Two-time Tony nominee Stark Sands is back on Broadway this season in the hit new musical & Juliet, which opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre this past fall following an Olivier-nominated debut in London's West End.
Packed with a catalog of pop songs, this new take on the William Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet casts Lorna Courtney as the titular Juliet, who decides she would much rather stay alive following Romeo's death. Sands, Tony-nominated for his performances in Kinky Boots and Journey's End, plays the William Shakespeare, in a company that also includes Tony winner Paulo Szot as Lance, Betsy Wolfe as Anne Hathaway, Justin David Sullivan as May, Ben Jackson Walker as Romeo, Philippe Arroyo as Francois, and original U.K. cast member Melanie La Barrie as Nurse.
Sands, whose Broadway credits also include To Kill a Mockingbird and American Idiot, received the Actors' Equity Foundation's Bayfield Award for his work Off-Broadway in The Public Theater's Twelfth Night. His screen credits The Post; Inside Llewyn Davis; Flags of Our Fathers; Die, Mommie, Die; Shall We Dance; 11:14; Minority Report; Generation Kill; Nip/Tuck; and Six Feet Under.
In the interview that follows, Sands explains why he almost passed on & Juliet, his real-life connection to Shakespeare, and the song that raises his spirits nightly.
What is your typical day like now?
A typical weekday: I wake up at 6:45 AM, have breakfast with my wife and kids, and then take the kids to school. The day is spent generally accomplishing home-related tasks and admin, lunch together with my wife Gemma, and then I’ll pick the kids up from school at 3 PM. I’ll get an hour with my family until I leave for the city around 4 PM. I’ll usually have about an hour before the show to warm up and focus, and then I head down into the trap for my entrance at the top of the show. Once the show’s over, I’ll visit with fans at the stage door and then drive home. I’ll usually eat some food and sneak into bed by 11:30 PM or 12:30 AM depending on the performance time.
When and how did you originally get involved with & Juliet?
I first heard about the project in November 2021. I didn’t pursue it then because I saw that rehearsals for the Toronto run would start very soon after I’d be getting home from a three-month stint away from my family doing Swept Away at Berkeley Rep [in California]. The idea of stacking two out-of-town jobs back-to-back just seemed impossible, so I let it go without really looking further.
Then in April 2022, casting circled back around to me. When I told Gemma, she said we should at least listen to the West End cast album. So we sat in my car and started listening, and by the end of the second track, she turned to me and said, “You have to do this. You can’t not do this. We’ll make it work.” And we did. She did. She’s the reason I’m able to do this job. She’s had to work twice as hard, doing the vast majority of the childcare and managing to get her masters degree in fiction from Sarah Lawrence at the same time. She’s just the most incredible woman. I owe her a lot.
How did you approach playing Shakespeare? (Were you able to find any interesting tidbits about his life that you incorporated?)
I studied Shakespeare in college, but I definitely needed a refresh, so I went out and bought all the biographies to try to understand as much as I could about his life and times. The & Juliet William Shakespeare is not a literal interpretation, of course. But I thought I should at least know my shit. And, it’s been really interesting and useful. Now that we’re in the run, I’ve challenged myself to read all of the plays while I’m in the job. The general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, and I’m about one-third of the way there, so I’m on track.
On a purely personal level, the most exciting tidbit I learned was in Stephen Greenblatt’s book Will in the World. In describing young Will Shakespeare’s father’s role as a local Stratford official, he writes: “John Shakespeare’s offices involved regular contact with the magnates of the region, including the influential and learned bishop of Worcester, Edwin Sandys.” My jaw hit the floor. Edwin Sandys is my family’s one notable ancestor—he went on to become the Archbishop of York. His portrait is in the National Gallery in London. I knew all that. But to read his name in a Shakespeare biography and learn that he actually interacted with Shakespeare's dad—as I was researching to play William Shakespeare on a Broadway stage—totally blew my mind.
Do you have a favorite pop song that is used in the show? Or one that particularly speaks to you?
At the end of the show, I get to sing “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and invite the audience to get up and dance with us. It’s the epilogue of the show—the story is over, and it’s just about having fun. In Shakespeare’s time, at the end of every play—comedy, tragedy, or history—all the actors would come out on stage and dance a lively "jig" together. Back then it was about giving the audience closure—showing them that what they’d just seen was just a show, that the good guys and the bad guys didn’t really hate each other, that nobody was actually dead or poisoned. For us, it’s a chance for the audience to release their energy, jump up, sing and dance along with us. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is our "jig."
Is the cast having as good a time on stage as the audience is watching everyone?
Yes. Without question. Even if outside of the show it’s been a tough day, or we’re just in a funk, the infectious magic of this show is that it makes you feel good. It works on all of us—the people in the audience and the people on the stage. Everyone in the building. It’s a joy. I’m very lucky.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
In 2018, I was prepping for To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway—my character was a racist prosecutor in 1936, and I read a lot of books to try to understand how someone would develop that mindset. The things I learned—about the dark parts of our American history that they don’t teach us in school—completely shocked and angered me and really woke me up. I can’t recommend these enough: Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, White Rage by Carol Anderson, The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky.
I’m grateful that the needle does seem to be moving and that more BIPOC voices are being heard in our theatre community. So much more can be done. I think if we take the time to educate ourselves and each other about why BIPOC people and culture have been held back for so long, it can only help. I encourage everyone to read any of those books above and face our shared past. The truth is disturbing and uncomfortable, but I think as a community we must acknowledge it. There are so many more stories out there that deserve to be told.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
That I don’t idle very well.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
I do! A theatre project I worked on recently looks like it’s going to continue its development at a new stage. It’s something very close to my heart, and I’m hopeful everything will line up in order for me to continue my participation. More soon!
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
Color of Change and Donors Choose.