People love attempting to rewrite Romeo and Juliet — turning it into a Broadway musical featuring New York street gangs, for example, or an animated movie featuring garden gnomes — and that impulse is the subject of two different projects beginning this month. In both Rosaline, a charming teen romcom streaming on Hulu, and & Juliet, a splashy new musical making its Broadway debut this week, Shakespeare’s tragedy becomes a surprising springboard for music, comedy, and investigations into narrative ownership.
Rosaline depicts the girl Romeo only mentions in Shakespeare’s original, the one with whom he’s utterly besotted right up until the moment he isn’t, when he becomes equally besotted with Juliet. Though the film is set in Verona “a very long time ago,” it revels in the contemporary comic energy of such Shakespearean updates as She’s The Man and 10 Things I Hate About You (which set Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, respectively, in modern high schools) while also portraying a side character who, like the title characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, exists on the outskirts of the main action, Rosaline (the film) also gets to have it both ways, as Rosaline (the character) is revealed to be, unbeknownst until now, central to the existing events in Romeo and Juliet, while also determined to alter their outcome. (Though mild plot spoilers lie ahead, nothing can spoil the fun irreverent tone of the film and show I’ll be describing.)
It turns out that Rosaline is a Capulet and the reason Romeo falls for her cousin Juliet in the first place. The film opens with Romeo declaring “Forswear it, sight, / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night,” but when we discover he’s speaking to Rosaline rather than the expected Juliet, we understand how Shakespeare’s timeless poetic couplet has become just a pick-up line Romeo evidently uses on all the Verona girls. Rosaline, however, despite her breathless infatuation with Romeo, is just slightly more mature and thoughtful enough to hesitate responding “I love you, too,” to Romeo’s heartfelt declaration, a rejection that sends Verona’s most famous balcony climber into Juliet’s arms at the Capulet ball.
Romeo and Juliet’s relationship continues on its tragic trajectory offscreen as Rosaline pines for Romeo’s affection while comically navigating the attentions of the suitors her father insists she entertain. Importantly, however, before descending into just a tale of two girls fighting over a boy, Rosaline realizes the nature of the story she’s living. She writes a note to Juliet, explaining her understanding that her relationship with Romeo is “your love story, not mine,” and from that moment forward, Rosaline resolves to give their story a happy ending.
In this telling of the tale, Rosaline serves as both Juliet’s confidant Nurse and Friar Lawrence while rewriting the end of Romeo and Juliet’s story. Though she rightly declares that Juliet’s plan to fake her own death “is quite possibly the dumbest f***ing thing I’ve ever heard in my life” (and pointing out the number of ways it could go wrong), Rosaline nonetheless helps sell that idea, convincing the Capulets and Montagues the lovers have died before whisking them safely away with the help of Dario (the handsome suitor she’s begun to reluctantly fall for), her BFF Paris, and her own Nurse, played by a dryly hysterical Minnie Driver. Rosaline is filled with numerous Shakespeare Easter eggs, including plausible answers to why Rosaline isn’t at the Capulet masquerade ball and the funnier, non-plague-related reason Romeo never receives the message about Juliet taking the potion (thanks to the running gag of clumsy and unreliable Steve the Courier).
Rewriting Shakespeare is also the subject of & Juliet, which premiered in London’s West End in 2019. & Juliet is a high-energy neon-tinted jukebox musical that asks the question (according to the Broadway production’s website), “what would happen next if Juliet didn’t end it all over Romeo?” Repurposing the songs of songwriter/producer Max Martin — including such crowd-pleasing pop hits as “Oops!…I Did It Again,” “I Kissed a Girl,” and “I Want It That Way” — & Juliet operates on several storytelling levels, exploring not just new endings for Shakespeare’s tragedy, but who gets to write those endings.
Self-described “& Juliet nerd” Gemma Allred, writing in the Shakespeare Bulletin, explains that “despite Juliet getting top billing as the eponymous heroine, [the musical is] not really her story at all, but Anne Hathaway’s.” As the show begins, Shakespeare is welcomed onstage “in rock star fashion” (quoting Allred again) to the music of the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life.” It’s the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, and Anne, who has journeyed from Stratford for the occasion, asks, “What if Juliet didn’t kill herself?” & Juliet then depicts those changes, with Will and Anne also portraying minor characters in their musical-within-a-musical as they each offer alterations both to Juliet’s story and the characters surrounding her. But Will prevails over Anne by bringing Romeo back to life, too, keeping his couple together but giving them a new beginning. As he did in actuality, Will has the final word, for in the world of & Juliet, literary revisionism is one thing; historical revisionism, not so much.
In the world of Rosaline, however, the happy ending Rosaline arranges for Romeo and Juliet ends on a comically ambiguous note, as it appears the couple might be doomed to a fate worse than death: a life of incompatibility and dissatisfaction. Romeo and Juliet live!…albeit tragically ever after.