The following is a transcript of a conversation between theatre critic Aisling Murphy and theatre artist Joshua Kilimnik, who share a passionate love for musical theatre. Aisling attended the final preview of & Juliet on July 6, and Joshua attended performances at both the beginning and end of the show’s preview period. Shows are not typically reviewed during previews, but Mirvish made an exception for & Juliet’s North American premiere.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Aisling Murphy: Hi, Joshua!
Joshua Kilimnik: Here we are, in Toronto’s most gorgeous of 325 square-foot luxury residences.
AM: It’s lovely. But let’s jump into it: & Juliet happened.
JK: Did it ever. This production is the musical’s first foray outside of its home in the UK. It’s been an absolute smash hit on the West End since 2019, and it’s come to Toronto for a pre-Broadway tryout run before it premieres on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre this fall.
AM: So let’s start with a summary before we forget. &Juliet asks what might happen if Juliet hadn’t died in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. We watch as Sheakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, crafts a new story — one with a better, more feminist ending. Oh, and all this happens to a soundtrack of hit singles produced by Max Martin and popularized by a slew of pop artists. Joshua, were you a Max Martin fan prior to this?
JK: I mean, so it would seem, yeah. Max Martin was not a name I was familiar with until doing some research into him, and it seems that he is a behind-the-scenes legend. He’s a Swedish songwriter and producer responsible for writing 25 chart-toppers for virtually every top 40 artist of the last few decades. I didn’t realise how heavy-hitting he was until I saw his list of credits.
With this, & Juliet makes one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever seen – a jukebox musical that binds together a show not around an artist, but around the guy who made all these number one songs for number one artists. Practically speaking, you just have a bottomless catalogue to use.
AM: So, also, how do you feel about jukebox musicals generally? I tend to hate them. I went into this feeling pretty trepidatious. I’m not a huge Mamma Mia! or Moulin Rouge person.
JK: Well, okay. A jukebox musical, in my opinion, inherently shoots itself in the foot by virtue of its own existence. The notion of a piece of theatre in which one of its major storytelling components was not created for said piece of theatre — you’d think that would impact narrative negatively. Rather than developing a book and a score that can inform each other, or at the very least keep a thematic synergy, you’re kind of slapping the two together and hoping it sticks.
AM: And this one works, is the thing. There’s still some fat that can be trimmed in & Juliet, but some of these moments really work. There’s a sequence in the show when, spoiler, Juliet finds out Romeo is still alive, but so much has transpired in the days since he “died.” So we get “Since U Been Gone,” popularised by Kelly Clarkson, and it works. The lyrics and the story coincide perfectly, organically even.
JK: So it’s interesting you say that. I have to say, I caught the show a couple times a little while apart, and if it weren’t for that return visit I would not have had a clue what part of the show you were referring to. I remembered moments and I remember songs, but not easily where they intersect. I don’t know if “Since U Been Gone” immediately hit me, like, “oh yeah, that part of the story was crazy!,” you know?
AM: That’s interesting! So what do you remember most about the show at this point, the story or the music?
JK: I’d say the story, but the general shape of the story rather than its details. David West Read’s script often feels incidental here, with some often haphazard dialogue which can make the book come off as an exercise in introducing as random a song as possible into a narrative. Much to his credit, there is genuine belly-laugh humour and he’s developed a dynamic enough story to keep me entertained and interested. Accepting that almost anything in the plot happens the way it does means shutting your brain off and accepting random contrivances and deus ex machinas, but the show as a whole is brilliant at making sure that you do just that.
What struck me about & Juliet is that, mercifully, every single person who has touched this show seems so actively “in on the joke,” as it were. It is entirely thanks to this that & Juliet was perhaps the most entertaining night of theatre I’ve had in Toronto this past year. Outright. I don’t think I’ve had a more bombastic time at a commercial musical than I did here.
AM: I’m inclined to agree with your sentiment that the story doesn’t super matter — it’s not why you’re there. I felt that way about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, too. Both are incredible, but not at all for their stories. What makes them so special is the way their stories are told.
JK: Yeah. Listen, the thing we’re hearing about & Juliet in reviews and marketing: “audiences love it.” And that couldn’t be truer — they (and I!) loved it wholeheartedly.
