NEW YORK (AP) — One recent day, Broadway star Betsy Wolfe was up at 4 a.m. to perform on “Good Morning America.” Then there was a formal gala lunch and a few snuggle hours with her young daughter. Finally, as the sun set, her main job beckoned: A big new musical that needed her voice.
Such is the life of a Tony nominee, something Wolfe has earned this season for the first time. “The most grateful exhaustion is the best way I can possibly describe it,” she says with a laugh. “I am drinking way too much coffee this time in life.”
Wolfe stars in “& Juliet” a Tony-nominated musical which reimagines what would happen if “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t end so sadly and adds some of the biggest pop hits of the past few decades by the likes of Britney Spears and Katy Perry. Wait, a jukebox musical on top of Shakespeare?
“There’s a healthy amount of doubt that everyone has when you first hear about this piece. We’ve seen jukebox musicals before. I’ve been in them,” she says. “But there’s something about this one — it’s truly a unicorn.”
Wolfe plays Williams Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, who in playwright David West Read’s book challenges her husband to change Juliet’s story for future generations, and it changes her life, too.
“Women often shrink themselves — to not intimidate, to not threaten their partner. And so to be able to come out within the first five minutes of the show and not do any of that, but just be fearless, saying, ‘I think we can make this better.’”
Wolfe, whose Broadway credits include “Waitress” and “Bullets Over Broadway” and revivals of “Falsettos” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” has often played a girlfriend or a wife of a more successful artist but is one of the two heroines now. “Where most of my roles have seemingly ended in the first five pages, this one began.”
The musical’s crowning achievement is its ability to use massive pop hits by Max Martin, who had a hand in Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Celine Dion’s “That’s The Way It Is” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
In one special move, Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” is sung by Juliet’s nonbinary friend, May, played by genderqueer Justin David Sullivan. It’s a landmark moment for Broadway, allowing a nonbinary main character to talk about being misgendered and what it’s like to date while trans.
It is the first project Wolfe has tackled since the pandemic and the birth of her child, 3-year-old Poppy, with husband Adam Krauthamer, a Broadway musician. She was six months pregnant when the pandemic began, and Poppy was 18 months old when Wolfe agreed to do the show, taking the family to Toronto during its first runs.
“I knew that the projects that I would choose from here on out would be shaped by the fact that it had to be worth the time and the sacrifice that it takes from all parties involved. And this story in particular just really spoke to me,” she says.
“I went in doubting how it could possibly work and honestly, by Page 3, maybe four, I was cracking up and I had this feeling in my gut that this was the next show that I wanted to do. This was the story I wanted to tell, and this was a show that I needed to see.”
Some audience members have walked out on her show, unhappy with the direction of a feminist “Romeo and Juliet” or the pro-transgender-rights theme.
“Occasionally, for some people it’s too much. And that’s OK. But the point is this: I think that we’re pushing the conversation forward in a thoughtful way,” she says.
Stark Sands, who plays William Shakespeare, calls Wolfe “the best scene partner I could ever ask for.” He says she’s playful, genuinely funny and surprising — constantly trying new ways to deliver.
“She knew that when she looked in the audience and saw moms and their daughters watching this, she knew what it could mean,” he says. “This is her opportunity to have an impact in a story about empowerment.”
On Sunday, Wolfe faces-off in the category of best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical with Julia Lester from “Into the Woods,” Ruthie Ann Miles in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Bonnie Milligan of “Kimberly Akimbo” and NaTasha Yvette Williams from “Some Like It Hot.”
But even if she doesn’t win, she’s gotten the approval of one person that means the world to her — her daughter. Poppy just saw the show for the first time, loves singing “Roar” and hanging out with Juliet, played by Lorna Courtney.
“I was thinking like, ‘Oh, this will be so enlightening.’ Like, ‘She’ll get to see this really cool rewrite.’ And what’s even sweeter for me is this just might be the world that she thinks is normal,” Wolfe says.
“This is not a rewrite for her. This is the world and how beautiful that this story becomes her normal. And if that’s the starting place for maybe a generation, that’s actually the coolest gift that I could give her.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits