Romeo and Juliet may be the most iconic lovers out there, but their story is one of warring families, vengeance and tragedy. A far cry from Elizabethan times, Broadway’s new musical “& Juliet” turns Shakespeare on its head with a show exploding with love and acceptance for all.
The new musical, which began previews on Oct. 28 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, asks the questions: What if Juliet didn’t die after she finds her beloved Romeo dead? What would happen next? The score weaves pop hits by Max Martin (the writer behind some of the most famous songs by Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and more) with the contemporary story — and its contemporary cast.
Melanie La Barrie, who plays Angelique (also known as the Nurse), has been with the show since 2017. Originally from Trinidad, La Barrie appeared in the West End production and now makes her Broadway debut with “& Juliet.”
“We’re representative of the world,” La Barrie told Broadway News at a sneak peek event held at iHeartRadio studios. “Objectively, this is what the world looks like. Hopefully, we can open people’s minds and hearts to that.”
La Barrie commended the casting and creative teams for employing actors from such a variety of backgrounds and signaling to audiences: “Forget about what you know. Have an objective look at what different places look like,” she says. She and Tony Award winner Paulo Szot, who plays Angelique’s love interest, Lance, have similar views on the production and the representation within the cast.
“I’m Brazilian, Mel’s from Trinidad, and we are all together in this,” added Szot, who also noted “& Juliet” is unique in bringing together a mix of American and international artists who hail from Canada, South Korea, and beyond.
That multinational casting “makes total sense with the story we’re telling onstage. There’s a beautiful message of respect, of acceptance to every kind of love and awareness of everybody around you,” he said. This inclusivity — in the story and in the people who tell it — is what makes Szot most proud.
As for La Barrie, “I’m proud that I can make it through Jen Weber’s choreography in my advanced years,” she laughed.
Weber makes her double Broadway debut this season choreographing two different musicals: “& Juliet” and “KPOP.” Weber says she’s been riding a lot of Citibikes through the Theatre District to balance her duties with both original musicals. With “& Juliet” she’s most excited to lend her choreographic voice to this iconic dance music, chosen by book writer David West Read (best known for “Schitt’s Creek”) and director Luke Sheppard.
“This music belongs to everyone, and popular culture belongs to everyone,” Sheppard said. “We wanted this story to embody that.” It makes sense, then, that the creative team would strive to unite a chorus of different voices from around the world to tell this story. That diversity “creates a special alchemy onstage.”
“What’s so amazing is watching them all come together and become this family,” Weber says of the company. “Those diverse voices are imperative to the storytelling onstage.”
One voice at the heart of the story is that of Lorna Courtney, who plays Juliet. The native New Yorker, whose previous credits include “Dear Evan Hansen” and “West Side Story,” returns to Broadway — but in her principal debut.
“What’s so great is that I get to bring what makes Lorna, Lorna. Being a girl from Jamaica, Queens, New York, I get to bring my joy and love of life and everything I’ve been through and learned to this character. I think that that translates onstage,” Courtney said.
“You will not find a more diverse cast on Broadway — and not because they said, ‘We have to do this,’” said co-star Betsy Wolfe, “[but] because they wanted this show to represent what our beautiful world looks like.” In the world of “& Juliet,” Wolfe plays Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife.
She added, “Honestly, for the first time ever, I feel like if I was an audience member watching this show, I would actually say, ‘Wow, that does look like our world.’”
While the show marks a return to Broadway for Wolfe, 15 company members make their Main Stem debuts.
“As a non-binary, mixed-race person of color, I believe representation is the most important thing,” said Justin David Sullivan, who makes their debut in the role of May, a friend of Juliet’s.
Sullivan shared they didn’t often see people onstage who looked, moved or sounded like them growing up. “I’m just so proud to be non-binary representation on Broadway in a principal role that is so similar to my lived experience.” Sullivan hopes audiences at “& Juliet” can see themselves in someone in the cast.
As Weber said, “The show doesn’t exist without a variety of voices.”
“& Juliet” began previews at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Oct. 28. Opening night is set for Nov. 17.