How a pop novice turned the world’s biggest hits into a spectacular show

When Luke Sheppard signed on five years ago to help bring the songs of Max Martin to the stage he was, he happily confesses, a total novice.

“I’m a musical theatre geek through and through,” the impossibly youthful looking veteran of London’s West End says. “Pop is a new thing for me.”

Lorinda May Merrypor (Juliet) sings Katy Perry’s hit Roar in the stage show & Juliet. Credit:Eddie Jim

Working on & Juliet – which meshes Martin’s back catalogue of some of the world’s biggest pop hits with Shakespeare in a story that imagines what might have happened if Juliet had not followed Romeo into oblivion – wasn’t just a job for Sheppard, it was an education.

“I’ve learned a lot about [pop music] during this time and kind of geeked out on it,” he says. And one of the things he learnt is how well the form can (sometimes) work in a narrative context.

“It does feel like these songs were destined to be part of this show. You have Britney Spears in …Baby One More Time singing ‘my loneliness is killing me’, and then in Stronger she sings ‘my loneliness is killing me no more’, and for someone creating a musical, the dramaturgical potential of that as an arc is really extraordinary.”

Sheppard, American choreographer Jennifer Weber, and Martin, the Swede who has penned more Billboard number one singles than anybody except John Lennon (who is one ahead on 26) and Paul McCartney (way out front with 32) are in Melbourne to see the latest iteration of the show to its official launch on Thursday night. Canadian writer David West Read, who came up with the idea of meshing Martin’s songs with Shakespeare, is not here, but his co-creators can’t sing his praises enough.

David West Read, Max Martin, Jennifer Weber, Luke Sheppard at the first rehearsal for & Juliet.

It was Martin’s wife who suggested trying to turn 30 years worth of chart-toppers into a one-man jukebox musical, but it was Schitt’s Creek veteran Read who nurtured it towards a coherent whole.

“Going in, I felt like we couldn’t rely on these somewhat famous songs to bear the whole thing,” Martin says. “You needed it to be something where if you hadn’t heard even one song you could come into the theatre and go on a journey.”

He handed over the keys to the catalogue, with one simple instruction: “Pick any songs you want to tell the best story”.

This Juliet is on a journey towards empowerment rather than tragedy. And while the arc is Read’s, Sheppard insists the building blocks were implicit in Martin’s songs – I Want It That Way (The Backstreet Boys), Blow (Kesha), Oops! … I Did It Again (Britney Spears), It’s My Life (Bon Jovi) and Roar (Katy Perry) among them. You just needed to know where to look.

“We have this amazing toolkit,” he says. “When you dig just beneath the surface, you realise the clues are already there in the work. And one of the great satisfying things is when the audience hears the nuggets of things that they recognise [from the songs] that then add up to a bigger kind of cohesive picture.

“It is that singularity of voice that exists across all the catalogue that really holds it together.”

& Juliet is now playing at the Regent Theatre. Details:

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