Skip to main content
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

David West Read on & Juliet

Shakespeare Unlimited Episode 211

Start with Shakespeare’s “star-crossed” lovers and fold in the songs of Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin… what do you get? The hit Broadway musical & Juliet, currently running at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York and recently nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical.

David West Read

The show imagines what would happen if Juliet woke up after Romeo’s death and decided not to end it all. Instead, she goes on a trip to Paris with some new friends, including Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. Juliet discovers that Romeo isn’t really dead… but he’s also not exactly boyfriend material. And every so often, the characters break into song with Max Martin’s hits for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and Katy Perry.

The writer behind this mash-up is David West Read. He previously served as writer and executive producer of the comedy series Schitt’s Creek, and he created The Big Door Prize and the forthcoming Brother from Another Mother, both running on AppleTV+. Host Barbara Bogaev talks with Read about & Juliet… and the concussion that inspired it.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Get tickets to & Juliet.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published June 6, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Claire Reynolds in Atlanta and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Robert O’Hara on Directing Richard III | Next: Greg Doran on Forty Years of Directing Shakespeare



MICHAEL WITMORE: Take Shakespeare’s famous doomed lovers, add in the songs of Swedish pop hit maker Max Martin, and what do you get? The hit Broadway musical & Juliet.

[CLIP of a rendition of I Want It That Way by Backstreet Boys, from & Juliet.]

Am I your fire?
Your one desire.
Yes, I know.

It’s too late.

But I want it that way.
Tell me why,
Ain’t nothing but a heartache.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Whitmore, the Folger Director. & Juliet imagines what might happen if Juliet wakes up after Romeo’s death and decides not to end it all. Instead, she goes on a trip to Paris with some new friends, including Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. And every so often, the characters break into song with Max Martin’s hits for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and Katy Perry.

The writer behind this mash up is David West Read. He previously served as writer and executive producer of the comedy series Schitt’s Creek, and he created The Big Door Prize and The Forthcoming Brother From Another Mother, both running on Apple TV Plus.

& Juliet has been nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. It’s currently running at the Stephen Sondheim Theater in New York. Here’s David West Read in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Which did you know better when you started out on this project? Max Martin’s music or Romeo and Juliet?

DAVID WEST READ: I was somewhat of an amateur in both. I probably knew more about Shakespeare than I did about Max Martin because I at least studied Shakespeare in school. I at least had some Shakespeare background. But when I was asked if I wanted to do a Max Martin musical, I didn’t know who he was.

BOGAEV: Well, that’s so funny, because no one really does, right? I mean, unless you’re in music, no one knows the name behind all those famous songs.

READ: That’s partly because Max is so Swedish and humble, that he’s deliberately kept himself out of the spotlight. He wants the artist to get the attention, and he’s kind of the man behind them.

Especially before we started working on this musical, he had really stayed away from the spotlight. So, of course, when I was given a playlist of his songs, I then did know who Max Martin was, through his music. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid Max Martin’s music. It’s just out in the world, everywhere. He has the most number one hits behind anyone but the Beatles.  Now I hear it constantly.

BOGAEV: Yeah, now, reeling back to the beginning of this whole thing, what was the gig exactly? I mean, did it already involve Shakespeare? Or was it just, “Max Martin, go?”

READ: It was just “Max Martin, go.” It was, “Max Martin would like to make a musical based on his catalog, potentially, if he can find the right story.”

He started looking for writers with our producers, and I know they heard a lot of different ideas.  Then they asked me if I’d like to pitch. And I had recently suffered a concussion. I had hit my head on a kitchen cabinet.

BOGAEV: Oh no!

READ: I couldn’t look at screens. I couldn’t do very much. So I just listened to a playlist of Max’s music over and over. And so much of pop music, and especially Max’s music, is about young love and heartbreak. I thought, you know, if I can’t use Max as the thing that brings audiences in, I need another popular figure that people do know. So, I thought of the classic story of young love and heartbreak, Romeo and Juliet, and thought, “If we’re going to repurpose and reinvent Max’s music, maybe we could reinvent this story at the same time.”

