Reimagining period pieces is so on brand right now. AppleTV+ is doing it with Alena Smith’s Dickinson, Claire McCarthy did it with Daisy Ridley in Ophelia, and HBO/BBC dipped their toe in the bucket with Gentleman Jack. Besides just adding pop music, modern dialogue, flashy costumes, or diving into formerly clandestine queer identities, what they all have in common is the feminist flip — no longer is a Romeo-like character the star of the show. On a London West End stage, perhaps the most famous story of them all is getting a new lease on life, literally: &Juliet is the story of Juliet if she didn’t kill herself for her young lover.
Romeo & Juliet is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous, most beloved, and most adapted plays. When writer David West Read (producer and writer from Schitt’s Creek) was given the task of building a show around songwriting megastar Max Martin, it wasn’t immediately clear to him how he was going to this successfully. But the jumping-off point of Juliet’s story — the what if — came to him after he got a concussing bumping his head on his kitchen cabinet. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
There was born the vision for &Juliet, complete with white dad sneakers, fanny packs, cycle shorts, denim getups, non-binary characters, and female empowerment to the nth degree. Juliet is played by 25-year-old newcomer and musical powerhouse Miriam-Teak Lee, who was in the original cast of Hamilton. As Juliet, she gets the chance to work through her trauma of losing her first love and begin a new life — one that doesn’t involve self-destruction — but Cassidy Jenson’s Anne Hathaway (again, you can’t make this stuff up: that was Shakespeare’s wife’s name) gets her chance to rewrite history and become more than just a footnote in her husband’s worldwide fame and notoriety. Heck, even Juliet’s maid (Melanie La Barrie) has an empowering storyline.
“It’s incredible to see the effect it’s having on people,” Miriam-Teak tells Teen Vogue. She was in the original ensemble cast of London’s Hamilton while also understudying for the three Schuyler sisters before she was plucked from the metaphorical chorus line into the role of a lifetime.
When Miriam-Teak leaves the stage door each night to see people from the audience waiting to talk to her, both young and old, they keep telling her one thing: they’re so uplifted by the story. “It resonates with them so much,” Miriam-Teak continues, “this story about the discovery of loving yourself. It’s just so easy nowadays, especially with social media, to look at other people and think lesser of yourself, but [I think this show] can be used to inspire and uplift [us].”
The show is heavy-handed with the corny, considering all those melodramatic pop-songs but they lean in so hard that you end up completely on board with all of it, bopping your head to Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” tapping your feet along with Demi Lovato’s “Confident” and getting emotional at Katy Perry’s “Roar.” But maybe the most exciting part of &Juliet is that — though it’s totally modernized and way off-script from Shakespeare’s original romantic tragedy — it’s getting to come full circle on exploring his gender-bending characters.
For most of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, it was illegal for women to perform in theater. Thus, he was confined to write his female roles for his male actors, but would often he would take it a step further and, in effect, erase gender altogether.
In &Juliet, Juliet’s bestie, May (Arun Blair-Mangat) gets to wear corsets and a flower crown and beautifully rendition Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” They’re not defined at any point by gender and May gets to fall in love with a man and the two of them have a duet together with Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”
“Shakespeare never really paid any attention to gender,” says Miriam-Teak, “and now, we’re introducing this character where we’re not confining them to any bracket of gender, [and we just get to follow them on their] discovery of who they want to be in this world. Nobody needs to ask any questions about it and everybody’s OK with it, and that’s a beautiful thing. [I love] that we’re going in that direction.”
Another direction &Juliet is taking us in is the portrayal of Juliet as a young, Black woman with a very clear direction of how she wants to improve her life, despite past traumas and mistakes she may have made.
David, to his credit, had the idea of a transformative and empowering Juliet, but he originally wrote her as subservient with a journey of her finding the confidence she needed to move on with her life. But when Miriam-Teak walked into the room with her explosive energy and built-in confidence, David went back to the drawing board to came up with “this empowered version of Juliet that feels way more 2019,” as he told BBC News.
“It's not as simplistic as going, ‘stand up to the patriarchy!’ or ‘women should have a voice,” he says. “It’s about saying, as a young person and as a young woman, ‘I know who I am and I don’t need to apologize for that. And I think that feels like a more dynamic character than where I was four years ago [with the story].”
“[I helped] mold Juliet to start from a place of strength,” says Miriam-Teak. “She wasn’t ever not strong. It was just about finding a way that she could display that in this new world. It’s also about how she can inspire others to do the same, [to come from] a place of self-love.”
&Juliet is now playing at The Shaftsbury Theatre in London. For more information, visit www.andjulietthemusical.co.uk
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue