‘& Juliet’ is a Must-See Musical in NYC!

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I think it’s safe to say that most people on Earth are familiar with William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, destined to die for falling in love with someone from the wrong family. The timeless story has been told repeatedly throughout Hollywood and Broadway, celebrating both the intensity of love and the tragedy that comes with the overwhelming loss. But what if that wasn’t the end of the story? What if Juliet didn’t kill herself upon seeing the lifeless body of Romeo? While we may never know, as Shakespeare died over 400 years ago, & Juliet looks to explore the endless possibilities of what our heroine’s life could be if she decided to live on that faithful day.

With a book from David West Read (writer and executive producer of Schitt’s Creek) and featuring music from Max Martin, who has written a plethora of well-known pop songs from the 90s and 00s, & Juliet picks up in the closing moments of Shakespeare’s original work and spins a new tale of love and finding oneself. This jukebox musical found life across the pond at the Manchester Opera House and eventually the West End.

& Juliet didn’t arrive on Broadway until 2022, receiving 9 Tony nominations, which is easy to understand, as this musical is vibrant with life, love, and what comes after heartbreak. It steps outside the status quo to normalize many human experiences, making it one of the most warming and accepting shows I’ve seen. If you want to know why that’s the way it is, continue to learn more about & Juliet and all the fun I had being amongst the audience during that stunning performance.

[Warning: Spoilers from & Juliet are below!]

& Juliet: a jukebox musical based on William Shakespeare’s play

Rejoice, for it is the world premiere of William Shakespeare’s (Austin Scott) latest play, and everyone’s excited to witness it! From the audience members, which you are a part of, to those starring in it, the energy is vibrant to see what Shakespeare has concocted in this newest tragedy.

Everyone’s excited, except for his wife, Anne Hathaway (played by understudy Tiernan Tunnicliffe in this performance). Anne’s upset with the ending. Why is it that Juliet must kill herself when she sees Romeo’s lifeless body? Anne traveled so far to see her husband’s work, and she wants a different ending. A happier ending for Juliet, paralleling Anne’s feelings for a more romantic ending for herself. So what’s one of the greatest playwrights in history to do? Work together with his wife, of course, to give Juliet a second chance at life and love.

Then, & Juliet uses frame storytelling to shift the focus from the “real world” to the world of Romeo and Juliet, which comes to life before our eyes. It picks up with Juliet (Lorna Courtney) contemplating her death, cradling the dagger, and singing a ballad version of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”. Yet, instead of stabbing herself through the heart, Juliet picks herself up and decides to go home, prepared to forever mourn the death of her true love, her husband Romeo.

But life is cruel, and Juliet learns at Romeo’s funeral that she wasn’t the only girl that had managed to catch her husband’s eye. A slew of women arrive to mourn his death, placing flowers on his casket and declaring their undying love for the Casanova. On top of that, Juliet’s parents have determined that because of her secret marriage, she’s to be sent off to a convent the very next day.

Her life comes crashing down all around her, so whatever is Juliet to do? Run away from home, of course, with the help of some friends. Joining her on this new journey is her nurse Angelique (Charity Angél Dawson), her best friend May (played by understudy Michael Ivan Carrier), and April, the role that Anne Hathaway wrote for herself in this new play. Together, they set off to France, which brings about a whole new slew of issues for all involved.

imageJuliet (Lorna Courtney) and the & Juliet Company. & Juliet (Sara Krulwich).
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Juliet (Lorna Courtney) and the & Juliet Company. & Juliet (Sara Krulwich).

As the crew arrives in the foreign land, things go from bad to worse, partially due to the involvement of William, who lives for the drama. Juliet, who feels trapped by her past, pushes forth into a new future with François (played by understudy Makai Hernandez), a shy prince who has yet to meet the right girl and marry, at least according to his father Lance (David Bedella). Entering into a fake relationship would be bad enough, but factoring into the situation is Frankie’s, the pet name Juliet develops for François, feelings for May. 

As the drama builds and emotions rise, the conflict between Shakespeare and his wife comes to a head. Can Juliet, and the rest of those involved in the conflict for that matter, find her happy ending? By the end of Act 2, & Juliet ties up all its loose ends, although it may not be the ending everyone expects, but you’ll have to see it for yourself to know for sure!