AM: 100%. For me it felt almost like the first Pitch Perfect movie. You have these moments of total wit and charm peeking through, and when those hit, it’s hysterical. Like Pitch Perfect, you also have these pop songs in extremely flattering new arrangements, and they’re catchy as all hell — they might outshine the original versions, in some cases.
But sometimes the wit gets stretched a little too far, and the jokes wear out their welcome, at least in my opinion.
JK: Absolutely. I think you’re referring to the fact that this show is full of just the most devastatingly mind-wrenching puns I’ve heard in my life. (To the show’s credit, that choice could not be more Shakesperean.) Overall, though, what I’m taking from & Juliet is an exquisite production that successfully endeavours to distract you from the material, instead making what’s written so enjoyable and so presentable that you can’t not love it.
Another compliment to Read — it does seem to be really well researched, too. There’s the scene that has Shakespeare pulling a series of common turns of phrase out of his pocket, constantly turning to the audience to make sure they knew he coined them. That scene got solid laughs out of me. The book works at its absolute best when it’s aware of itself. Not just in a metatheatrical sense, but in how it plays to the audience, meeting them where they expect.
It’s shamelessly commercial, sure.
AM: Yeah, it’s capitalising on the top hits of the past thirty years. Why not?
JK: And it’s just so West End. Look at the blockbuster West End shows of the last couple decades, your Bat Out of Hell, your Six, your Broadway-bound Back to the Future. All these shows function best when not interpreted as book musicals, but as musical experiences. I find the West End and its shows tend to be so much more rooted in audience experience than in North America. It’s de-emphasized story, emphasized fun. My conspiracy theory is that the British perception of musical theatre (in conception, performance, and production) largely harkens back to their roots of pantomime. They’ve perfected that audience experience formula.
AM: It’s great you mention that! My seatmate and I were saying how much the pre-show felt like a pantomime, with the call-and-response, and the metatheatrical miming of painting the set.
JK: Yeah. And we see more shades of that later on in & Juliet. You’re remarkably well-tended-to as a viewer for the two and a half hour runtime.
AM: So I have to ask, as a fellow 2010s musical theatre nut: did you feel the Something Rotten resonances? That’s another commercial musical engaging in the yassification of William Shakespeare through lampoon-y, revisionist history.
JK: You know what, Something Rotten is another show that I think works in spite of itself. I don’t think it’s a super strong piece of material, but there were many moments of that show that made me laugh harder than usual. That, too, is a musical putting Shakespeare in a new, irreverent, and really enjoyable light.
AM: I agree. I don’t like Shakespeare, generally. But I really loved Something Rotten, for its cast and its silliness, and that’s a formula that’s worked again here. Plus, here you have a vehicle for Betsy Wolfe to be Betsy Wolfe at her most endearing, and I’ll never say no to that. I’ve loved Betsy Wolfe since her take on Cathy in The Last Five Years — she’s got a voice that can blend so seamlessly across genres, and her charm seeps into any character she plays.
JK: So with that, I’m excited to get to this extremely talented company.
I’ll start with Justin David Sullivan as May, who just seems to have the hugest heart in the world. You can’t help but love them onstage. The character is one of the first times I’ve seen a character not adhere to the gender binary on stage, and certainly the first I’ve seen in a commercial musical. I admire that May’s storyline doesn’t feel like it’s there just to be there, just to pander — the character‘s identity very specifically influences the narrative at points and feels integral to the plot. The only weird thing is how the use of songs attempts to address this. A character sings “I Kissed a Girl” in reference to a kiss from May — May’s not a girl (and not yet a woman, as another song refers to them), and even when they say that caveat out loud the choice still feels clumsy. But otherwise, Justin and her character are extremely loveable.
AM: Yeah, have to agree with you there. Acknowledging the problem of keeping “I Kissed a Girl” doesn’t make it better. But the actor and the character align so very well.
I’d love to talk about the ensemble, particularly Katy Geraghty — she draws your eye in all the best ways. You can’t not watch. She’s one of the star dancers in the ensemble, and with that bright red hair, she’s impossible to miss. For me, every scene she was in was magical, though I might be biassed, as I’ve been following her work for a while. I was a big Groundhog Day apologist.
