead, a rare and inspiring instance in the “progressive” world of Broadway.
Watching the show was an invigorating experience, one I got to share with 50 other exhausted teenagers under the bright lights of Broadway.
At 5 a.m. on Nov. 19 I woke up to the aggressive chirping of my bird-themed alarm to begin my journey to & Juliet. Alongside my student and chaperone companions I sank, sleepy-eyed, onto the seat of a field trip bus lit in neon blue and waited to be escorted to the Big Apple by our heroic bus driver.
The energy on the way there was surprisingly alive for pre-sunrise. Statesmen Theatre’s annual New York Trip is famous among theatre classmates and members of the school plays. Technical theatre students and actors alike were hungry for the trip that had been canceled two years in a row due to the lovely pandemic. Now, we were ready. Ready to be entertained.
“I’m very excited for this one–”
“Well…it might not be that great…”
“If it’s good, it was marketed badly–”
“I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it.”
“But if you go in thinking that way, you won’t enjoy it!”
So, opinions were mixed. Though we were enthusiastic about the trip, many students had little faith in a musical based on 2000’s pop songs and Shakespeare. Would they use outdated slang? Try to relate to the Gen Z crowd with half-hearted references to sexuality and gender diversity? I was slightly anxious myself, but determined to make the best of it.
Then, we were sitting in the theater, and the lights came up on the bright purple set, and it was beautiful. I tamped down my hopes, but there was something promising about the giant R, M, E, and O’s of Juliet’s famous lover scattered around the stage; the swirling, rainbow projections on the walls; the curl of the J hanging, prominent and proud at center—that gave me hope.
& Juliet opens with William Shakespeare (Stark Sands) and his Players preparing for the first ever production of his newest play, Romeo and Juliet. Suddenly, Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (yes, her actual name in real life, and no, not in relation to the Princess Diaries star) enters in a stunning gown to criticize the ending. Played by Betsy Wolfe, Anne takes center stage. Why should Juliet die? she questions. Why can’t she grieve, pick herself up, and move on?
After singing a clever rendition of “I Want it That Way” by The Backstreet Boys, the two decide to re-work the ending of the play (Shakespeare somewhat reluctantly, in goofy-if-slightly-problematic-self-proclaimed-genius style) to explore what Juliet’s life might look like after Romeo.
Juliet (Rachel Webb, at our performance), sang her first song—and all which followed—marvelously. At first, the audience laughed at the slow version of Britney Spears’s iconic “Baby One More Time,” but as the lyrics unfolded in Webb’s beautiful, emotional voice, we all came to a kind of quiet, listening to the words behind the smash-hit melody.
This was the key to & Juliet, the reason it flew instead of flopped. Maybe the idea was cringey, or the songs “too mainstream” (and I’m not entirely convinced on those points, either), but the execution was brilliant. When May (Justin David Sullivan), Juliet’s best friend in this version of the story, sings “I’m Not A Girl… Not Yet A Woman” as a way of expressing their journey with gender, it’s not meaningless pop. Probably, it never was.
Queerness in & Juliet is not the butt of the joke or a lesson in pain and turmoil. No, May’s life is joyous. Even when they are struggling with drama or navigating romance, the entertaining, life-giving pulse of the show reverberates through them. May is not Angel Schunard dying of AIDS or Hedwig Robinson rambling painfully after a limo crash. There’s a place for those stories, too, but in this show May is just…living.
And their gender isn’t the only focus of their character, either. May is sweet, kind, and a wonderful friend. Being queer is not their purpose, just part of who they are. In Anne’s words to her husband when he questions May’s gender presentation: “Maybe May is whoever May is and it’s really none of your business at all.”
The magic of & Juliet for me lay in its joy. At intermission my friends and I squealed about the representation and pure fun the show provided for us, both of which we’re constantly deprived of in the harsh world of high school. And when François Du Bois (Philippe Arroyo) kissed May in the first happy depiction of a queer couple I had ever seen on a Broadway stage, I looked over and saw those two friends (who happen to be a beautiful queer couple of their own) grin and whisper to themselves, “That’s us!”
At the end of the play, Anne and Shakespeare decide to work on their broken marriage, just as they’ve worked together to re-imagine and heal a broken story of tragedy into a celebration of love. Juliet and Romeo (ah yes, he’s been brought back to life—did I forget to mention that? played by Ben Jackson Walker) go on a first date, not promising to die for one another or love each other until the end of days, but simply deciding together to create a new beginning. And see where it goes.
It’s beautiful. It’s silly and hilarious and wacky and profound and just beautiful. On the bus ride back to Virginia, everyone was smiling.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? The play, the theatre, the world. Juliet gets to smile. May gets to smile.
We all deserve a little neon-lit joy.