Oliver Tompsett is living his boy band dream as Shakespeare in ‘& Juliet’
The West End star has been with the musical since 2019, and he shares why he loves singing Max Martin’s songs every night.
Oliver Tompsett has a dark secret: He grew up obsessed with all the boy bands. So when the & Juliet creative team asked him if he knew the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” in the audition room for Max Martin-scored show, he had a secret weapon.
“I grew up listening to all these artists and with a desire, at one point, to be in a boy band,” Tompsett said. “I knew all the catalogue inside out. It was quite handy from when we started rehearsals. I was already off book, musically.”
Now, Tompsett has been living his boy band dream at the Shaftesbury Theatre since 2019 as William Shakespeare in the pop-fuelled musical, that explores a world in which the Bard’s iconic tragedy didn’t end with a double suicide.
Filled with songs by the pop hit maker – from “Baby, One More Time” to “Can’t Stop the Feeling” to “Roar” – and a book by Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read, & Juliet is a jubilant renaissance romp through the heroine’s new story of self discovery and independence. The musical is scheduled to open on Broadway this Fall and continues to play to crowds in the West End.
London Theatre spoke with Tompsett about being part of the original company of the show, what he loves about jukebox musicals, and why the connection with the audience is so important.
& Juliet is playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre. & Juliet tickets are available on London Theatre. Book tickets to & Juliet in the West End today.
You play Shakespeare in the show. Did you do any research into Shakespeare’s history and background as you were preparing for the role?
Well, we were quite clear that we needed to, very quickly, make the audience feel comfortable and not frighten them with it being a highbrow piece of theatre. We need people to instantly go, “Okay, it's not necessary that you have a knowledge of Shakespeare.” But at the same time, it can help in places.
I think we get the balance right where there's enough Shakespeare references and we talk in prose and iambic pentameter in places, that it doesn't frighten people. They're very much put at ease straight away, and they can laugh at the fact that this Shakespeare is this sort of cockney geezer and he's dressed in high-top boots and tight jeans and is singing a Backstreet Boys song.
So I don't remember pulling on much of Shakespeare, if I'm deadly honest. I've worked on his pieces at college, and I've seen a few productions over the years. But I wouldn't profess to be a Shakespeare purist, or someone who is highly experienced with that. I'm probably more experienced in the boy band side.
There’s a lot of that in the show too!
But our creative team and our director Luke Sheppard were very conscious of it. And there are moments where we have a front cloth come in, and certain characters enter from the left and the right, which can be a very pantomime style. But pantomime comes from Shakespeare. The purists will recognise that, but a lot of people in modern day would just see it as a pantomime style and maybe not give it the credit that it deserves. It's not accidental that that style is there.
Did you get to work closely with Max Martin while you were rehearsing the show?
Yeah, he’s been very present throughout the creation of the show. It was amazing to have him there. And he was very hands on with us when it came to the delivery of the songs. I think I got off quite lucky because I knew the songs so well. Whereas we had some other people involved in the show who maybe have come from a theatre background and haven't got the pop sensibility as much, they had Max there to steer them in the right direction.
When we were recording the cast album, he sat behind that glass window and it was a very surreal moment. You're just thinking, “Oh my goodness, this man has produced some of the greatest vocalists of our time. And we're here doing it now.” That was a real “pinch me” moment when I was recording “Can't Stop the Feeling.” Being allowed to do it in my own British accent, with Max Martin on the other side of the glass saying, “Good take.” It was just a real buzz.
Do you have a favourite number in the show?
There's one number in the show that we shoehorned in, because we wanted to be there. But it’s just obvious that it works and the audience loves it and that’s “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. It's a nice little twist in the show. But that's a lot of fun. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is an absolute summer anthem. The cleverness of “I Want It That Way” at the beginning and at the end, that bookends our show. There's just so many.
And then you've got that epic ballad “And That’s the Way It Is,” sung by our brilliant Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway. It’s just little moments like that, where the audience sits back and is surprised. Although it has a lot of entertainment and a lot of glitz, it also has a lot of heart. And I think that's what puts us above the other pop shows that I've done in the past. The audience goes away thinking and feeling something as well as having a really good night out.
You opened the show in 2019 and returned to it when theatres reopened after the pandemic. What has it been like coming back to the show and how has it changed?
The relationship with the audience has gone up a notch. It was always about welcoming these people into our space and you’re there to witness the first performance of Romeo and Juliet. And then we go off on a tangent of trying to almost workshop and rediscover an alternative ending for her. And that's where the fun begins.
So there is always that feeling of the audience being part of the show; they're like the final cast member for me. It’s a joy to interact with them. And it's never the same. There’s always something that happens in a show where I get to bounce off the audience differently, whether it's an individual or the collective. And coming back after the pandemic,that connection was even more important, of how we're all in this together and what everyone's been through. And experiencing live performance and being in a room enmasse, how important that was
So when we did our first couple of shows, I remember feeling just so lifted, so high on the fact that people were still coming back, and that people wanted this. And we could still do what we love doing.
As someone who was part of the original company, what does it mean that the show is opening on Broadway?
It’s very exciting to know that we're part of creating something, because the show was written around the original company. It didn't feel like characters that were written and created and then we came in and had to portray them…We played to everyone's strengths. It was written around the humour that we had and the skill set that we had in that initial first group. So that was really special.
I was a bit concerned at first because I thought it was so specific – how do we move forward with other cast members and other companies? But because of the brilliance of our director Luke Sheppard and our team, they have adapted it for Broadway. They’ve rewritten bits and they've changed keys and so they're playing to everyone's strengths. So therefore you end up with the best of the people you've got to tell the story in the best way that's possible.
Do you have any advice for future Shakespeares?
Just do you! Bring yourself to it. Put your own personality into it. They’re obviously going to find traits that the role requires. But once you've found that, just do you because when the audience interacts with you, they have to feel like it's authentic. My friends come and watch the show and they're like, “Oh, you have the best time. It’s literally just you having a giggle onstage, isn't it?” And that's what makes it so joyous.
& Juliet tickets are available on London Theatre. Book tickets to & Juliet in the West End today.
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