jakub | April 25, 2023

From Porn Stars to Shakespeare: David West Read Has Had a Wild Broadway Career


Before & Juliet, writer David West Read’s last Broadway credit was a flop: the 2012 comedy The Performers. Even with a starry cast (Henry Winkler, Alicia Silverstone, Cheyenne Jackson, and Ari Graynor) and great early previews, the show couldn’t withstand the hit taken from Hurricane Sandy. Ticket sales plummeted. The New York Times review was lukewarm. The Performers closed after only four performances.

“It was really heartbreaking,” says Read. And no one wanted to work with him anymore, either. “All of the opportunities I had lined up seemed to go away.” (Don’t worry. He’s a comedy writer. There’s a happy ending coming.)

He was very close to thinking he might not have a career as a writer when his agent heard that a Canadian television series was seeking Canadian writers. So, Read, a Toronto native, submitted a blind package, which got him a meeting with the show’s creator, Dan Levy. Read was hired as “the lowest level writer” on the hit series Schitt’s Creek. But by its final seasons, he had worked his way up to executive producer and head writer, and earned an Emmy Award. While he was working on Schitt’s Creek, theatre producers sought him out for a new jukebox musical.

“I kind of built one thing from the next to try and get back to Broadway,” he says. “And hopefully I’ll have a longer run than four days.” He has. That new jukebox musical is the new Broadway smash & Juliet. Read is the book writer, writing a new ending to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, alongside a score comprising the pop music of Grammy-winning hitmaker Max Martin. Following a West End run, the musical opened on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre November 17, 2022.

Looking at Read’s body of work, he seems to straddle several different types of comedy with his writing. The Performers employed bawdy, blue humor (it was set in the porn industry, after all). Schitt’s Creek is very character based, writing to the strengths of the stellar cast creating the Rose family. For & Juliet, he deftly weaves clever storytelling with laugh-at-loud jokes and slow-burn wordplay, while mashing up a Shakespeare tragedy and pop music score. And in his newest television series, The Big Door Prize on Apple TV+, Read employs a lighter touch with comedy, using it to accentuate the pathos of mid-life crisis.

But to Read, these works all have something in common. “Even though they are wildly different projects, they all feel very much in my zone. I’m drawn to watching and creating comedy that leads with heart,” he says, noting that even though The Performers was set in the adult-entertainment industry, it’s actually about insecurities and anxieties. “It’s about porn stars at an awards show dealing with all the same issues of intimacy, jealousy, and insecurity as everyone else. It was really a classic relationship romcom set in a very bizarre world,” he explains.


Daniel Breaker and Cheyenne Jackson in The Performers


Read has turned Romeo and Juliet into a bit of a romcom, too. But not one involving just its title characters. There are four sets of lovers in & Juliet, led by The Bard himself and his wife Anne Hathaway. The musical puts Shakespeare (played by Stark Sands) front and center as he’s writing the young lovers’ classic tragedy with Anne (Betsy Wolfe) interrupting to basically tell him the ending is trash. She suggests that Juliet not kill herself, and the two go back-and-forth, passing the quill as they rewrite the story.

“Juliet’s name is on the poster, but Anne Hathaway is the heart and soul of the show,” says Read.

READ: How Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe Found the Heart In & Juliet’s Pop Hits

When producers first approached Read with the Martin-jukebox idea, they already had a couple of other concepts in mind. But Read wanted to take his own stab at it. He made a huge playlist of Martin’s songs. A page in the & Juliet Playbill lists the full catalogue and it’s an astounding body of work recorded by artists like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Ariana Grande, Pink, and Celine Dion.

With his playlist loaded (and a concussion from hitting his head on the kitchen cabinet), Read laid in a dark room and just listened to the music. An idea began to form. “So many of these songs are about young love and heartbreak,” he says. “It felt like the perfect collision of these two very different worlds: pop music and Shakespeare. But the secret of it all is that Shakespeare was very much a pop writer, and how could one person be responsible for so much pop art?”

