& Juliet is a brand-new musical take on Romeo and Juliet, opening in Manchester this September before transferring to London.
Ahead of its opening, I met the cast at Impossible, the snazzy bar near the Opera House, where the musical is playing.
The cast is incredibly diverse, with even the titular Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) being played by a BAME actress. I asked Lee and Melanie La Barrie (Nurse) about theatre’s progress regarding diversity.
Lee, acknowledging her success (e.g. playing all of the Schuyler sisters in Hamilton and winning Best Actress in a Musical at the Stage Debut Awards), believes theatre has become more open to minorities, but desires more roles which aren’t as reliant on them being minorities. For instance, in & Juliet, ‘anybody’ could be Juliet.
La Barrie has played many characters traditionally played by white actors (e.g. Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables and Madame Morrible in Wicked). She believes more minorities watch theatre now that more people who look like them are seen onstage and has hopes that & Juliet’s diversity will do ‘a lot’ for theatre audiences.
& Juliet is based on (but radically changes) the iconic and beloved Shakespeare play. Whilst this is intimidating, Lee reminded herself that the musical is ‘a brand-new take’. She believes the ‘strength’ she brings to Juliet is simply ‘adding on to’ Juliet, who was always strong, but lived in the patriarchal society of Renaissance Italy.
Brit-nominee Cassidy Janson (Carole King in Beautiful in the West End) is ‘thrilled’ to be in an original cast. Similarly, Arun Blair-Mangat likes the collaborative nature of being part of a new show: the cast have ‘more input’ than in a long-running musical. Lee and Jordan Luke Gage (Romeo) agree that this has resulted in the characters having recognisable traits from the actors playing them.
Janson doesn’t find playing Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, too intimidating, noting the freedom that comes from most people having not heard of the ‘original’ Anne Hathaway.
In contrast, Oliver Tompsett (Shakespeare) states Shakespeare has ‘done the work’ for him as playing the role Shakespeare automatically tells audiences he ‘knows what he’s doing’. Whilst the myth that is William is certainly a pervasive one, Tompsett still believes he is ‘creating’ this role and making it his own.
This jukebox musical is the first to centre on a songwriter’s musical catalogue. The songs featured in & Juliet range from Britney Spears to Katy Perry but what unifies them is that they all stem from the creative genius of songwriter and producer Max Martin.
Gage, who previously performed Meatloaf’s music in Bat Out of Hell, does not find singing such huge hits daunting. He revealed he was given the freedom to put his own take on the music and does not have to ‘live-up’ to the original singers.
Lee believes audience-members expecting to see the cast sing the songs the way Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake did will be ‘surprised’ to see how they have made the songs their ‘own’. I sassily remarked, if someone is wanting to listen to Britney, they can just go to see a Britney show… although for the chance of hearing a Britney song sung live, & Juliet is the show to watch… Hit me, baby!
Discussion turned to the topic of the challenges of the acting profession and Gage admitted he was close to ‘throwing in the towel’ before joining Bat Out of Hell. But he persevered and went from being ‘alternate’ for the part of Strat to taking over the lead-role. Unfortunately, Bat Out of Hell closed a few months later, but being cast in & Juliet softened that ‘blow’.
Tompsett was an original cast-member of Wicked (West End), before becoming the understudy for Fiyero and eventually taking over the role from Adam Garcia. He believes actors must be patient and persevere. Whilst striving for roles that change people’s perception of him, this is not always possible, because acting is a job: you can’t always do what you want. He stated acting relies on ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’ to achieve ‘longevity.’
Another theatre icon in the cast of & Juliet is two-time Olivier-winner David Bedella, who playfully introduced himself as ‘David Bedella, but you all knew that already.’
Bedella might be an actor, but he is also a character… He told me there is a ‘reverence’ to achieving great success in theatre and that the ‘kids’ in the show can’t believe they are working with him. However, when they tell him their parents are excited, he is reminded his demographic is ‘the mums and dads’…
Whilst successful, he states he never feels he has ‘made it’ or ‘the work is done’. For instance, he is now branching out more into film and television, and he feels he has ‘fallen to the bottom of the totem pole again,’ but this unpredictability is exciting.
And exciting, too, is this show – & Juliet runs at the Opera House 10th Sep – 12th Oct. ‘If pop music be the food of love… play on!’