Playing Neil Diamond: A Dream Role, and a ‘Crazy Privilege’
Back in the era of the eight-track tape, the actor Will Swenson’s father played Neil Diamond albums practically on a loop. A poster of Diamond, the Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter most famous for the singalong behemoth “Sweet Caroline,” hung on a wall in the family’s garage.
So when Swenson was in eighth grade, looking to “woo girls around the campfire” with his guitar, it was obvious to him that a few Diamond tunes belonged in his repertoire.
“My go-to was ‘Play Me,’” he said, “which is the most sexual song ever, and I don’t think that it dawned on my innocent little Mormon brain that I was singing just lascivious lyrics to these innocent little Mormon girls.”
In early November in his dressing room at the Broadhurst Theater, Swenson laughed at that memory in what he called his “post-show morning voice”: extra deep with a touch of sandpaper. Given the demands of his song-heavy current Broadway gig — playing the title character in “A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical,” which opens on Dec. 4 after a month of previews — it was probably not the kindest thing to ask him to tax his voice further by giving a 90-minute interview.
“It’s all right,” he said, an hour in. “Necessary evils.”
With a book by Anthony McCarten, whose Warhol-Basquiat play, “The Collaboration,” opens on Broadway later in December, “A Beautiful Noise” is both a conventional jukebox musical and a strange beast, structurally. Michael Mayer, its director, aptly described it this way: “The first act is a musical wrapped in a play, and the second act is a play wrapped in a concert.”
The conceit that makes it what Swenson considers a memory play involves the present-day Neil Diamond, played by Mark Jacoby, talking through his life and lyrics with his therapist, played by Linda Powell. The real Diamond, now 81, spent years in psychoanalysis.
Swenson, who at 50 can easily look much younger, headlines as the Neil Diamond of the 1960s to the ’90s. (In the interest of vocal preservation, Swenson plays the role seven times a week instead of the usual eight. Nick Fradiani takes over on Wednesday nights.) An anxious Jewish songsmith from Flatbush whose family name actually is Diamond, he writes the Monkees hit “I’m a Believer,” finds his feet as a performer on the tiny club stage of the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, inadvertently signs a record deal with the Mafia that comes back to bite him hard and over the years walks away from one marriage and then another.
And amid all that, evolves into a globe-trotting, sequin-wearing, arena-playing star.
For Swenson, doing a Diamond impression long ago became a kind of party trick. At some concerts given by his wife, Audra McDonald, he has come on toward the end to sing a little Diamond with her, mischievously.
“We would set up ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’” — the Diamond-Streisand duet about a couple whose love has died of neglect — “by saying, ‘Well, this is kind of our song. It kind of represents our emotional relationship,’” he said.
A Tony Award nominee for playing Berger in Diane Paulus’s 2009 Broadway revival of “Hair,” and an Obie Award winner for his 2018 performance as Satan in “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” he’s been dangerously sexy in “Murder Ballad,” unnervingly menacing in “Assassins” — and fortuitous offstage in “110 in the Shade.” That 2007 Broadway production is where he met McDonald, whom he married in 2012, and with whom he has a 6-year-old daughter.
To hear Swenson tell it, though, Diamond is the role he’d been waiting for since well before “A Beautiful Noise” became “a twinkle in anybody’s eye.” Playing a series of eight guitars as he traces the arc of Diamond’s life, he’s aiming for something deeper than mere mimicry.
“I have strong feelings,” he said, “about the blurry line — the tricky, tricky line — between honoring a sound and, well, impression and impersonation.”
But how to craft a performance that captures Diamond for eagle-eyed fans while allowing himself interpretive latitude?
“That is the question, isn’t it,” Swenson said, wryly borrowing a line from early in the show, when Diamond has yet to find a sound that is his own.
ABOVE THE COUCH in Swenson’s dressing room, near a photo of him and McDonald with their older children on their wedding day, is a framed, poster-size image of Swenson with Diamond at Fenway Park in Boston, when the cast of “A Beautiful Noise” went there to sing “Sweet Caroline” last June.
That appearance — at the ballpark where Diamond had sung the same song in 2013 to comfort a city stricken in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing — was a promotion for the show, which was in town for its pre-Broadway run. It was also a rare public performance by Diamond, who retired from touring in 2018 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“It was just beautiful,” Swenson said, “to sort of watch him step into that piece of himself that I’m sure he’s missed so much.”
A note in the Playbill for “A Beautiful Noise” suggests the profundity of that longing. Titled “Letter From Neil,” and dated September 2022, it begins:
“The idea of a Broadway musical about my life has always been a daunting one. It wasn’t until the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease prematurely ended my touring career that I started to seriously consider the prospect. I say ‘prematurely’ because my heart and soul would tour until the day I die if only my body would cooperate.”