BOGAEV: Wow, see the way you tell it, it makes so much sense. On the other hand…

READ: It sounds like the fever dream of a concussed brain.

BOGAEV: Maybe, yeah. This is all starting to make sense. No, I was thinking that jukebox musicals on one hand, they’re a real risk. You know, people love them or they hate them. That can go either way. And, Shakespeare, in a way on Broadway: either way. And you just doubled down.

READ: Exactly. We kind of picked two things that people have very strong feelings about. But what I love about combining Shakespeare and Max Martin is thinking of them as two pop artists. That felt like an interesting parallel to explore.

BOGAEV: Well, I’m really glad because I find it so interesting. Where did you start, literally, on the first day? And did you start with the—you started with the music, as you said, but where did you start with the Shakespeare?

READ: Well, I started with the concept of what if Juliet decided not to kill herself at the end of the show? What if she said, “I’ve only had one boyfriend, we’ve only been together a few days. I’m very young, I’m a teenage girl. Maybe I should go looking for love again and give myself a second chance?”

And the idea of her starting over and rewriting her ending was kind of the core idea. Then from there, I became interested in Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway,

There’s very little known about Anne Hathaway. But, you know, the idea that she was eight years older than Shakespeare—she was 26 and he was 18 when they met—and that she was three months pregnant when they got married. I thought that was an interesting dynamic to explore in the play.

And the idea that she might… be kind of, you know, the person at home who has opinions about his art. And, also, opinions about him being away from her for so much of the time. Because, maybe from my own personal life, the idea of what we have to sacrifice to make the things that we make and the impact that that has on our loved ones felt like a sneaky thing to explore underneath the bigger story of Juliet just deciding not to kill herself.

BOGAEV: Anne Hathaway and the actress who plays her, Betsy Wolfe, is incredible. I’m thinking of all the lines, like… I really like when she says, “I’m not going clubbing with a 14-year-old.”

READ: Yeah, right.

BOGAEV: Although there are a lot of jokes about being old. Did you want to lean into that because of her being older than Shakespeare? Or were you thinking of your young audience?

READ: I mean, I’m thinking of the audience with a Broadway show. You try to create something that speaks to everyone. It has to, you know?

There are different levels to the show and different layers. Some audience members relate more to Juliet and Romeo, some more to William and Anne, some to our older lovers, the nurse and her new friend. I think that’s part of the joy of musical theater is that you have all these different audience members coming together for this collective experience. It’s a show for everyone.

BOGAEV: That goes on the playbill. “I laughed, I cried. It was a show for everyone.”

READ: I’m trying to sell tickets here, you know?

BOGAEV: No, I mean, it really is. A lot of the people sitting next to me were—they didn’t know Shakespeare, but they knew every Max Martin song.

READ: Yeah. I mean, that part is funny too. That there’s people who, like our original Juliet, didn’t know Britney Spears because she was too young and had to be kind of walked through how to sing Baby One More Time, which makes me feel very old.

[CLIP of a rendition of … Baby One More Time by Britney Spears, from & Juliet.]

My loneliness is killing me (and I),
I must confess I still believe.
When I’m not with you I lose my mind.
Give me a sign,
Hit me baby one more time.

READ: But you realize that Max’s music has spanned decades now. So, the audience members, you know, some are into the Backstreet Boys, some are into Ariana Grande. It’s bringing together people of different generations in that way.

BOGAEV: Right. And Juliet, she sings so many Britney Spears songs.

READ: She does. It’s slightly geeky musical theater stuff, but it was fun to use Britney as a through line for Juliet, because it gave us this musical theater structure.

Like in the second act, she sings “Stronger,” which contains the lyrics, “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more,” which is almost like a reprise of “Baby One More Time.” Which is her “I want” song in the first act where she’s, you know, she says, “My loneliness is killing me.”

