Justin David Sullivan’s story feels like the plot of a Broadway musical. Think 42nd Street, when soon-to-be-star Peggy Sawyer gets off a bus and lands a role in Pretty Lady on Broadway, or “N.Y.C.” from Annie, where the star-to-be belts out the lyrics, “three bucks, two bags, one me.” Sullivan’s story is something like that. It’s a character arc twinkling in the hearts of every Iowan or Minnesotan high schooler, who is probably starring as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. It’s moving to New York, securing an agent, and then landing not only a role, but the role. Sullivan, who uses he/she/they pronouns, did exactly that, and now stars as May in &Juliet, the Max Martin jukebox musical playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
“I feel like I’m somehow now at the ball living my absolute wildest dreams in my dream show,” Sullivan says. “It’s just so cool.”
Born in Southern California, Sullivan had a curvy path to Broadway. They grew up in a religious household and were homeschooled, urged to stay away from “things that were perceived as feminine or queer.” They didn’t find theater until their high school production of Little Shop of Horrors. ”I never felt more at home. I was like, this is the thing that I knew that I would love,” Sullivan says.
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With theater always on the brain, Sullivan pursued marketing in college. They graduated and found a job at an agency, hoping to save money to make the move to New York. Finally, when the moment seemed right, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and all plans came to a halt. “It forced me to take a step back and learn more about myself,” Sullivan says. “It was in that time where I was finally able to come out as nonbinary and trans and explore those different aspects of myself.”
As COVID-19 began to become more treatable, Sullivan and their partner moved to New York in the summer of 2021. Sullivan began auditioning, continued taking classes, and eventually found an agent who asked what stories Sullivan wanted to tell, not putting them into a gendered box. It was around this time Sullivan first heard of &Juliet, which was then playing on the West End in London. A contemporary retelling of Romeo & Juliet, the show asks, what if Juliet didn’t die? What if she lived, and with her best friends, ran away to Paris? The cast then sings its way through back-to-back Max Martin hits as Juliet meets a new lover, comes face to face with Romeo yet again, and finds herself caught in yet another wedding.
Sullivan was interested in May, one of Juliet’s best friends, who sings “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” by Britney Spears as a power ballad, examining their own gender. It also finds May falling in love. Sullivan knew they had to play the part, and sure enough, after a couple of callbacks, they booked the role. “This is without a doubt my dream role. The music, the story, the character, the heart, it’s all there,” Sullivan says. “I know that it doesn’t happen this way for so many, so many people, and I feel so beyond lucky.”
Sullivan sat down with ELLE.com to talk about their Broadway debut in the show, the Max Martin of it all, and nonbinary representation in theater.
What was it like making your Broadway debut with &Juliet?
I was very intentional on the night of my Broadway debut, in front of a full house for the first time. I was doing it for my inner child, the little kid version of Justin, who was never told that they could do that. I was giving myself permission to fully feel that and, and look at my face and be like, “you are on Broadway, you deserve this, you worked so hard for this, you’re such a little star.” I think I’m definitely a perfectionist, and I can be hard on myself sometimes. So, I was very conscious to be like, “There’s no pressure. Just have fun, go out there, and do exactly what you were born to do.” It was just so freeing and so overwhelming. I was vibrating. I was struck by lightning. I don’t know, it was an electrifying feeling to get to do that, and to try to wrap my head around it all at the same time. I mean, 15 of us were [making our debuts that night], and that I think just heightened it. We were all experiencing it together.
What was it like to get the call that you booked the part?
I was on a Zoom. Our director Luke [Sheppard] was in London at the time. My partner was filming the whole thing. He was sitting at the desk next to me and posted it on TikTok. That day, I think, is unmatched forever just because hearing that all of your dreams are coming true is nothing I can describe. I felt so much validation. I felt a release of energy, a release of worry and doubt and fear. It’s hard to be an artist and follow your dream. At the time, I was unemployed. I had quit my job so I could really focus on theater, and it was just a rush of relief, a rush of joy, a rush of disbelief. For 26 years of my life, I was up late at night, couldn’t fall asleep without thinking, “Will that day ever come?” It’s like, wow, every time I blew a birthday candle and dreamed that this would come, it’s actually is happening right now.
What does it mean to see May, a nonbinary character, on the Broadway stage?
Broadway has definitely come a long way, but it also has a very long way to go as it relates to representation and inclusion, especially of queer, trans characters. To be the person who gets to step into this role every night is an honor. It’s just a reminder of why I worked so hard, hopefully showing people what’s possible when you show up as your truest, authentic self as radically as you can. It feels overwhelming sometimes, but in the best way. I think so many people resonate with this part.
What does it mean to be playing a non-binary character, who as you’ve said, is going through a lot of the same journey you went through?
