How Max Martin shaped '& Juliet' on its road to Broadway

The Grammy-winning songwriter/music producer is behind the biggest pop hits of the '90s onward, and 30 of his songs fuel this Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Think you haven't heard of Max Martin? Think again. You're more familiar with the Swedish music executive than you know if you've heard Britney Spears's "...Baby One More Time," Bon Jovi's "It's My Life," The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," or dozens of other chart-toppers the five-time Grammy Award winner wrote and/or produced over the past three decades.

He is, to be fair, a famously private person. And unless they also perform their tunes, songwriters don't often get public attention for their work. Or, for that matter, dedicated Broadway musicals a la Carole King, ABBA, or Neil Diamond.

But Martin, with an extensive catalog of 250-plus songs, has made just as seismic an impact on popular music as any performer. He had the idea to fashion his songs into a musical years ago — and in 2019, that thought became a reality with the world premiere of & Juliet in London. The pop musical has now earned nine Tony nominations, including Best Musical, for its 2022 Broadway transfer.

The & Juliet team has called him the "Shakespeare of pop," so it's fitting that 30 of his songs score a show inspired by a Shakespeare play: Romeo & Juliet. The musical picks up just before that play's end, when Juliet suddenly decides not to die and instead ditches Verona in search of new life, new friends, and new loves.

Shakespeare's play has been around centuries longer than Martin's songs, but those were the true genesis of & Juliet. He remained closely and enthusiastically involved every subsequent step of the way — Tony nominee Betsy Wolfe, who plays Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway, described him as "a kid in a candy store during this whole process."

The cast and creatives' excitement to work with Martin, in turn, was mutual, and they shared how Martin's influence lives in everything the audience hears. The journey begins in fair Canada, where we lay our scene...

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Two writers, alike in dignity

Technically, it begins in the Martin family home, where Jenny Petersson, Martin's wife, said, "We should make a musical," Martin recalled. "And a long journey ahead started."

But Martin is an expert songwriter, not a scriptwriter. "I was insecure about how this is going to [be]," Martin admitted. "I really wanted it to be a great story, not just a bunch of songs — to have a purpose, so to speak."

One would expect someone with as prolific a career as Martin to take on the job. But it was Canadian writer David West Read — a relatively unknown name who hadn't won his Emmy Award for Schitt's Creek yet — who came up with the winning idea at the unlikeliest of times.

"I suffered a concussion, which worked out well because I couldn't look at screens or anything, so I was lying in a dark room listening to the playlist [of Martin's songs]," Read said. "There's so many songs about heartbreak and young love, and I thought, 'How do you put a brand to this?' Because Max Martin wasn't really known by anyone, even though he's the most successful songwriter [after] the Beatles." (That's statistically true — only Paul McCartney and John Lennon notched more Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles.)

"So I came up with the idea of Juliet from Romeo & Juliet," Read continued. "We're going to repurpose and reinvent these pop songs and it'll be great, but also reinvent a classic love story."

His idea won over the production team and Martin. "When he created this story and gave me an example of how the songs could actually work to tell this story, that's really when it started to come to life," Martin said.

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Arise, fair sound

In & Juliet, Juliet first enlists her nurse, Angelique, to hit the road with her, but it takes a crew of friends old and new to enliven her adventure. Similarly, West and Martin couldn't refashion pop songs for the stage alone. Their crew included sound designer Gareth Owen, music director/orchestrator Dominic Fallacaro, and orchestrator/arranger Bill Sherman. (All three are Tony-nominated.)

When asked what convinced them to work on & Juliet, they all had the same answer: Martin. "The possibility of collaborating with the greatest songwriter of the last 25 years on songs that define your life is impossible to pass up," Sherman said. Fallacaro similarly called the opportunity a "no-brainer."

"I’d never met the guy [before & Juliet], but everyone behind the scenes in the music industry knows he’s a genius," Owen said. "Then I met him and realised he was nice as well as talented — frankly, between Max, Bill Sherman, and I? Well, it was a bit of a bromance!"

Sherman recalled a different kind of nervousness — not the bromantic kind — defining his and Martin's first meeting. "Max said two things: 'If a song is going to be a departure from the original version, go all the way. Don't half-ass it,'" Sherman remembered.

"The second thing that Max said was, "If it's not perfect, it goes in the trash." You can imagine me eight years ago, having no idea what the hell is going on in the world, and the greatest songwriter of our time looks at you dead in the eye in a very humbly Swedish way and goes, 'If it's not perfect, it goes in the trash.' I can safely say that was one of the most terrifying days of my life."

Having Martin on hand during London and Broadway rehearsals, though, helped ensure the sound of & Juliet was to his liking. "One of the coolest parts about getting this was getting access to the vault of Max," Fallacaro said. "We're not approximating what the synth sounds like. We're running it past someone who knows exactly what it's supposed to sound like."

"It's been so fun and rewarding reimagining and bringing some of the greatest songs of our generation onto a theatre stage, and to put a narrative force behind them," he added in a separate interview. "The challenge of fusing the traditional orchestral and band components of Broadway with the studio 'pixie dust' of synthesizers and drum machines was a tremendously rewarding experience."

"It might not be perfect," Sherman said of the final result, "but it's pretty damn close."

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What's in a cast?

The final piece of Martin's songs' journey from studio to stage is the Broadway cast that sings them live every night. He worked directly with them in rehearsals, too, even scheduling one-on-one sessions to coach them on their singing performances. It didn't take long for him to become a familiar, friendly face — Wolfe said the cast's reactions to seeing him shifted from awe to "Oh yeah, it's Max."

"It was so scary, but at the same time, he's become a proud papa," said Lorna Courtney, a Best Actress Tony nominee for playing Juliet. "He wants us to succeed and do well, and the notes that he would give — it's all expertise, and it's all to better ourselves and the overall longevity of what we're doing."

"It's both exciting and not exciting, because he's there the whole time. You can't get rid of him!" joked Melanie La Barrie, who originated the role of Angelique in London and New York. "He's in the fabric of this musical. Because when we were making it in London, and again when we were making it here, he is here. He's giving us all of his energy and all of his insight and everything that he knows about his world, and now this world, because he knows this musical like his own skin."

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