It’s almost as if Max wrote these two songs as bookend songs for this musical. But, of course, he didn’t.

BOGAEV: Okay, so that’s Juliet. Then you have to deal with Romeo. Who does die in the beginning of the play. But he’s pretty true to Shakespeare in that he’s a real shallow guy. I like when he says, “I’m just a guy with a tight body and lots of feelings.”

READ: Right. I mean, he’s a drama queen. The prototypical drama queen. And, you know, I love that in the original play, that they are so over the top. It feels like high school.

BOGAEV: It is. It’s junior high.

READ: Right? They’re so performative, too. You know, it’s really fun. In the original play, there’s this kind—the difference between the way they are in public and the way they are in private. That you have these kind of intimate scenes with Romeo and Juliet expressing their love for each other.

Then he has to go be the macho man in front of his friends. And we put some of that into the show. The “Since You’ve Been Gone” sequence, the Kelly Clarkson song at the beginning of the second act, it’s Romeo kind of grandstanding for all his friends and Juliet’s showing off for her friends. Then the next scene, they have together… it’s like, “I love you. I miss you.” You know?

That, to me, feels really high school too. Like, how do you navigate the difference between the way you are at school with your friends and the way you are when you’re being vulnerable with your boyfriend or girlfriend?

BOGAEV: It’s true, and it feels very true to the Shakespeare. I also like when he says later—spoiler alert, he lives at the end. He says to Juliet, “I forgive you for not killing yourself.”

READ: Yeah, it’s very big of him. Yeah, “Even though you found out that I’d killed myself when I thought you were dead.” Yeah, he’s definitely got an ego.

You know, the show is also creating these parallels between William Shakespeare and Romeo and Anne and Juliet. It’s almost like they are working out their own relationship through these characters as they kind of wrestle over who gets to write this new ending.

It’s like the play is a one big therapy session for Shakespeare and his wife.

BOGAEV: Yeah, I was going to ask, was Shakespeare always going to play a role in this? It is great how vain and peacocky you make him too. Tell me about writing him.

READ: Well, I think that was an idea I had early on. That there would be the meta-theatrical level to this. That William and Anne are kind of the godlike characters in this world.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays have that, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, where they’re kind of playing creators in managing the story from above. So, that was an early idea.

BOGAEV: Really, that idea came out of your rereading of Shakespeare?

READ: Yeah, I mean, the big ideas of William and Anne and the way they would explore their relationship through rewriting Romeo and Juliet was all in my initial pitch to Max.

He looked at me like I was crazy when I first started talking, but then he really got into it. I think he liked how left-of-center it was and unexpected it was. He’s a person who is always reinventing himself to stay relevant because he’s writing pop music, and pop music is constantly evolving.

BOGAEV: Well, does he know Shakespeare?

READ: Not at all.

BOGAEV: Oh, great.

I mean, he doesn’t even know musical theater. He had seen Mamma Mia, maybe because of the Swedishness. But we took him to Hamilton. We took him to a couple of musicals just so he could see what they are.

BOGAEV: Wait, he’d never seen musicals?

READ: He’d never seen musicals. I think maybe Mamma Mia was the only one he had seen. So that was fun.

But he became such a student of them and he got so involved in the process and so excited about it. And, you know, he got into like the formula of writing it and structure, and how to make his music work in this very different world, which was really cool.

And then he sent the director and I to a bunch of pop concerts so that we could learn more about his world.

BOGAEV: Oh, wait, that was your assignment? That was your homework, to go. Where did you go? Who did you hear?

READ: We saw Taylor Swift, the Backstreet Boys in Vegas with Max, Katy Perry. We kind of did a whirlwind tour of pop concerts, so the most fun research. Very different from re-reading Shakespeare’s plays.

BOGAEV: Okay, so what was the idea with that? Why did you need to go see all those concerts?