Stephen Sondheim Theatre show lives up to many of my expectations

& Juliet was one of the shows I was looking forward to most and one of the reasons I made this second trip in a sixth-month period of New York City. One of my clients had mentioned the show early on in its Broadway run, and I became familiar with the soundtracks as soon as they were released on Apple Music. Both the Broadway and the West End recordings. So when I got the chance to see the show on this trip to NYC, I could barely contain my excitement. Thankfully, the show lived up to the one I had built in my head, providing me with a fun and enchanting night in the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

I’ve always been a big fan of what-if type stories because they provide a different perspective of a well-recognized tale. Take Wicked for example, which uses The Wizard of Oz as a basis for a new story, which paints the Wicked Witch of the West in a new light. I received the same level of dopamine and enjoyment in & Juliet as I did with Wicked for much the same reason.

In ninth grade, my English class studied Romeo and Juliet for an entire semester, the play is engrained deep into my mind. Many have come to believe that the star crossed lovers’ trope is one of the greatest love stories in existence, with Romeo and Juliet standing as the prime example. The timeless story has been told repeatedly throughout Hollywood and Broadway, with West Side Story being a highlight on both stage and screen, celebrating both the intensity of love and the tragedy that comes with the overwhelming loss.

& Juliet takes this story and creates another, one about female empowerment and coming-of-age during a time when finding oneself wasn’t at the top of the to-do list. This musical paints a portrait of what it means to stand on your own two feet, without the need for love or someone else to define who we are or what we want out of life. & Juliet takes this tale as old as time and moves it firmly into the 20th century, with a message that fits better with our current society.

Pushing boundaries, and spotlighting the LGBTQ+ community

The updated message of independence and courage isn’t the only boundaries that & Juliet pushes, as representation is a large and natural part of the narrative. Not only is the cast made up of all walks of life, such as POC and members of the LGBTQ+ community, but it also heavily features a queer storyline. May, Juliet’s best friend, is non-binary, which is both just a fact and a part of a larger storyline. Initially, Shakespeare attempts to make a bigger deal about their name and gender, but it is quickly shot down by Anne as none of their business.  May also has a journey of self-exploration, where gender constructs come to the forefront, such as the scene in the club where they’re told to use a certain bathroom.

Part of May’s journey is also finding love and exploring what that would mean in a larger societal construct, especially when Frankie is a prince guided by outdated norms and values, thanks to his father. & Juliet is the first musical I’ve seen that has featured a non-binary character so predominately, allowing their story and journey to be just as important as everything else on stage. This feels like significant progress toward acceptance for Trans and Non-Binary people in the theater community, a sentiment that almost everyone else in the audience seemed to share. 

May’s experience is normalized through the rejection of having to be defined by a cis-gendered person, i.e. William Shakespeare, and instead is explored naturally, through the character’s motivations. This storyline will always stick out to me as one of my all-time favorites in theater, period.

Members of the LGBTQ+, especially our Trans and Non-binary friends, have to struggle every day to be seen as valid, so to be able to attend a musical and see yourself represented as whole and human for just two and a half hours, is something truly magical and worth every penny to witness. I hope more musicals and plays take a page out of & Juliet’s book and continue to normalize experiences such as May’s, as it could truly save someone’s life to see themselves properly represented for once. It makes the experience less lonely, to see that others struggle and there is such a thing as a happy ending to flood them with hope.

imageJuliet (Lorna Courtney) and the cast of & Juliet. & Juliet (Matthew Murphy).
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Juliet (Lorna Courtney) and the cast of & Juliet. & Juliet (Matthew Murphy).

Sadly, due to the inclusion of all walks of life, this show might not be for everyone. I witnessed three adult men in the row in front of me burst out into a fit of giggles every time May’s gender identity was referenced, especially when they sang “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”. Maturity unfortunately isn’t mandatory to purchase tickets to a Broadway show, but I would have hoped that there would have been a stronger sense of decorum when attending a musical because you never know who is around and watching.