JK: Yes! Let me too shout out the thrilling Toronto talent present in this production – Matt Raffy, Brandon Antonio (who I remember from the best part of last year’s Blackout), and the aggressively cool Bobby “Pocket” Horner, the production’s featured dancer and the only person my friends were talking about as we exited the theatre.
Ultimately, though, I’m ready for & Juliet to make its titular performer, Lorna Courtney, a star. She’s a fresher face here, though some of my friends who caught her in the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story said she was magnificent as well.
AM: This will launch her career.
JK: And it should. It’s a star-turn performance. And I know audiences will embrace her on Broadway.
AM: Her voice is so easy, like water. And those impeccable dance chops. And acting-wise, I mean, it’s not the most challenging role. But she brings a depth to it.
JK: She has such a genuine, enchanting presence on that stage. She has us eating out of the palm of her hand. Few times have I heard a mid-show ovation as immediate and loud as that following her performance of “Roar” — the audience is eager to let her know how much we love her.
And the role of Juliet can’t be a walk in the park. It’s an explosion of energy, and Lorna doesn’t look like she’s breaking a sweat.
AM: Right? She’s never breathless. She’s never gasping for high notes. It always just seems easy for her. She occasionally falls behind the beat, but she fixes it quickly every time.
The point I was going to make is how, the way these characters are written, a bunch of them feel like they could become irritating if played by worse actors. For me, that’s clear for Juliet and then Anne Hathaway. But Lorna and Betsy Wolfe just play it. They play the hell out of it.
JK: They’re just having so much fun. Betsy Wolfe is so good at being that sassy-yet-sweet persona onstage, and she gets to do that here. I fell in love with her in this role, because she seemed like she was having such a blast.
It really does seem like there are some celebrities in Toronto right now. Betsy Wolfe in residence on King Street? What? That doesn’t happen that often.
And then Stark Sands as William Shakespeare. This is a performance that seems very much to have come into its own – the first preview left me wondering whether he seemed too affable for & Juliet’s more hot-headed take on the Bard, and seeing him past the preview process absolutely quelled that. He is charming, cocky, annoying, and heartfelt in all the perfect places. And god, can he wail his way through these songs!
And Paulo Szot — man. That performance is tied for funniest portrayal on this stage for me. He plays Lance, the father of Frankie (Juliet’s new love interest), and is a walking embodiment of pure, unfiltered comic brilliance here. This show gives us a Tony-winning operatic baritone, playing a character who looks like he never knows exactly where he is, and gives him a fucking Backstreet Boys song. We mere mortals cannot possibly deserve that gift. Szot’s performance was incredible and it just made me so happy he’s in the show. It works. It’s hilarious. It’s a genius piece of casting, and one of my favourite parts of & Juliet.
AM: I wish I could hear the conversation with his agent when he booked it.
JK: Right? I want no one to touch his performance. I want it to stay exactly as is. That is a perfect performance.
I also have to shout out Melanie La Barrie as Juliet’s nurse. She’s a transfer from the original West End production, the only original company member to transfer with the show and presumably all the way to Broadway. She’s extremely comfortable in the role, and it’s fantastic. The fans love her — she’s the one everyone’s talking about online. You can tell why she’s been brought over — she’s fine-tuned the performance brilliantly. She’s perfected the role.
AM: Absolutely. For me, when she’s singing “Fuckin’ Perfect” to Juliet, that’s a moment that could feel so overly contrived, saccharine. And it just doesn’t. It tugs at every heartstring, another moment crafted for the sake of audience reaction.
JK: And so many of us know that song from the radio edit of P!nk’s song — the sudden f-bomb is a surprise, it gets a rise out of us. That was one of the moments in the show that was strongest for me, actually, where the music fit the story.
We have to talk more about those ever-indulgent audience-provoking moments. I beg. The show’s efforts to pry maximum audience ovations is made clearest in these. Melanie gives a resounding, chest-thumping monologue about the ‘drama’ in her life that causes the audience to simply erupt. A friend of mine referred to another particular moment of the show as “Betsy Wolfe invents non-binary people,” which also garners lots of woops.