READ: I think it was because, in terms of what we see on stage, we wanted it to feel like this pop concert meets Shakespeare. Not like we’re fluctuating between Shakespeare and pop, but that it’s all one thing.

BOGAEV: Ah, now this is really making sense because you—the curtain goes up and you are full blast in a pop concert with Shakespeare rising up from below the stage.

READ: We have Shakespeare entering in a cloud of smoke and dry ice.

[CLIP of a rendition of “Larger Than Life” by Backstreet Boys, from & Juliet.]

I may run and hide
When you’re screamin’ my name, alright

CHORUS: William Shakespeare!

But let me tell you now
There are prices to fame, alright.

READ: The director, Luke Shepherd, made the choice to put the jukebox on stage at the start of the show. we’re saying, “We’re owning this. We’re not trying to pretend we’re not a jukebox musical or apologizing for being a jukebox musical. We’re putting it on the stage. You’re going to hear a bunch of pop songs but hopefully you’re going to hear them in a new way.”

BOGAEV: Yeah. And that set, I noticed that a lot of your people in the credits have a lot of Shakespeare in their background.

READ: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And the set is just, like, Shakespeare plays exploded on the stage.

READ: Yeah, the scenic design of the costumes are so smart. I mean, Juliet’s balcony makes an appearance in the play. we have the locks on the balcony like you would find in Verona. I went to see Juliet’s balcony as it’s another fun research assignment for this.

BOGAEV: Get out.

READ: And then our costume designer, she gave all of… so Shakespeare’s players are also part of this. That his company of actors are kind of making the new play with him. And she gave—our costume designer, Paloma—gave them all these jackets that had other Shakespeare plays on the back. Which is like when you work in musical theater and you wear jackets from past productions that they have.

If you look closely, the players in & Juliet are wearing, like, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew, other Shakespeare plays on the back.

BOGAEV: How did you think about Easter eggs for Shakespeare fans? Because there’s so many.

READ: I mean, I wanted it to be a show that you could enjoy if you knew nothing about Shakespeare. But, if you are a bit of a Shakespeare nerd, there are definitely little presents for you in the show.

But it’s something I scaled back, I would say. There was probably more Shakespeare in the beginning. And then we thought, “Okay, we don’t want people to feel like they’re missing out on the joke all the time.”

I also had a lot more iambic pentameter in the beginning. When the dialogue went into verse, people just turned their brains off and stopped listening. They weren’t following the actual meaning of what the character was saying because they were just like, “Oh, this is Shakespeare talk.” So, we had to be more selective about using iambic pentameter to, you know, punctuate the end of a scene. But then there are also bits of dialogue that reference other plays, not just Romeo and Juliet.

BOGAEV: Oh yes, at one point he says, “I’m working on a play about a happy marriage called Macbeth.”

READ: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Now there is this a very developed subplot featuring a genderqueer character named May, and a prince intended for Juliet after Romeo dies. That’s kind of hard to follow for people who haven’t—but this is what happens. Juliet goes to Paris, and there’s a prince and they’re going to get married. But the prince ends up much more attracted or involved with this character, May.

Was that inspired at all by the Shakespeare comedies with gender play and mistaken identities? Or how did you get into this genderqueer exploration?

READ: Yeah, I think there are a few reasons for that. One is just trying to be as inclusive and diverse as possible with this show. And it comes back to musicals being for everyone. That everyone feels represented, or at least as many people as possible.

But then of course there are the Shakespeare parallels. And Anne kind of references those. You know, she says William questions her choice of introducing this nonbinary character. This is, you know, coming from the guy who had men playing women, often playing women dressing as men. And with all the gender bending that Shakespeare—she’s like, “Are you really going to question this?” And William, who thinks of himself as being quite progressive, is like, “Oh, of course. I’m so sorry, I apologize.”

BOGAEV: There’s a great slow burn pun. “It’s Gonna Be Me.”

[CLIP of a rendition of “It’s Gonna Be Me,” by *NSYNC, from & Juliet.]