The symptoms of Parkinson’s manifest differently in different people, but voice, movement, balance and cognition can all be affected. There’s an ache, then, built into the show’s celebration of Diamond’s life and music. Someone else — someone whose body will cooperate — gets to be onstage, performing Diamond’s songs in front of his fans. I asked Swenson if he thinks about that poignancy.
“Yeah,” he said, misting up. “It’s a crazy privilege. Especially because he does it better. Like, I’m the poor man’s version, and you’re screaming for me.”
But such is the curious performer-audience dynamic of jukebox biomusicals, whose playlists so instantly unlock remembrance that they might as well be madeleines. And just as Michael Jackson fans react to Myles Frost in the title role of “MJ” as if Jackson himself were in the room, Diamond fans respond to Swenson as if they were at a Diamond concert back in the day.
It’s quite a thing to behold. At the first preview of “A Beautiful Noise,” in early November, a sea of mostly older audience members needed merely the slightest cue not just to sing along (which, in the case of a few judiciously chosen songs, the show encourages) but also to perform the same movements in unison — air punches, raised arms. To an uncanny degree, they knew precisely what was expected of them, because Diamond had expected it.
Steven Hoggett, 50, the show’s choreographer, finds this tapping of physical memory “professionally fascinating,” particularly when he watches the crowd from above. The son of Diamond fans, Hoggett grew up in Britain knowing the albums his parents played, like “The Jazz Singer” (1980), and singles that charted there, like “Beautiful Noise.” But he looks in wonder at the Diamond faithful, whose bodies have retained their kinetic history.
“These people,” he said, “they’re responding to gigs they went to when I was 4.”
Giving Diamond fans possibly the closest thing they can get now to the live concert experience of an artist they love, Swenson is the beneficiary of all that nostalgic affection, which he knows isn’t really for him.
“I feel like I’m lying to them sometimes, because I’m like” — and here Swenson dropped his voice to a whisper — “‘I’m not Neil.’”
BEFORE SWENSON MADE it big on the New York stage, he was a star of Mormon cinema.
Born in Logan, Utah, the second of four siblings, Swenson spent his early childhood in Glendale, Calif., doing shows at his grandparents’ theater. His grandmother, the biological daughter of a Ziegfeld Follies girl who gave her up for adoption, was a playwright — “three-act, family-friendly comedies, mostly,” Swenson said.
He was 12 when his parents moved the family to Salt Lake City to start their own theater, and about 16 when he met the girl who would become his first wife.
Between high school and starting college at Brigham Young University, he went on a two-year mission to Ecuador. During that trip, which he remembers as “a beautiful time” in his life, he kept waiting in vain for confirmation from God that everything he had been taught about Mormonism was true.
Then in 1999, he joined the second national tour of “Miss Saigon.” As the show crisscrossed the country, he visited sites that figured in Mormon history, read books about the church, discovered unsettling things that he had not known about it.
“Having to tell my mom that I was going to leave the church was maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Swenson said. “From the time that I decided that I had to leave the church to the time that I legitimately was open and honest about it with everyone was probably a 12-year journey.”
In the early 2000s, as he was starting out in New York, he returned to Utah to star in a movie called “The Singles Ward,” as a standup comic whose wife divorces him, which dumps him back into the Mormon dating pool. The film was a niche success, so he did some more, including a sequel to “The Singles Ward.”
But the apex was “Sons of Provo,” which Swenson co-wrote, directed and starred in. A clever, very funny mockumentary about a Mormon boy band, it doesn’t come off as the slightest bit mean, even when you know that he eventually left the fold.
Does it matter, by the way, that a former Mormon from Utah has been cast as a Jewish guy from New York? To Mayer, 62, who is Jewish — and whose other current Broadway show is the revival of “Funny Girl” — the answer is no.
“The thing about Neil that is most compelling,” he said, “isn’t necessarily the fact that he’s Jewish or that he’s from Brooklyn as much as he is a bit of a victim of a generational anxiety and depression. And I feel like that is not unique to the Jews.”
There is also an argument to be made from what Swenson recalls as Diamond’s response at the first reading the actor did of the show. Performing for him, as him, from just a couple of yards away, Swenson worried initially that Diamond was bored, because he listened with his eyes closed.
“I think we got to ‘Solitary Man,’ and he started kind of rocking and tapping his thumb and sort of mouthing the words,” Swenson said. “And then we got to, I think, ‘Sweet Caroline.’ And he kind of raised his hand, singing along, and it was just like: Oh, my God.”
Swenson isn’t Diamond; it’s true. But even for the man himself, he can play the part.