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How the authors of '& Juliet' and 'Fat Ham' shook up Shakespeare classics

& Juliet book writer David West Read and Fat Ham playwright James Ijames are both 2023 Tony Award nominees for their fresh adaptations of classic stories.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Don’t just brush up on your Shakespeare – shake it up!

Two writers earned Tony Award nominations this season for tapping into the Bard’s classic plays in innovative ways. Though their works are worlds apart, there’s a common thread: Both consider the impact of choosing life over death.

Emmy-winning Schitt's Creek writer David West Read, who’s now up for Best Book of a Musical for & Juliet, began with Romeo & Juliet and a “what if.” He imagined a story in which the lovestruck heroine doesn’t kill herself, weaving the narrative together with hits from the pop catalog of songwriter Max Martin.

The show is accessible to Shakespeare nerds, pop music aficionados, and everyone in between, he said. “The different generations seem to be coming together.”

James Ijames, a playwright, director, and professor whose 2022 Pulitzer Prize winner Fat Ham is up for Best Play, put his stamp on Hamlet. “My starting point was always Hamlet,” said Ijames. “I always had a really beautiful relationship with Hamlet. I did an abbreviated, student-directed version of it in college.”

He played the title character. “I don’t think I was very good, but I had a good time,” Ijames said. “I learned a lot, and I just really was taken by the play. It just has always stayed with me.”

Fat Ham is set at a Black family's Southern backyard barbecue where a young man, Juicy, questions his life along with his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. That may sound familiar. But along with ghosts, notions rise about race, queerness, and identity. The riff on the classic play coaxes out fresh contemporary food for thought – and that’s the point.

“As a writer, I’m really interested in how we can disrupt the idea of the canon,” Ijames said, adding that he’s keen to offer “a wider group of people access to these stories that we consider the stories of our culture.” Now that he's served up Hamlet, his next project is a loose adaptation of Othello.

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Read was likewise interested in mining fresh insights. When he started writing the book for & Julietseven years ago, he received a list of Martin's songs, like “Oops … I Did It Again” and “Since U Been Gone.”

“I needed some sort of brand to unite all of these songs from so many different artists,” he said. “So much of Max’s music is about young love and heartache that Romeo & Juliet, the ultimate symbol of heartbreak, came to me. If we were going to reinvent Max’s music, it also felt like an opportunity to reinvent that story for the modern context.”

In a nutshell, Juliet puts down the dagger and lives. “When Juliet didn’t kill herself and instead went looking for love again, the story expanded,” said Read. “I thought of it as an opportunity to explore second chances. There are these different love stories within the story.” That includes one between Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, whose story evolves as Juliet’s.

“There have been so many adaptations and reimaginings of the play before & Juliet,” Read said. “It’s a challenge to try and find a fresh way in and something that feels personal and allows you to find yourself in that story.”

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Ijames is interested in works that simultaneously speak specifically and broadly. “I want everybody to feel like they have access to what I’m talking about,” he added. “At the same time, I don't want to feel like I have to explain Black culture or queer culture to people who are not inside it. When I sit down to watch ‘The Scottish Play’ [Macbeth], I’m not Scottish. But the assumption is that I’ll catch up and understand and be okay. And that’s true.”

Read pointed out that the structure of & Juliet “is very Shakespearean, including the asides and the misunderstandings and the multiple weddings at the end," he said. “There’s dialogue that I’ve stolen, repurposed, and flipped, and a lot of puns.”

When it comes to the source material, Ijames “was always game to change it all up,” he said. Suffice it to say that Hamlet's “everyone dies” ending just doesn’t apply.

“I read and watched the play for about a year before I even started working on it,” Ijames said. “The stuff that kept flowing back up to the surface, that’s the stuff that stayed.” That includes the complicated relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude – in this case, Juicy and Tedra.

“When it came to the madness of Ophelia and the hotheadedness of Laertes, I wanted that to stay,” said Ijames, “but I didn’t want the surrogates of those characters [Opal and Larry] to have those attributes. So I flipped them. That’s how I approached this – how do I make this feel vital and specific and exciting?”

But Ijames also did his share of direct borrowing. Of course, someone says, “Ah, there’s the rub.” The play’s setting is a barbecue, after all.

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Photo credit: & Juliet and Fat Ham on Broadway. (Photos by Matthew Murphy and Marc J. Franklin)

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