But I’m not like them.
Baby, when you finally
Get to love somebody (somebody).
Guess what (guess what)
It’s gonna be me.

BOGAEV: How proud are you of that one?

READ: I’m both proud and ashamed of a joke that takes two hours to land. It’s this “It’s Gonna Be Me” joke. But, yeah, that’s like a meme, I guess. I sound old even just saying “meme.”

But, yeah, it’s… I basically named the character May just to set up this moment that happens deep into the show. But I love a good pun, and I feel like this was the show where I could get away with the most of them because who loves puns more than Shakespeare?

BOGAEV: Oh, exactly, you had a free license.

READ: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Okay, switching gears. I’m thinking that you’ve written for TV and stage. Do you approach the characters and the plot differently when you’re writing a musical than a TV show?

I mean, I was thinking there’s somehow something different about, I don’t know, a Broadway show. It can have such legs. It can go on for years in touring companies.

READ: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. That is the biggest challenge. And also part of the fun is that a TV show, people kind of view it in a moment in time. And of course people rewatch it, but when they rewatch it, they’re aware that it was made in the past.

With theater, people show up and it’s the first time they’re seeing it, and so they feel like it’s brand new. It has to feel brand new and it has to feel like it’s happening tonight for the first time.

The challenge as a writer is to write jokes that feel timeless. To write a story that feels timeless, because it hopefully could run for years and you don’t want it to be, you know, instantly dated or feel like it was written for the audience that originally saw it.

At this point, we have & Juliet playing in a single night in London, Australia, New York. It’s already done Canada. So, it’s very strange for me to know that that’s happening and not be there.

But the goal was to craft something that will endure and continue to resonate with audiences.

BOGAEV: Max Martin wrote an original song for the show, right? “One More Try?”

READ: He did, yeah.

BOGAEV: How did that come about? Why?

READ: I mean, that was an incredible part of the process that we… there was one moment in the show that we didn’t feel like we had a perfect song for, and that was when Romeo and Juliet actually open up to each other in the second act.

We tasked Max with writing something from scratch for musical theater and he came up with this incredible song, “One More Try.” I wrote one lyric for it, so I had to join the songwriters’ union and I get about eight dollars every four months.

BOGAEV: Bravo.

READ: That was part of the fun. But it was incredible watching him work and getting to be in the room for the birth of a new Max Martin song.

[CLIP of One More Try, written by Max Martin for & Juliet.]

This is the moment
I’ve waited for.
Won’t hold it back,
No, not anymore.
I’m starting over
With tears in my eyes.
All that I’m asking is
One more try.

BOGAEV: What is the one thing you’re saddest about that you had to let go that came out of the research?

READ: I don’t want to flip it around and say what I enjoy, but I love the nurse character. Her name is Mel La Barrie. She was in our original London cast and is now on Broadway.

She had played the nurse in, you know, Romeo and Juliet. And she often had these kind of supporting roles in both plays and musical theatre. The character gets to have her own love story in & Juliet, and it’s nice to see that now Mel gets to be a star of this show.

But I also love it because it really is the Shakespearean character. Like, her first lines when she comes in and she’s singing, “I’m so out of breath. I can’t even talk.” That’s stolen directly from Romeo and Juliet, and it gets a laugh. It’s like, “Well done Shakespeare. That joke works after 400 years.”

BOGAEV: Nurse is a wonderful character. And just to catch everyone up on the play, she has this wonderful lover, Lance. And a fantastic actor, Paulo Szot, plays him. He’s the dad of Juliet’s intended.

Anyway, they’re this older pair of lovers to contrast with the young lovers and with the midlife lovers, Will and Anne. It’s almost as if you’re going for a love throughout the ages hat trick.

READ: That’s right. And I enjoy too that the Nurse and Lance have this early morning conversation after spending the night together. They’re talking about the nightingale and the lark and basically stealing that from Romeo and Juliet but giving it to this older pair of lovers.

