We are ever deeper into jukebox territory on Broadway, where pop now pops like no other genre. “MJ,” the dance-intensive bio-musical based on the songbook of Michael Jackson, is a runaway hit at the Neil Simon Theatre, outpacing its competition from last season, the Tony-winning “A Strange Loop,” which closes in January. “Moulin Rouge!,” a boombox of Top-40 ditties, has just passed its 720th performance, and the new crop of shows includes both “A Beautiful Noise,” built on the music of Neil Diamond, and “KPOP,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Korean pop, with new songs by Helen Park.
The generations of theatergoers who grew up on book musicals, replete with original songs that were written in a distinctive Broadway style, with roots in operetta and Tin Pan Alley, are in their dotage now. Even a dazzlingly heartwarming winner such as “Kimberly Akimbo,” composed by David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, is struggling to build momentum, according to figures from the trade group the Broadway League.
With mass appeal tilting toward listeners of Apple Music and Spotify, Broadway is desperate to sing along: Just imagine the kind of business a Taylor Swift musical would do. In the meantime, Martin’s music pulsates in the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where “& Juliet” marked its official opening earlier this month. The show has been a huge success in London, where I saw it earlier this year, on what felt like an off night — the crowd was thin on that evening deep into its run — so my expectations were tempered for the New York incarnation.
Like a rock concert, a jukebox musical feeds crucially on audience energy. (I experienced proof positive of that Friday night at Carnegie Hall, where I was swept up in the fan-harnessing melodic power of the alt-rock band Guster and its magnetic frontman, Ryan Miller.) This added ingredient was apparent with “& Juliet” at the Sondheim — at the Sondheim, of all places! — where a packed house reacting to the Spears and Perry numbers revved up the cast, and bounced that dynamism back at us. Including me. I was more happily engaged this time, by songs that comment on the silly plot surprisingly aptly, and by the upbeat, eager-to-please elán of it all.
The story has a simple premise: What if Juliet didn’t use that “happy dagger” after waking up from Friar Lawrence’s magic potion and went instead to hang out with her friends in Paris? The show, with a script by David West Read, tosses “Romeo and Juliet’s” author and his wife into the antic mix; their meta-theatrical roles posit them as writing partners in a revision of the play that hews to the sexual politics of the 2020s.
Stark Sands is Shakespeare and Betsy Wolfe is Anne Hathaway (the one from the olden days), and they form one of the musical’s several sexy pairings. They’re fun together, fashioning Anne and Will as a postmodern Beatrice and Benedick, with much ado about Anne’s always having to live in Will’s shadow, and her desire to remake Juliet’s in her own repurposed image. The other couplings are revealed as the show unfolds, but pivotal is Lorna Courtney’s appealing Juliet, surrounded by a crew including hovering nurse Angelique (Melanie La Barrie) and lovelorn best friend May (Justin David Sullivan).
Opera devotees will note the gamely self-satirizing participation of Paulo Szot; Broadway fans will recall him as the Emile de Becque to Kelli O’Hara’s Nellie Forbush in the 2008 revival of “South Pacific.” Here he applies his rich baritone to the refrains of “Teenage Dream” as his newly invented character, Lance, an uppity French nobleman, cavorts friskily with old flame Angelique. Yes, somehow, Szot makes it work.
Contributing, too, to the effectiveness of “& Juliet” are the set and costume designers, Soutra Gilmour and Paloma Young, respectively, who know how to dress up the stage for a big night out. Howard Hudson’s lighting design embellishes the show with its own grid of electric inspiration. The pull-out-all-the-stops sensation you experience with Britney or Katy or MJ, for that matter, is replicated here, with a big finish that would get the heart racing in an arena many times the size of the some 1,000-seat Sondheim.
The proceedings have been held by director Luke Sheppard and choreographer Jennifer Weber to a standard that’s right for the times, one that asks us to just let it go. Don’t get me wrong: I always crave the deeper communion with a musical that tells a story with songs made new. Like Juliet, though, I’m happy to bop to a well-produced, familiar beat.
& Juliet, music and lyrics by Max Martin and friends, book by David West Read. Directed by Luke Sheppard. Choreography, Jennifer Weber; orchestrations, Bill Sherman; sets, Soutra Gilmour; costumes, Paloma Young; lighting, Howard Hudson; sound, Gareth Owen; video and projections, Andrzej Goulding. With Ben Jackson Walker, Philippe Arroyo. About 2½ hours. At Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., New York. andjulietbroadway.com.