I spent my Thursday night happily grooving the night away to Katy Perry while surrounded by an explosive celebration of queer joy. And no, I didn’t spend it at YahYahs.
This was my experience of & Juliet, the revisionist jukebox musical now playing at the Regent Theatre. Max Martin is a name you might not know, but you definitely know his work. The songwriter is the genius behind pop hits from artists ranging from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys. While it may not seem like an obvious discography to pair with a classic Shakespearean tale, there’s also something about the choice that makes perfect sense, taking well-known songs and combining them with a well-known story to create something entirely new and refreshing.
Campy, and it knows it (a jukebox musical that quite literally places a jukebox on stage is hilariously self-aware), the production is filled with non-stop laughs and takes every opportunity it can for a pun or a joke. Without spoiling anything, I have to highlight a particular 90s song that was such a brilliant comedic pay-off that the audience almost disrupted the show with how long they cheered (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.)
However, even with the cast's stunning vocals, the show's true star is not the songs but the unabashed celebration of queer love and happiness. The non-binary character of May (played by the talented Jesse Dutlow) may initially appear as your usual gay best friend trope, but they’re ultimately a fully realised character and given their own happy ending, something still all too rare for queer characters in media.
Not every moment is perfect, and like any jukebox musical, some of the songs feel a little too forced to make sense. Using ‘I Kissed a Girl’ in the context of non-binary May is an uncomfortable moment, and this perhaps speaks to the broader lack of gender-neutral songs in pop music. The musical taking every opportunity for comedy also occasionally comes at its detriment, resulting in tonally uneven scenes where serious moments are abruptly broken by a pun.
But as a whole, the musical is a strong feminist tale that acknowledges the problems of its source material with good humour – Juliet’s age, for example, is quickly revised from pre-teen to young adult in a funny scene outside a Parisian night club. Many modern works fall into the trap of two-dimensional feminism, isolating their female protagonist and forcing her to swear off all men under the pretence of girl power. But & Juliet takes a deeper approach. Juliet doesn’t have to be single to be a strong woman. She just needs the choice to be, she needs agency in her life and the ability to love on her own terms, free from what’s dictated by society or the stars.
& Juliet is a feel-good production that captures the essence of a Shakespearean comedy while simultaneously adapting it to ensure its relevancy for a modern audience. Like its source material, it’s a love story at heart. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about queer joy, second chances, and having the courage to live your own life. Love isn’t about fate or “star-crossed lovers.” It’s about the choice we make every day to love the people that we do.
& JULIET is showing throughout March 2023 at Melbourne's Regent Theatre.