Then there’s the part towards the end where we’re just about to get into “Roar,” and Juliet is having her girlboss moment, and the principals are off to the side, cheering on Juliet with “yes, get it” and “I’m living for this.” I remember those lines verbatim. I screamed.
AM: I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. The number of “yas, queen”s. The number of “dope”s. So many “dope”s. And “douche,” too. I think after “yas” number five, I stopped counting. That’s a way of talking that felt like an older generation trying to approximate how people in their early twenties, our age, talk.
Are you a fan of Schitt’s Creek? It’s similar to &Juliet in that the language always feels that little bit removed from how young people actually speak, but it’s part of the aesthetic of the show. And that makes sense here, given Read’s involvement, having written for Schitt’s Creek and then writing the book for & Juliet. It’s as if every character were a member of the Rose family.
JK: I’ll take this chance to shout-out one of this production’s MVPs, Philippe Arroyo, who sparkles as Francois, or Frankie. He frequently feels like the most polished performer on the stage (a high bar to meet), and his vocal dexterity combined with his megawatt personality makes him one of the performers most worth keeping a close eye on in my mind.
Finally, the cast is rounded out by Ben Jackson Walker, who plays Romeo. I cannot wait for New York audiences to see him – I think they’ll make him a star. He’s who I have tied with Paulo for most hilarious performance. It is just perfect himbo energy. Absolutely perfect. The greatest part of the show, hands down, is the end of the first act, when he descends from the rafters on a sign of his own name while pyrotechnics shoot off and he’s singing “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi. I think it might be my favourite moment in Toronto commercial musical theatre, period, full stop.
He gives an excellent acting performance. Musically, there’s a moment in the second act that’s a little out of his range, but with some assistance from the production team he’ll be easily able to overcome those rougher musical spots and deliver what I consider a near perfect performance. I want the greatest success for him.
AM: I just want to take a moment to talk about the costumes, too. I adore the costumes in this show. They’re fresh-yet-period-appropriate, they show off the range of bodies onstage and leave plenty of room for dance. Paloma Young did a great job.
And we have to talk about the stagecraft. The sets. The confetti. The pyrotechnics. The ladders.
JK: The video design, and all those fireworks — I’ve never seen that much fire and so many sparklers in a piece of theatre, ever.
AM: It felt like Cursed Child! I was sitting there, thinking to myself, “wait, didn’t we do this last week?”
JK: Luke Sheppard’s production is an overall spectacle. His direction is unceasingly dynamic, and he’s crafted a production energetic enough to tear the walls off of any building. Thoroughly creative and forever interesting, his staging draws out maximum hilarity and always has a trick up its sleeve. & Juliet marks his Broadway directorial debut, and I will be thrilled to see New York embrace him beyond this.
Much of the electricity present can also be attributed to Jennifer Weber’s ever-active choreography, showcasing this company’s impressive dexterity with physical feats that made me sweat just by watching them.
The production features a smorgasbord of gorgeous flashing lights by Howard Hudson, which pop against Soutra Gilmour’s splashy set design and are complimented by Andrzej Goulding’s animated projections. The visual design is spectacular and hyper-precise with brilliantly rich colours. Gareth Owen’s sound design adds rich sonic layers to the dazzling presentation. A dedication goes out to & Juliet’s stage management team, too, who are calling an incredibly precise show.
And I now have to give a special shoutout to my greatest love.
If revolves have 500 fans, I’m one of them. If revolves have one fan, I’m it. If revolves have zero fans, I’m dead. I love me a revolve. I love a revolve. Thank you to London theatre for keeping revolves alive.
AM: I love that you love them so much.
JK: I do. My heart goes out to Les Misérables, with its dearly departed turntables. #BringThemHome.
AM: So you’ll understand then the fierceness of my love for theatrical haze, which is also well-served here.
JK: I do. This is a gorgeously designed show.
I’ll wrap my thoughts up with a commendation to & Juliet’s music director, Dominic Fallacaro. His leadership has drawn out thrilling vocal displays from this gifted company, and his band brings the most out of Bill Sherman’s spiffy orchestrations.
New York audiences are going to lose their minds over this show.
AM: It’s going to be the new tourist show. Guarantee.
&Juliet runs at the Princess of Wales Theatre through August 14. Tickets are available here.