Experiences like that could easily shift a safe space to not in a matter of seconds. So if you’re not open to other walks of life or the inclusion of Trans and Non-binary individuals, stay home, because & Juliet isn’t for you. However, just know that you’ll also be missing a great experience with so many talented people if you do.

The superb cast and Pop music choices in & Juliet

One aspect that makes & Juliet easily digestible and therefore the perfect show for entry-level theater-goers is the music choices. As someone born and raised in the 90s, there wasn’t a single song I didn’t know by heart, except for the original song created for the show. I mean, we have hit after hit, featuring songs such as “I Want it That Way”, “It’s My Life”, “Since U Been Gone”, “It’s Gonna Be Me”, “Stronger”, and “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”.  This is just a small sample of the music within the show but gives you a taste of what you can expect. I could easily sing along to every single song, which brings the audience into the show a bit more, as you tend to feel more comfortable with music you are familiar with. 

However, & Juliet does something exciting with quite a few of the songs, changing up the tempo or style just a bit, to create something new within the familiar. “Stronger” and “…Baby One More Time”, which went for a slower tempo to create a more powerful ballad and connect more emotionally with the audience. It was a smart choice and more times than not resulted in goosebumps and tearful eyes.

Much like Suffs The Musical, the entire cast was superb from start to finish, however, there were a few who stood out to me amongst the rest. I cannot give enough praise and cheers to Tiernan Tunnicliffe, who was my absolute favorite of the entire show. From the moment they walked out on stage, I was enamored with her acting and singing. They truly understood the role of Anne Hathaway and gave their all right there on the stage in every scene they were in. 

The level of sass and banter she had with Austin Scott’s Shakespeare was impeccable, playing out better than I could even imagine just from the soundtrack alone. Their performance of Celine Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is” gave me chills and became one of my favorite moments from the entire show. Tunnicliffe made the show magical and is one of the biggest reasons I’d run to see & Juliet again. If you’re not following her career yet, you definitely should be because this won’t be the last Playbill we’ll be reading the name Tiernan Tunnicliffe.

Joining Tunnicliffe on my list of highlights from the show are fellow understudies Makai Hernandez and Michael Ivan Carrier, who played François and May, respectively. Individually, these two were fantastic in their roles, with Frankie being the shy and nerdy prince, who just wants to be free from the shackles that bind him, and May wishing for the same freedom, but is shackled due to society and not because of their parents.

Both Hernandez and Carrier did exceptional work, bringing this viscerally real storyline to life in a work of fiction so incredibly removed from our own. They played off each other so well, humanizing the experiences of feeling different as well as falling in love for the first time. Frankie and May’s storyline is perhaps my favorite from the show, as it was the one I felt the most connected to. Their duets of “Whatya Want from Me” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” are breathtaking moments that brought me to tears.

And of course, where would we be without our Juliet? Lorna Courtney has been playing this part since its inclusion on Broadway, and there’s an easy reason for that. She’s amazing in this role. Like truly a star, capturing the difficulties and struggles of young love, finding oneself despite extenuating circumstances, and learning to love yourself first and foremost.

Juliet is fun, dramatic, and needs some therapy, all of which Courtney portrays with ease, reminding people why the show doesn’t need a Romeo in the title. I can’t imagine what the show would be like without Courtney, as it does feel like it’s her show, and we’re all just witnessing the beginning of greatness.

No tragedy in this Romeo and Juliet adaptation

On this trip alone, I had the privilege of seeing five shows in such a short amount of time. Of those five, & Juliet is near the top of the list. From the variety of Jukebox musicals I’ve seen throughout my theater attending years, it’s one of my favorites. You can’t help but have fun with this show, as the songs are ones you already know (and catchy for that matter), the story is engaging, and most importantly, it represents many groups of people who are often looked over by the majority.

This may be Juliet’s story, but it encompasses so many real experiences, making it a must-see show when you travel to New York City. I cannot wait to see it again on my next trip to the city, or when it finally arrives in my city. & Juliet is to begin its North American tour within the coming years. 

& Juliet is currently running at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York City

. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you have or plan on seeing this musical!

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