How one Canadian writer turned Max Martin’s Top 40 hits into a smashing pop musical

By David Friend, The Canadian Press

TORONTO — “Schitt’s Creek” writer David West Read admits he wasn’t attuned to Max Martin’s outsized role in shaping pop music when producers working with the hitmaker called on him to pitchthe musical that would become “& Juliet.”

Like many casual listeners, the Toronto playwright was familiar with Top 40 radio, but he hadn’t realized Martin, a five-time Grammy-winning songwriter from Sweden, was the mastermind behind many of the modern classics.

“I had to look him up,” Read said. “And I saw that he had written like every great pop song for the last 30 years.”

Numerous Backstreet Boys tracks, the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Celine Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is,” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Those were just a few of the songs that producers hoped Read could weave into a splashy and sellable storyline to hang their musical on.

“It was a lot of pressure,” he admitted ahead of the Toronto opening night of  “& Juliet” on Thursday.

Six years ago, before anything about the musical was certain, there were several ideas in orbit with Martin’s team. One of them was taking his songs and turning them into “Footloose in space,” Read would later learn. 

His pitch was far less outlandish but equally playful.

“& Juliet,” which runs through Aug. 14 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, imagines what might’ve happened if William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo & Juliet” hadn’t crescendoed in the death of both star-crossed lovers.

In the comedy musical, Juliet not only survives, but she quickly rebounds from the loss and takes off to Paris for a fresh start. The journey is set to 30 familiar tunes, including six from the Backstreet Boys and five from Britney Spears, sung by the show’s cast.

Everything goes down in a fast-paced shower of confetti, pyrotechnics and inspiring themes of feminism and self-worth, designed to get the audience out of their seats and cheering.

Martin’s songs are threaded into the storyline with clever reinterpretations of the lyrics. “Teenage Dream” becomes an ode to middle-aged love; drunken fantasy “I Kissed a Girl” is adapted as a more loving queer anthem; and “I Want It That Way” gets spun as a goofy battle between Shakespeare and his wife over plot points.

“I made a rule early on that I wasn’t going to change any of the lyrics other than pronouns or things like that,” Read said.

“We had to really make them work and make it seem like every song was written for the show. It was a big part of the challenge of the puzzle.”

Piecing everything together took time, Read said, but it was made easier by having Martin by his side. 

The artist, born Karl Martin Sandberg, has been involved since “& Juliet” became the winning pitch, alongside his wife, Jenny Petersson, who is a producer on the show.

While Read’s concept for “& Juliet” took shape, he embarked on a crash course in exploring the roots of the Swede’s pop universe.

The producers jetted him off to Las Vegas with Martin to see the Backstreet Boys perform in person, and they got him seats at a Taylor Swift show. He also studied the moves of former Nsync frontman Justin Timberlake in concert.

“Luke Sheppard, the director, and I really wanted to find a version of musical theatre that, at times, could feel like a pop concert and other times feel very intimate, like a play,” he said.

His comedic chops as a writer on “Schitt’s Creek” came in handy for giving each character an edge, while his experience writing the offbeat Broadway comedy “The Performers” made it work on stage.

Fortunately, Martin was game to experiment with the musical’s direction.

“It was made clear to me that at any step of the process if Max wasn’t happy, we could just pull the plug on this whole thing,” Read said.

But what surprised him was how dedicated Martin was to making “& Juliet” the best it could be.

“I didn’t expect them to sit through every audition, come to every workshop … and help figure out how to orchestrate this thing with our music supervisor,” he said.

Martin oversaw the musical’s London debut in 2019 before COVID-19 temporarily paused performances. More recently, he’s been in Toronto working out the kinks ahead of the show’s Broadway debut.

“In a way, I feel like Max is kind of a Shakespeare of our time,” Read mused. “No one can believe that one person could be responsible for so much great work.”

In a memorable moment during their collaboration, Read was reminded of just how influential Martin has been when the songwriter pulled a gem from his treasure trove of archival recordings.

As Read recalls, Martin casually pulled out his demo for “…Baby One More Time,” recorded before Britney Spears made the song a pop classic. 

In the demo, instead of Spears, it was Martin who was growling on the track.

“(He) was singing all the parts himself,” Read said.

“That was one of the many moments I had where I’m like, ‘I’m in the presence of a genius.’” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2022.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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