Playing the titular heroine of the new Broadway musical & Juliet, Lorna Courtney gets to live out many a music fan’s fantasy: belting out Max Martin’s pop bangers to an adoring audience several times a week.
In & Juliet, the legendary songwriter and producer’s beloved hits — for artists ranging from Ariana Grande and Katy Perry to Jessie J and the Backstreet Boys — comprise the score to a totally original story, imagining what might have happened if Shakespeare considered a more enlightened, less tragic ending for his most famous leading lady, and her star-crossed lover too.
For Courtney — who studied opera at New York City’s famed LaGuardia High School (aka “the Fame school”) before discovering musical theater, but grew up loving everything from gospel and jazz to R&B — Martin’s songs were beloved radio hits of her childhood. Still, she treated each she sings in & Juliet as if learning it from scratch.
“I learned it from an acting context, meaning I broke down the songs into verse, chorus, verse, chorus, almost like full complete thoughts,” Courtney says. “[I asked myself,] where would the period be? Where would the question mark or exclamation point be? What am I trying to say in one breath? And it really helps with the storytelling aspect of what Juliet is feeling.”
It helped, of course, that Martin himself met with the lead actors for individual sessions, lending invaluable notes and background on writing the songs they’d be performing. In Courtney’s case, he also offered an unforgettable compliment: that being in the studio with her gave him the same feeling he’d experienced with Celine Dion and Adele. “He’s so supportive. He’s like a proud papa of the show,” says Courtney.
She spoke to Billboard about her personal top Max Martin tracks in the show — some of which she sings, others of which are handled by other characters — along with a few that didn’t make it into the show but that she loved too much not to mention. “All of them are bops,” she says with a laugh. “And with the sound in the theater, it sounds like you’re in the recording studio with us.”
“…Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears
It’s the first song I get to sing in the show, and sometimes when people hear the first words come out of my mouth, there’s a little bit of chuckles, like, “Oh my gosh, she is not about to sing this song…” But when she puts on headphones, the staging and the choreography [show how] she’s using the song to help her cope. Juliet has lost Romeo, someone whom she really loves and cares about, and there’s this idea of “my loneliness is killing me,” which carries through to towards the end of the musical when she sings “Stronger.”
“Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson
I grew up watching American Idol and fell in love with everything about her. This female empowerment, knowing who you are and standing up for yourself, knowing what you want and don’t want – this song represents all of that. In our show, the context is of course within Romeo and Juliet’s story: Since Romeo’s been gone, she’s had a whole other life and moved on. It’s just a fun song – it’s a huge dance number, so much fun to perform, and it’s intertwined really well with the script.
“So What,” P!nk
It has that same energy I love about Kelly. “So what? I’m still a rock star, I got my rock moves” — that’s how I feel in the show, like a rock star, and it feels great. This song is not in the show, but it’s definitely how Juliet feels in the moment.
“I Kissed a Girl,” Katy Perry
When I first heard this on the radio, it was just like… mind-blowing. It was the first LGBT-positive song I ever heard. It was moving toward a more inclusive way of life for someone who grew up in New York City, who was exposed to all the beautiful things about inclusivity here. Of course, it’s so catchy and you learn all the words. [Laughs] “Cherry Chapstick” just stays in your mind. Everyone knows what that tastes like. I don’t get to sing it, but in our show it still honors the LGBTQ+ experience and brings that onstage in a beautiful positive light.
“Bang Bang,” Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki MInaj
I so wish it could be in the show, just because this hook is so catchy, and you love all the artists and what they stand for. It’s that “hell yeah, yes girl” attitude. This is just a song that when it came on the radio, everything would stop, you’d just have to sing it with your group of people and each one would take a part. I would definitely be Jessie J. I’m still trying to learn her riffs!
“2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” Lizzo
I’m so happy that Max has had the chance to work with Lizzo, or that Lizzo had the chance to work with Max, because this combination is everything. I’m so glad we all embrace and uplift everything she stands for – for body positivity, and female empowerment. It’s amazing how she can write songs that are truth-telling, almost like preaching, but in a pop way, because she has that natural musicality. I so wish that she’ll see this show, because I cannot wait to meet her.
“Problem,” Ariana Grande
I’m so glad I get to sing this – everyone knows this song, the music video is iconic. In the show, I love that this song and [The Weeknd’s] “Can’t Feel My Face” are combined in a mash-up. While the Romeo crew is singing “Can’t Feel My Face,” Juliet and her crew are singing “Problem.” You’d never think these songs would work together, but they do. I think out of all the songs, it’s the most different from the original artist[‘s version], but not in a bad way. I’m telling the story Ariana sings but through Juliet’s lens of what she’s just been through.
“DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love,” Usher
When this song came out I wasn’t grown, so I couldn’t go to the club, but if I was in the club at the time, that song would be playing for sure. When it came on the radio, I would just be dancing in my room to the fullest extent. It’s not in the show, but it’s just a bop — another one where I just know all the words.
“Whataya Want From Me,” Adam Lambert
I remember seeing Adam Lambert on American Idol and falling in love with his voice — the grunginess, the imperfections that made it perfect, and that’s what I love about this song, just the rawness of it. I don’t get to sing it in the show, but the characters Francois and May do. The question [they’re asking] is “What more can I give?” That’s what the song is about. They put it all out there, but there’s no receiving on the other end. And it’s beautiful. Our director really makes it work with the storytelling.