NEW YORK CITY – From James Earl Jones to Darren Criss and dozens in between, University of Michigan alumni are frequent stars of the Broadway stage.
One of this year’s largest musical theater hits is “& Juliet,” a spin on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It broke box office records in the Stephen Sondheim Theater in January and performed a song to a national audience on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Lorna Courtney and Ben Jackson Walker, former Wolverines just two years apart in UM’s School of Music, Theater and Dance, are the show’s Juliet and Romeo, respectively. As both have emerged as stars in a potential Tony Award-winning hit, a special step in their journeys to stardom is in Ann Arbor.
“It really felt like a home away from home,” said the 24-year-old Courtney, a native of Queens, New York.
Walker, 26, is from the “tiny state of Delaware,” he said, remembering how much of a transition it was at first to a bigger place like Ann Arbor and UM.
“I remember visiting campus and just being like ‘holy s—, I’ve never been around this many people,’” he said.
Courtney and Walker found their passion for performance at an early age. Courtney broke out of her shyness through gospel choir as a teenager, eventually studying opera at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.
While only a short walk from school to the renowned Metropolitan Opera House, she instead “fell in love with musical theater” through roles as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and Nina in “In The Heights.”
Walker, meanwhile, found different inspiration in the 2005 movie “Napoleon Dynamite” and its lead character. The bespectacled epitome of a nerd “just had this hold” on him, he said.
“I would literally always imitate him around the house and just repeat lines from the movie,” he said. “My parents were like, ‘Oh my god, he’s constantly doing impressions. He needs to go into theater.’ And that was that.”
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Courtney and Walker have family from Michigan, as Courtney’s uncle Doug Richstone is an astronomy professor at UM. The ties to the state prompted both to look at UM’s prestigious musical theater program, which required auditions.
Courtney remembered feeling especially comfortable auditioning at UM due to an inclusive atmosphere, she said.
“The University of Michigan was the only school where I wasn’t scared or nervous,” she said. “All of the the students there who were proctoring the auditions were so friendly, and it just felt very warm and inviting.”
Courtney arrived when Walker was a junior, but did not cross paths with him until the winter semester when he returned from studying abroad. He was welcoming to her from the first moment they met, she said.
“I remember seeing him and he gave me the biggest hug and welcomed me,” she said.
Outside of starring in student shows, such as “Dear Evan Hansen,” Courtney also worked to graduate from UM in three years, taking summer classes at Washtenaw Community Colleges and working at Neutral Zone youth center in Ann Arbor.
“I didn’t have much growing up, so I take all the opportunities that I can and I cherish them,” she said, describing her “New York hustle” work ethic as key to thriving at UM and now on Broadway.
Courtney and Walker were cast in “& Juliet” in 2021. The jukebox musical, a product of famed pop song writer Max Martin and David West Read of the TV show Schitt’s Creek, retells the Shakespeare play as a “What If” scenario, asking what might have happened if Juliet did not die at the end of the play.
Martin, Read and the production team have created a “loving environment,” Courtney said. It also helps that she has a fellow Wolverine as the Romeo to her Juliet, she said. When they found out they were both cast, they jumped on a call immediately, she said.
“I think he called me, but it was just a whole bunch of excitement and maybe some expletives,” she said with a laugh.
“Michigan people are just the most supportive group of people,” Courtney said, “and we were just over the moon and so happy for each other.”
Having another UM alum is like “having a lifeline” in case you need guidance as a performer, Walker said. Having multiple Wolverines on Broadway, such as Courtney and others, also helps validate his career path, he said.
“There’s so many people that have come before me that I’ve looked up to there, like Gavin Creel and Celia Keenan Bolger,” he said. “Those are people whose careers I admired so much and wanted to do what they do.”
Both now perform “& Juliet” eight times a week. They said they are noticing the excitement and acclaim building for the show, from fully-packed audiences to the good buzz spreading. The hope is this success is only the beginning of Walker and Courtney’s post-Ann Arbor journeys.
“It’s only the beginning, but it’s a great beginning,” Courtney said.
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