Special Reports

& Juliet and A Beautiful Noise Tell New Stories Through Familiar Songs — Here's How

Sonny Paladino and Bill Sherman talk about bringing the hits of Neil Diamond and Max Martin to Broadway.

Lorna Courtney as Juliet in & Juliet at Broadway's Stephen Sondheim Theatre
(© Matthew Murphy)

At A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, the audience excitement for "Sweet Caroline" is palpable as theatergoers dance in their seats and raise their arms in the air. At & Juliet, the audience screams and cheers during "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" as if they're at a boy band concert.

This music generates such enthusiasm thanks to the craftmanship of songwriters Neil Diamond and Max Martin, but also Sonny Paladino and Bill Sherman. Paladino (A Beautiful Noise) and Sherman (& Juliet) work as music supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator for their respective shows (Bob Gaudio and Brian Usifer are co-orchestrators for A Beautiful Noise and Dominic Fallacaro did additional orchestrations and arrangements for & Juliet). They are responsible for how the songs fit and sound in the show, from placing songs in the appropriate key to writing out parts for each instrument.

A Beautiful Noise is about Neil Diamond's life and career told through flashbacks, from the perspective of an older Diamond in therapy. In & Juliet, William Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, convinces him to change the ending of Romeo & Juliet so that Juliet lives. It uses the music of Max Martin, the songwriter responsible for more number one hits than any other artist this century.

The construction of both shows gave Paladino and Sherman freedom with the music — A Beautiful Noise because it's a memory play, so not everything has to sound exactly as it did, and & Juliet because it's not a bio musical about the artists who originally recorded these songs. While they had room to experiment, the music still had to be easily recognizable and always drive the story forward. That, Sherman says, is the key to the jukebox musical — figuring out how to use great songs to tell a great story.

The songs already have a proven track record, but as Sherman explains, pop music can be repetitive and is often more about the melody than the story. "In theater, every lyric counts," he says, "so a lot of it was taking things out and then trying to build a whole song with less material, so you would get to the choruses sooner or you would get to a bridge faster or you wouldn't have the bridge at all because it didn't really work for the story."

Lorna Courtney (Juliet), Betsy Wolfe (Anne Hathaway), Justin David Sullivan (May), and Melanie La Barrie (Angélique) in a scene from & Juliet
(© Matthew Murphy)

Although all the songs in & Juliet are written by Max Martin, they were recorded by different artists, including the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry. In some ways that was a blessing because the artists weren't as important as the songs themselves, but at the same time, the music needed to sound like a cohesive score. "I needed something that would glue them all together," says Sherman, "and so in my head it was like if Shakespeare is representative of Renaissance times, what's that? It's lutes and strings. That to me encompasses that time period." The result is a string-heavy band featuring guitars, bass, drums, violin, viola, and cello.

In the case of A Beautiful Noise, Neil Diamond already unifies the music, but it came with its own challenges. "You have to deliver some of the songs the way that people know and love them," says Paladino. "But you can't just do every song the way Neil Diamond does it because that's just a cruise ship show, it's not a Broadway musical."

Bookwriter Anthony McCarten gave Paladino a solid blueprint with the book, but things really clicked when AnnMarie Milazzo, the vocal designer for the show, came up with the opening number in which the ensemble, called the Noise, sings a cappella snippets in a montage that sets the tone for the musical. "It's the most important part as an arranger to be able to take these great songs and be able to turn them into new sort of ideas," says Paladino. "I think we always want to be true to the song without doing a rock band version of every song."

One section that lets the audience hear the songs in a new way is a hybrid of the songs "America" and "Brooklyn Roads," which are woven together to tell the story of his immigrant family with the Noise featured heavily. Then it goes into "Shilo," about Diamond's imaginary friend. These three songs paint a picture of Diamond's childhood.

"We always ask ourselves at every step of the way," says Paladino, "how does this further the story — and if it doesn't, in a musical it doesn't work. The audience gets bored immediately. And they're ahead of you. And then when you finally deliver, as we do, some of the big hit songs stadium rock style, the audiences are appreciative because they've gone on this journey."

Will Swenson as young Neil Diamond in A Beautiful Noise at the Broadhurst Theatre
Will Swenson as young Neil Diamond in A Beautiful Noise at the Broadhurst Theatre
(© Julieta Cervantes)

In some ways the most challenging song was the most recognizable, "Sweet Caroline." "It is almost sacred," Paladino says. "Any time I'm at a bar or something and 'Sweet Caroline' comes on, everybody sings along to it." They couldn't do anything crazy with that song, and they honored the original.

But even the songs that are performed in a more straightforward concert way still have to drive the narrative, and in a stadium medley that combines "Soolaimon," "Thank the Lord for the Night Time," and "Crunchy Granola Suite," the story is about the loneliness of being away from his family. "His second wife, Marcia, plays a big part in that stadium medley," says Paladino. "She's calling him on the phone and trying to get him to come home, and that is an arrangement in and of itself. We have the rocking songs, but the story has to keep moving forward."

Sherman also had to find the treatment for each song that served David West Read's book best. When Sherman first started working on & Juliet, Max Martin told him if they were going to use the songs as they are, they should really sound like the original recordings, but if not, they should go all the way and make them sound completely different. Sherman did both.

"If we had to take two songs that weren't related at all and make them into one song," he says, "or we had to take it totally out of context and not be what people know and put a very new spin on it, then that's what we were going to do it." For example, "Baby One More Time" is now a ballad for Juliet that sets her plot in motion after Romeo's death, and two unrelated songs, Ariana Grande's "Problem" and the Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" were combined into a mashup.

Sometimes, working in service of the story means getting rid of songs. In & Juliet, a Pink song called "I Don't Believe You" was meant to be a second act number for Shakespeare and Romeo. As much as Sherman loved the way it sounded, it was cut because it didn't work narratively. "It was just pointless other than it sounded beautiful," says Sherman.

Listening to what the story needs can work the other way too. One of Paladino's favorite Neil Diamond songs is "Forever in Blue Jeans," but they couldn't figure out how to fit it in the show, until they found it worked for Marcia's arc. Marcia is played by Robyn Hurder, a skilled dancer. "All of a sudden that song became the Act 2 showstopper," Paladino says. "The audience goes crazy for it. And it wasn't in many of the early drafts."

Sherman and Paladino's work has audience members on their feet by the end of the night. And they also have the approval of the artists their shows celebrate. "Helping Max Martin make a musical was surprisingly terrifying and really exciting and truly an honor and I think that both of us really cherished all that time we spent messing with his songs and going down memory lane for him," says Sherman. Following the first reading that Neil Diamond saw, he went out to lunch with the team. Paladino remembers, "After lunch, he looked at me across the table and the first thing he said is, 'How did you get the music to sound so good?'"

Robyn Hurder performs "Forever in Blue Jeans" in A Beautiful Noise
Robyn Hurder performs "Forever in Blue Jeans" in A Beautiful Noise
(© Julieta Cervantes)

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