By: Samuel L. Leiter
January 28, 2023: Before I discuss A Beautiful Noise, the middling new jukebox musical at the Broadhurst Theatre featuring the songs of Neil Diamond, here’s a personal pop quiz: what do I have in common with Neil Diamond? In fact, what do I have in common with another Neil, the one whose last name is Sedaka, or with Carole King, Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Jay Black, and Lainie Kazan, and, for good measure, Mort Shuman, among others? The answer: we’re all Jewish and were raised (and, with a couple of exceptions, born) in Brooklyn between 1938 and 1943. On the other hand, unlike several close friends, I didn’t go to high school with any of them (although I did with a founding member of Jay and the Americans) nor, for all my show biz aspirations, did I become a pop singer-songwriter with dozens of hits that consistently made the charts, having an indelible impact on American music. It’s a privilege, though, to be otherwise, if only by association, connected to this uniquely remarkable constellation of musical geniuses.
Like A Beautiful Noise, all such musicals that aspire to be “then I wrote” biographical accounts need to find some kind of hook for introducing their songs, often by tying them to events. Some songs are presented to enact a personal issue, others to show what inspired their creation, and others simply to entertain, exclusive of rationales. All three approaches are used here, if not always satisfactorily. A good example of the first is when Mr. Diamond (Will Swenson, Jerry Springer: The Opera) finds his second marriage crumbling, a situation conveyed when he and his wife convey the dissolution of their feelings with “You Don’t Send Me Flowers” (written with Alan and Marilyn Bergman). The bittersweet lyrics don’t really correspond to their marital dilemma, but most audiences will get the general idea. Some, however, may think the story of its complex evolution from a TV theme song to a classic, chart-busting duet with Barbra Streisand, Mr. Diamond’s erstwhile Erasmus High School classmate, might have made for more interesting theatre.
Andrew McCarten’s (The Collaboration) uninspired book is like the Classics Comics version of Mr. Diamond’s life, a few biographical snippets intended to introduce events that might provide a context for his songs, but with the beating heart left out. As with so many such shows, the great amount of time covered can’t prevent it from devolving into a pseudo-concert interrupted by etch-a-sketch scenes, chockfull of clichéd dialogue and stereotypical characters. One can’t deny, though, that for the myriad of fans of iconic songs like “America,” “Brooklyn Roads,” “I Am . . . I Said,” “September Morn,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Sweet Caroline,” and many others, that is clearly enough.
Getting the thing rolling is a bookended premise in which a laconic, reluctant, elderly Neil (the excellent Mark Jacoby, especially when he finally gets to sing) is having a therapy session with a psychologist (Linda Powell). Neil, no longer performing, is there only because his family has been finding him hard to live with (no mention of his Parkinson’s condition is made). As each sits in a beautiful leather chair, the shrink uses a book of his collected lyrics to get into his psyche. This catches on and, during the session, members of the excellent singing and dancing ensemble—called “The Beautiful Noise”—materialize from behind Neil’s chair to briefly represent his signature tunes. This is about as clever as the concept ever gets, although we never really learn much about Neil’s state of mind or creative process.
The show then moves through Mr. Diamond’s experiences as a young poet and wannabe Tin Pan Alley songwriter. It covers the gigs he lands through producer-songwriter Ellie Greenwich (Brie Sudia), including writing songs for the Monkees (“I’m a Believer”). We witness his discovery by Paul Colby (Michael McCormick), manager of the Bitter End nightclub, and the gorgeous Marcia Murphey (Robyn Hurder, Moulin Rouge!, earning 10s in every category). They see a future star in what we’re supposed to accept as a shy introvert, despite his good looks, perfectly coiffed black hair, and form-fitting black shirt and slacks. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself thinking: what’s wrong with this picture?
Neil signs with Bang Records where he runs up against the pistol-packing gangster boss, Tommy Camino a.k.a. Tommy O’Rourke (Mr. McCormick), and producer Bert Berns (Tom Allen Robbins), who renege on their promise to produce whatever he writes. Neil eventually manages to become a world-famous, sequin-garbed, guitar-playing pop troubadour, touring the world, and breaking all-sorts of records—including the sale of over 129 million albums—as the money pours in.
But no hugely successful star can be the subject of a bio-drama without dramatic setbacks, which usually come in the form of drugs and alcohol, with infidelity often involved as well. The issue here isn’t substance abuse but infidelity, when Neil falls in love with Marcia and leaves his first wife, Jaye Posner (Jessie Fisher), for her. After many years that marriage crashes, too, not because of adultery, but because his career is so all-consuming that it puts the kibosh on their relationship. We never meet Neil’s third wife, but learn how happy he is with her.
There’s obviously a lot we’re never told about Neil Diamond’s life, but Brooklynites will sorely miss even passing references to his having gone to Erasmus and Lincoln High Schools, and it might have been fascinating to note that he was a competitive fencer. We get a hint of his upbringing as a Jewish boy from Brooklyn when we briefly meet his parents, Rose (Ms. Sudia) and Kieve (Tom Alan Robbins), but it’s insufficient in helping us to see the world that produced him, which, as the names cited earlier suggest, was part of a musical zeitgeist responsible for what some call the “Brooklyn sound.”
The casting of the otherwise gifted Mr. Swenson doesn’t help much; as soon as he appears we see someone with the looks and charisma of a star, making it hard to reconcile the characterization of the young Neil as a withdrawn young man more into writing than performing. True as this may have been, to a degree, it simply doesn’t register. And, most fateful, Mr. Swenson, from a Mormon background in Provo, Utah, lacks even a bissel of anything like the indefinable essence of ethnic authenticity that would have helped make his performance great. Which isn’t to deny that his singing is a strikingly accurate reflection of the original, what Ellie Greenwich calls a “gravel wrapped in velvet, kind of thing,” It’s when he’s not singing that the gap between him and the man he’s playing is most apparent.
Director Michael Mayer’s production is about what you’d expect, lots of high-voltage singing and dancing (vivid choreography by Stephen Hoggett), with some numbers reflective of what you’d see at a Neil Diamond concert; decorative, non-specific, wall-less set designs (by David Rockwell) that depend on swiftly shifted furniture pieces to establish the multiple locales; flashy, technically complex concert-style lighting (by Kevin Adams); and colorful, more-or-less period costumes (by Emilio Sosa).
While A Beautiful Noise isn’t quite as weak as some have made it out to be, when compared to other recent shows with similar ambitions, like those about Carole King, the Temptations, Michael Jackson, and Tina Turner, this remains an undistinguished contribution. It seems to be doing well enough at the box office, though, and the audience was certainly having a blast when I attended (belatedly because of illness in the cast when originally scheduled two months ago). That joyful reaction, indeed, is a tribute to Neil Diamond because, honestly, except for his music and, perhaps, Ms. Hurder’s performance (especially her “Forever in Blue Jeans” number), A Beautiful Noise contributes little to the stature of the Broadway musical theatre.
A Beautiful Noise
225 W. 44th Street, NYC
Photography: Julieta Cervantes