How a concussion led Emmy-winning Schitt’s Creek writer to come up with jukebox musical & Juliet
David West Read had post-concussion syndrome after hitting his head on a kitchen cabinet in 2016. It was during that time that he was tasked to pitch a concept for a musical using hit Swedish producer-songwriter Max Martin’s catalogue of famous pop anthems.
The 40-year-old Canadian – best known for his work as a screenwriter and executive producer on the award-winning comedy series Schitt’s Creek (2015 to 2020), for which he won an Emmy – had been advised by doctors to avoid looking at screens and exercising.
So he spent his days lying in a dark room listening to Martin’s music over and over again, when he had a eureka moment.
Many songs dealt with themes of young love and heartbreak, which overlapped with the tragic tale of Romeo And Juliet. That was Read’s favourite Shakespearean play, which he had studied as an English literature undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Canada.
And so, the jukebox musical & Juliet was born.
After a successful season at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre from February to July, the Australian cast will be heading the Singapore run at Sands Theatre from Sept 21.
It opens with Shakespeare’s (Rob Mills) wife Anne Hathaway (Amy Lehpamer) suggesting a different ending in which Juliet (Lorinda May Merrypor) does not end her life, but instead charts her own path.
Read recognises that the character had the potential to be the leading lady of a 21st-century musical.
“She has a lot of willpower in the Shakespeare original: She stands up to her parents, and she drives more of the action than Romeo, as the one making plans and telling him what to do,” he tells The Straits Times in a Zoom interview.
“The ending felt deeply unsatisfying for a modern character who’s going to kill herself because her boyfriend of five days did so. So it felt like a good launchpad to modernise the story.”
& Juliet has been playing on Broadway since November 2022 and received nine Tony Awards nominations in May, including for Best New Musical, but left the ceremony empty-handed.
Read says: “We were thrilled, but we always tried to make this a show for the people. Us not winning anything didn’t matter to me. I never thought I’d go to the Tony Awards in my life, and to be included in the Broadway community felt like such a victory.
“Critical recognition always helps, but it’s really been word of mouth with this show.”
It was not always smooth-sailing though.
He says that when & Juliet was first performed at London’s West End from November 2019 to March 2023, it struggled to attract audiences back to the theatre and regain its pre-pandemic momentum when restrictions eased.
He attributes this growth not to critics’ reviews, but to “people having a wonderful time, talking about it and coming back with more people”.
Read started writing the book of & Juliet in 2016, while simultaneously working on Schitt’s Creek, which followed the trials and tribulations of a wealthy family (played by father-son duo Eugene and Dan Levy, alongside Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy) who lose their fortune and relocate to a motel in a small town.
Read won the Emmy for Executive Director for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2020.
“Eugene Levy has come to see & Juliet a couple of times and so has most of the cast – and that means a lot to me.”
Read is now busy with a few other projects, both on stage and on screen.
He partnered & Juliet’s director Luke Sheppard for In Dreams, a musical using the catalogue of the late American singer Roy Orbison, famous for rock ’n’ roll classics such as Only The Lonely (1960) and Oh, Pretty Woman (1964).
Named after Orbison’s hit song In Dreams (1963), it premiered in early July in Leeds, England.
Stating that he “didn’t want to do the same thing twice”, Read – who wrote the book for In Dreams – says it deals with heavier themes and darker subject matter than & Juliet, and is more a play with music than a musical.
Read is also tied up with an untitled Apple TV+ series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as versions of themselves, who move into the same ranch with their families and try to live together.
Read teases the show will explore the rumours that the American actors might actually be biological brothers.
He says: “They have the most diverse careers anyone can think of, spanning every genre and style, but they haven’t really done a family comedy like this, which I think is a fun opportunity for them.”
Book It/& Juliet
Where: Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue
When: Sept 21 to Oct 8; Tuesdays to Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 2 and 8pm; Sundays, 1 and 6.30pm
Admission: $68 to $238 from Marina Bay Sands (str.sg/io2H) and Sistic (str.sg/io2V). TNP readers can enjoy a 20 per cent discount from now until the end of the show’s run at str.sg/iS3m.