Read plays with the centuries old question of “Did Shakespeare really write all his own plays?” by inserting Anne. And it’s Anne who has the big “I Want” song in the first act of & Juliet. When she begins to question Juliet’s suicide and offer an alternate ending, she sings “I Want It That Way,” setting up an ending to the musical that will not be satisfied by what Juliet gets, but rather by what Anne gets.


Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe in & Juliet
Matthew Murphy

Read learned musical theatre structure and writing from the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman, his thesis instructor at NYU, who he then followed to Juilliard. “Even in this crazy Max Martin jukebox musical, we do hit a lot of the key musical theatre moments, but in slightly unexpected ways,” he says. “Part of the fun of working on this catalog was figuring out how these existing songs could satisfy these musical theatre prerequisites. The song ‘Stronger' actually contains some of the lyrics of ‘Baby One More Time.' So it’s used as a reprise in the second act when you would reprise Juliet’s ‘I Want' song. It was already there as if Max Martin had written these two Britney Spears songs years ago with this musical already in mind.”

During the development of the musical, Read says the creative team, led by director Luke Sheppard, had a mantra of “Dare to be serious.” He explains: “Can this fun jukebox, confetti-filled musical have moments of genuine heart and drama?” 

That effort led to some of Read's favorite moments in the show, like Melanie La Barrie’s performance of “Fuckin’ Perfect,” where she provides Juliet (and herself) with a rousing moment of affirmation. La Barrie has been with the production since its premiere at Manchester Opera House in 2019 and is making her Broadway debut as Angelique the Nurse (a role she’s played before in Romeo and Juliet). The Nurse, and often the actors playing her, are the comic relief and supporting characters. But in & Juliet, she gets her own love story and gets to be one of the leads. Watching Angelique have that serious moment, and La Barrie become a Broadway leading lady through it, is special for Read: “She’s also just incredible when she sings that song. She gets me every time.”


Paulo Szot and Melanie La Barrie in & Juliet
Matthew Murphy

On the flip side of the mantra was Read’s own challenge to himself to not change any of Martin’s lyrics, which resulted in a lot of wordplay and justifications that turn into slow-burn jokes. Read gives an example from the song “It’s My Life,” which is sung at the end of Act I: “There's a lyric, ‘Like Frankie said I did it my way.’ And then I was like, ‘OK. So, I need a Frankie.” One of the characters in the show is named Francois, and he figures in a love triangle with Juliet. Read's brain started working: “Maybe it could be Francois that gets changed into Frankie. And maybe earlier in the show, when he's talking about wanting to stand on his own, he'll say, ‘I want to be able to say I did it my way.’” 

Read has also always been a big fan of puns, and & Juliet is chock-full of them (“Where there’s a Will, there’s a way”). “I’m allowed, because it’s Shakespeare and I’m being smart,” he jokes.

& Juliet is going strong on Broadway, consistently playing to near capacity and a top earner in weekly grosses. A U.K. and Ireland tour is scheduled for 2024. It has by far exceeded Read’s goal of lasting more than four performances. 

And he’s already full steam ahead on other projects. Read's TV show The Big Door Prize dropped less than month ago and a second season has been ordered by Apple TV+. He’s also at work on another comedy series for the streamer starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. He promises, though, he will continue to blend his television and theatre writing careers. He’s again collaborating with Sheppard on a Roy Orbison jukebox musical, In Dreams, that is set to premiere this summer in the U.K. and in the fall in Toronto.

Enthuses Read: “There’s something that’s so unique to theatre—to get to imagine people experiencing a show for the first time every night, knowing that it’s always going to be different, that it’s this living, breathing thing that goes on…it’s just the best.”


Annie Murphy (of Schitt's Creek) and David West Read at opening night of & Juliet
Michaelah Reynolds





Source link