BWW Interview: Oliver Tompsett Talks New Musical & JULIET
"The most famous love story of all time. Remixed." That's the opening strapline for & Juliet, the new British musical that's now in previews in London, after a successful run in Manchester.
& Juliet picks up the Shakespearean story we all know and love and runs with it, turning it on its head and posing the question: what if Juliet's famous ending was really her beginning? Punctuated with a plethora of pop hits from music mogul Max Martin, & Juliet looks set to shake up the musical theatre landscape and deliver audiences something that's fresh and engaging.
We chat to musical theatre legend Oliver Tompsett, who plays William Shakespeare, about portraying the most famous playwright in the world, the lengthy creative process, and why & Juliet is a career highlight for him.
& Juliet feels like it's had a lot of buzz for so long. There's been a lot of slick social media content, and the new campaign that broke this week with the release of the one-off edition Smash Hits has created a lot of noise! How does it feel now you're finally opening in London?
Every step of this process has blown my mind more than anything else I've ever worked on - which is a bold statement, because I've been very lucky in my career so far and worked on some great shows. It's a project that I initially underestimated how good it was going to be, and I really don't think any of us saw this coming. It's funny, clever, and it's got a lot of heart - and that combination is quite rare when you're dealing with a pre-established Shakespearean plot and the well-known music of Max Martin.
The creative team have had the luxury of doing several workshops, taking a lot of time and care over its development, and that is a rarity, especially in British theatre. The end result proves that the work does pay off - to have it up and running now is a massive relief, especially as our first preview in London went down so well.
The visuals for this production are so vibrant - can we assume that vibrancy is reflected in the content of the show?
I think what we've got is a creative team who wanted to make a very current and heartfelt piece of theatre, married with a set of producers who were willing to throw a lot of money at something to make it look sensational.
Our director Luke Sheppard is a genius, and he said something very important when we did our first few run-throughs in the theatre with the full set. He said that watching the show with all the bells and whistles had made him realise that this show should be a 'lean in' show, rather than a 'lean back' show. That was a big moment for me, realising that although we've got loud music, bold lights and big comedy, the audience still want to lean in and focus intently on what's happening.
On that note, would you say the tone of & Juliet is quite tongue-in-check, balanced with a bit of drama?
It's a comedy, first and foremost. The juxtaposition of seeing Shakespearean characters singing modern pop songs is an amusing sight for people, so that gives it a lighthearted tone. But we also have the Shakespearean high drama and twists, touching on some more topical and emotional tones like inclusivity and acceptance. By the end of the show, I think audiences will feel like they've been on a journey with these characters, and that they've gotten more than just a 'good night out'.
It feels to me like it's not your traditional jukebox musical, because it's got depth. Do you think that's an accurate description?
Yes, of course, that's totally right. Its unlike anything else I've seen or been a part of because it managed to achieve that balance. Other shows I've done have achieved one or the other - integrity, or a great night out - but & Juliet achieves both. And I think it's managed this because of the nostalgia that's attached to it. And that through-line of nostalgia spans generations - we've got Ariana Grande songs, which appeal to a younger crowd, and Backstreet Boys music, which will appeal to those nearer my age, who will be transported back to their youth.
Based on the promo I've seen so far, the show feels like it's tapping into the zeitgeist on several levels
The show has been designed to be accessible, which is important. Shakespearean purists will recognise that we're having fun with the characters, but we've included lots of clever little nods to history that will be winking to those who understand the historical background. Equally, although my character of Shakespeare speaks in prose, we've reduced some of the Shakespearean words that we used originally so that we don't alienate the proportion of the audience who might not appreciate them.
The theme of female empowerment is also a thread that runs through it, which is obviously so important - but what's crucial is that we elevate the women in our show without suppressing the men. The show isn't here to hate men, it's here to spread the word of acceptance.
How did you go about approaching that character Shakespeare, particularly this modernised version of him?
When I was originally asked to audition for the role, the team said that & Juliet is its own world and its own style, so they wanted to rough up Shakespeare and make him more accessible. They asked for a more London accent rather than RP - the latter is what I did on my self-tape at the earlier stages. So I was given free rein with my interpretation - I just wanted to make him an everyday lad, really. He's like Joseph Fiennes' version from Shakespeare in Love, crossed with Danny Dyer, crossed with some kind of boyband wannabe!
To be honest, I feel like Shakespeare himself did all the hard work for me. All I have to do is say "I'm playing Shakespeare" and then people react with "Oh cool, he was a genius!" and I say "...Thanks!".
So were you able to be involved in the creative process at any of the workshops you mentioned earlier?
The creative team did workshops in London, LA and New York, and then decided that they wanted UK actors in the roles. The agreement was that every person who was cast would also be involved in the final workshop. In the original version of this Shakespeare, he didn't have much to sing.
It was quite refreshing actually, going into an audition and only singing two lines that sit comfortably along my middle register - because everything else I've always done has been sing-heavy. But it was the humour and style of writing that sat very well with me as an actor, and so I was offered the job based on that. When we got to the workshop stage, I revealed that I can sing a bit....and they seemed pretty pleased with that!
I've spoken to regular punters who saw the show in Manchester who loved it, and equally, theatre industry regulars who saw the first London preview and also raved about it. It's encouraging that it has such mass appeal. It sounds like it offers good quality content, and a fun night out...and those two things are not mutually exclusive.
You're right - couldn't have put it better myself! After the workshop we had a five-month break, which is quite frustrating as an actor because you're left with a tricky chunk of time to fill with other work. But I knew in my heart that this job was the right thing to be involved with because of how it's been written. When people have questioned why I want to do another jukebox musical, I say to them, "Well....you haven't read the script". It's actually really hard to explain what the show is about, because nothing I say ever does it justice.
When you signed onto the role, did you already know who else was cast? You've got some incredible musical theatre royalty in the cast, as well as some fresh new faces, so it's a really interesting breadth of talent in the mix
I knew Cassidy [Janson] had been involved in a workshop, and I worked with her back in my Wicked days, so when I'd been cast, I messaged her and she revealed she was also cast! And then I couldn't believe my luck when I found out who else was involved. I wasn't familiar with some of the younger cast members, so I spent some time YouTube-ing them and realised very quickly that I would need to up my game!
There's actually a nice range of ages and styles of performance across the entire company. From the younger faces, to people like myself and Cassidy, to veterans like David Bedella (he will kill me for calling him that!), who is a master of the stage. The show really does showcase a very diverse and interesting piece of storytelling.
What's it like being back in the Shaftesbury Theatre after your Rock of Ages stint all those years ago?
It's odd, you know. I got lost on the first day! I'm in the room next door to the one I was in for Rock of Ages. It's all new in there now though - last time round I could just open a door and walk through it, and now I have to give fingerprint ID just to get anywhere. It's making me feel very old!
It wasn't that long ago, was it?!
It was eight years ago. And we don't even talk about how many years ago Wicked was...!
Of all the Max Martin hits in the show, which one is your favourite?
There's a new song in the show that Max wrote for the musical which is a beautiful ballad, and it fits wonderfully into the rest of the score. Max has a gift for writing incredible hooks. There's a section in the show where the more contemporary hits are played and all of us oldies go offstage and the younger cast members take control, which is a beautiful moment of youthful empowerment.
"Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake is also an absolute anthem...but the songs that are going down best with audiences are the ones where we've flipped the meaning of them. I think that surprises them, and that's what this show is going to do - surprise people.
Photo credit: Johan Persson