How Britney Spears songs power unique stories in three Broadway musicals

The cast and creative teams of Once Upon a One More Time, Moulin Rouge! The Musical, and & Juliet share what makes Spears's music so versatile on stage.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

1, 2, 3, everybody loves Britney! Britney Spears is officially a mainstay on Broadway. A trio of jukebox musicals currently uses Spears’s songs to tell their stories, including — in ascending order of how often her music is center stage — Moulin Rouge! The Musical, & Juliet, and Once Upon a One More Time.

Each of these shows features different characters, time periods, and plots, so even though they share some tunes, they're unique — and all worth a visit. If you can't get enough of listening to Britney’s music on repeat on Spotify, then experience it anew — and anew, and anew — by hearing her hits on Broadway.

How does music from the Spears catalog drive each distinct narrative forward? And what is it about Pop Princess Britney’s music that makes it versatile enough for theatrical storytelling in more than one show? The cast and creative teams from the shows illuminate why Britneymania on Broadway is stronger than yesterday.

Britney brings the hurt in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

Based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie, Moulin Rouge! The Musical follows the clandestine love affair between Christian, an American poet, and Satine, the showgirl headliner of the sexy Paris nightclub.

The musical has a book by John Logan and is set to a whopping 70 pop hits, including Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” a propulsive tune with a hook that lodges in your brain for days. “With a taste of a poison paradise, I’m addicted to you. Don’t you know that you’re toxic?”

The song is part of “Backstage Romance,” an explosive medley and dance number that opens the second act. Threaded with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and others, “Toxic” underscores “painful parts of relationships,” music director Justin Levine told the Los Angeles Times.

Christian and Satine certainly face trials and tribulations, including Satine's attempts to escape the possessive Duke to be with Christian. Off stage, Spears has too, and underwent a public legal battle to end her father's control over her assets. Spears's own story only adds to the topicality and resonance of her music in the one on stage at Moulin Rouge!

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Britney taps into self-discovery journeys in & Juliet.

Using Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet as the starting point, & Juliet book writer David West Read reimagines the original ending and turns tragedy into a fun, fresh start. In the musical, Juliet drops the dagger and embarks on a new journey.

Thirty pop hits by producer/songwriter Max Martin underscore Juliet’s excellent adventure, including five made famous by Spears: “...Baby One More Time,” "Overprotected," “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” “Oops!…I Did It Again,” and “Stronger.”

In a nutshell, these songs respectively speak to loneliness, self-discovery, romantic missteps, and personal empowerment that all factor into the show’s story. The “universal themes and ideas” of her hits are one explanation for “so much Britney on Broadway,” says & Juliet music supervisor Bill Sherman.

Another plus, he said, is that “they’re so recognizable and so earwormy. They’re a part of my whole life and so many others’ too.”

While & Juliet's creators have trimmed Spears’s songs to fit more snugly in the musical’s narrative, the lyrics are unaltered, said Sherman. “We’ve cut up the songs a little bit, but we’ve not changed a lyric. That’s one of our best magic tricks.”

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Britney brings yearning to Once Upon a One More Time.

"If I’m supposed to be living happily ever after, why do I feel so unfulfilled?" That’s what Cinderella ponders in Once Upon a One More Time, in which author Jon Hartmere uses fairytale princesses to tell a story about taking charge of your own narrative.

The show is wall-to-wall Britney Spears music – 20-plus songs in all. Among them are “Womanizer,” “Work Bitch,” “Circus,” and, of course, "...Baby One More Time," which the show's title riffs on. The songs often cover love and its highs and lows, and Cinderella and her fellow princesses relate.

“The thing about Britney is that she has a very clear point of view,” said Briga Heelan, who stars as Cinderella. “The reason her music lends itself incredibly well to musical theatre is that she has so many ‘I want’ songs.” These tunes express the characters’ deep desires.

One early number in the show is “Lucky.” It’s about a woman who’s “lucky, she’s a star” and seems to have it all but doesn’t. “If there’s nothing missing in my life, then why do these tears come at night?”

That’s the same query Cinderella confronts. “Cinderella decides to poke at that question, and the show’s story ensues,” Heelan said. “Britney’s songs raise questions. In the musical, we see people try to figure out the answers.”

Once Upon a One More Time is, in the end, “about an awakening,” said Heelan. “It’s about growing up, facing conflict, and arriving on the other side. And that’s all in her discography because she’s had such a long career.”

Beyond the narrative elasticity of Spears’s music, there is also the simple straight-up fun factor. Some numbers are just a pure blast of energy — so if you're going to Broadway looking for fun and spectacle, Spears’s songs always deliver.

“Her music and this musical strike this beautiful balance between giving you songs that are rooted in story and songs that are about dancing our faces off,” said Heelan.

Photo credit: Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Once Upon a One More Time, and & Juliet. (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

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