Then they get to sing “Teenage” Dream, this Katy Perry song mixed with an Ariana Grande song, and express themselves through these songs about young love and say, you know, “It’s never too late to find someone and start over.” Which is one of the themes of the show.

[CLIP from a rendition of a mashup of Break Free by Ariana Grande and Teenage Dream by Katy Perry, from & Juliet.]

This is the part when I say I don’t want you.
I’m stronger than I’ve been before.
This is the part when I break free,
‘Cause I can’t resist it no more.

You make me
Feel like I’m livin’ a teenage dream.
The way you turn me on, I can’t sleep
Let’s run away and don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back.

READ: I think that theme felt more and more relevant to us as we went on because we opened the show in 2019 in London and then the pandemic hit. Our cast was on hiatus for 18 months. Then they came back, this same cast all returned, and I went over to London to see them, and it was incredibly emotional. People were crying for the, you know, curtain going up and them just being on stage together again, and being in a physical space together again.

The idea of this being a show about starting over and then going through that process with the company, it became even more timely than I could have foreseen.

BOGAEV: You said earlier that you had this full-blown idea, and then it certainly got changed in the rehearsal process. Was there one moment when you thought, “Oh, phew, maybe this will work.”

READ: Oh, it took so long to feel “phew.” It was extra stressful because Max Martin said from the beginning, “I reserve the right to pull the plug at any point if this isn’t something that I’m happy with.” It wasn’t him being mean or having an ego. It was the opposite. It was that he has worked so hard on this catalog and he feels debt to all of the artists who are involved in, whose songs are in the show. If it wasn’t something that he felt was going to be up to par, then he didn’t want to do it.

So, for me, working on this for years, not knowing if it was going to be pulled at the last second. I mean, at a certain point, Max made me feel okay about it. But you still hold your breath.

Especially when we first got those audiences. We started in Manchester in an 1,800-seat theater and some nights we only had about 300 people. So, you know, it was hard work to get to where we are now on Broadway, where we’re selling out. You just feel the responsibility of so many people trusting in you and getting involved in this project.

BOGAEV: And you’ve gone on to write another jukebox with Roy Orbison music.

READ: That’s right, I’m working on In Dreams, a Roy Orbison-inspired musical that’s premiering this summer in Leeds and then in the fall in Toronto. It’s with the same director as & Juliet, Luke Shepard. We love working together. I think we make a great team.

This one’s a little less comedic, but it still is, hopefully, funny. It’s using the songs of Roy Orbison to tell a new story. You know, we had such a great time working on & Juliet and we’re excited to try a different kind of musical with Roy Orbison’s catalog.

BOGAEV: Is anything Shakespeare in your future?


BOAGEV: I don’t know if that was dread or sadness, that, “Oh.”

READ: No, I have to think about… I mean, I do love Shakespeare and I particularly love Romeo and Juliet. But I feel like I did so much research for this one that it was a relief to be done and to turn my sights to other projects.

But for the sake of this podcast, I’ll say, yes, lots more Shakespeare stuff to come.

BOGAEV: Well, it’s been really fun talking with you. I have to let you go, but it’s been great. And I wish you the best with all that you’re doing.

READ: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It’s been so much fun talking to you.


WITMORE: That was David West Reid talking to Barbara Bogaev. You can get tickets to & Juliet at Check out all of Anne Juliet’s Tony nominations at and tune in to the Tony’s broadcast on Sunday, June 11th at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Pastor. Ben Lauer is the web producer with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Claire Reynolds in Atlanta and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Sea’s Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice to help others find the show. Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge in the arts.

Our building in Washington, D. C. has been under renovation for the past three years, but we’re getting ready to open our doors again to the public. Come visit us on Capitol Hill beginning November 17th, 2023. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan Theater and check out the world’s largest collection of first folios, all 82, on display together for the very first time.

We can’t wait to see you. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director, Michael Whitmore.