I think, for me specifically, there’s no one way to be nonbinary. There’s not one nonbinary trans experience. For this story to be so true to my own, I just feel grateful to get to share that with people. I know some people might not understand it, but for the one person in the theater that is resonating [with it], I sing to the depths of their heart, because I imagine what that experience would be like for me. I think the best part of getting to play May is being able to represent my community and tell a story that is so full of joy, light, and love. It’s not always super common, especially in queer stories, to be celebrated in the way that it is in our show.
What do you wish other theater makers would learn from &Juliet?
They should learn that telling queer and trans stories shouldn’t be scary. I feel like it’s something that is intimidating to people because maybe there’s right way to do it and they don’t want to step on toes. They’re not sure how mainstream it would be or how audiences would react. I hope that they can learn that even if you are not queer, even if you were not trans, even if you’re not nonbinary, we’re all still human. We all have human experiences in this show. My character finds their first love, and I think that that’s something that we all relate to. And all the while, getting to have a queer storyline. It’s just so not common on Broadway. I just hope that other theater makers see that and also are inspired to tell different kinds of queer stories, trans stories that aren’t tragic, that end with hope with joy. That is the best part about it. I think that would be my greatest hope.
I think you hit on something important there. We as queer people so often see stories of trauma and sadness. I think seeing a queer, specifically, love story on stage is what is so impactful about the show.
You’re exactly right, there was so much care [in &Juliet], there’s so much thought put into it. To get to do that on Broadway is really cool, especially because so many people that come to see the show and maybe aren’t expecting that from the story.
A lot of the awards cycle revolves on this binary of gender: Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, so on and so forth. I am curious on how you all are planning on handling that and or how the team plans on handling that?
Yeah, that is a fascinating question. It’s so beyond our show, you know what I mean? I don’t think that [the awards cycle] has ever been in a position where they don’t know what to do. Because, like you said, there’s never really been a featured nonbinary character in this way. I hope that it’s a wake-up call for an industry that prides itself on being so inclusive, so diverse, and so loving of the queer community. I hope that me taking up space here is forcing them to reflect on these categories and making them more inclusive for all types of performers. I mean, it’s 2022. We are so behind. We haven’t had the discussion in terms of the show and the team, but it will be interesting. So I guess we shall stay tuned and find out.
Something I loved about the show is that I felt as if it used Max Martin’s 2000s pop bangers to tell a feminist story that is supposed to be set way back when in Verona. How do you balance how current his music is with this story set in the world of Shakespeare?
I feel like I don’t even pay attention to the historical context of the piece. The show is so contemporary, and I don’t know if all people who come to see it expect that. It is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, of course, but I think it just takes the framework of that. The lyrics and the music are so ingeniously intertwined in the story I sometimes forget they’re famous pop songs. Every single song is there for an exact reason. We all love the songs, they’re so catchy, they’re such ear worms. It is cool to bring such a contemporary reimagining of something.
Is there a Max Martin song you wished made the cut?
I definitely do. I think “Bang Bang” period. Nicki Minaj, Jesse J, and Ariana Grande. It would be an incredible trio song for me to be in. That song hits so hard. I would die. I mean, it’s hard to choose when all of the songs are hits.
What is it like working with the incredible cast? There are some Broadway superstars, like Stark Sands. What is it like working with them?
We’re such a family. We move as a unit, we breathe as a unit. I’ve never been in a cast with so many queer people, and so many trans, nonbinary people. It’s so exciting to feel like I’m in a space where I’m not the only one. Also, the majority of the cast had the experience of going to Toronto over the summer and doing the show there. I think that experience really solidified our bond. I know they see me. I specifically would love to shout out Melanie La Berrie, who plays Angelique, without her I don’t think I would have made it through. Stark is such a leader and has so many times given us words of encouragement or advice on how to manage a Broadway schedule. You have no idea how great it is to have people like him who are so gracious and caring with all of us.
What would you tell younger Justin, or maybe a young queer aspiring actor, in the audience watching you?
I would just say to younger Justin that it’s all going to be okay. I think I would just try to give them strength in any way that I could. Because now, I get the opportunity to give hope to kids just like little Justin. That’s enough. It makes it all worth it for me. I would tell to any queer kid that you are so worthy of love. You’re so deserving of love. You are so deserving to be who you are. You should never hide that for anything. I think the key for me was showing up as my authentic self and never compromising that. It hasn’t always been easy. But, it’s taken me into my wildest dreams. I hope that inspires other people, other artists, other theater makers, other humans. Show up radically as yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
&Juliet is currently running at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Tickets are available for purchase here.
Samuel is the Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief at ELLE Magazine. His interests include music, theater, books, video games, and anything to do with Taylor Swift. He famously broke both his arms at the same time in fourth grade.