Librettist Bekah Brunstetter and composer Ingrid Michaelson in rehearsals for The Notebook. Photo by Jenny Anderson.
Librettist Bekah Brunstetter and composer Ingrid Michaelson in rehearsals for The Notebook. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Ingrid Michaelson & Bekah Brunstetter on Making The Notebook Universal

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are spotlighting women who are working on one of the musicals opening on Broadway this spring season. Women have long been a part of the fabric of Broadway, yet the push for gender equity and parity continues. Meet the women who are adding their own threads as they keep Broadway running behind the scenes.

Hearing the first three songs that Ingrid Michaelson wrote for the musical adaptation of The Notebook was the catalyst for Bekah Brunstetter to join as book writer.

“I instantly knew I had to do it,” says Brunstetter. “It was Ingrid’s music. I knew this wasn’t going to be a movie musical on stage just to do it. It was going to be a piece of theater we could build together from the ground up.”

Thanks to the chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling and a steamy scene set in the pouring rain, the film The Notebook quickly cemented itself in the romance-movie canon when it was released 20 years ago. Based on Nicholas Sparks’s 1996 novel of the same name, the movie follows Allie and Noah, a 1940s couple absorbed in a passionate summer romance that transforms into a deep, lifelong love.

Now, the stage musical adaptation is officially open at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Music and lyrics are by Emmy Award–nominated singer-songwriter Michaelson, the book is by Emmy Award–nominated writer Brunstetter (This Is Us), and the writers are tasked with adapting an already beloved property for the stage.

Adaptations of films and books aren’t uncommon on Broadway — this season includes adaptations of Water for Elephants and The Great Gatsby as well — but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to create. How is the story adjusted to fit a Broadway musical structure? What about the audience members who come in with preconceived notions and are disappointed that the musical is not simply the movie or book onstage? Fans of the book or film version of The Notebook can expect the same spirit, but the production is infused with changes that elevate the story.

“Theater is for the exploration of big universal things that we need to be physically present to wrestle with,” says Brunstetter. “In the musical, we explore big universal things, not just a love story. That’s what makes it a piece of theater.”

Though they both are making their Broadway writing debuts, Brunstetter and Michaelson are familiar with the ways of making theater. Brunstetter has been a playwright for 23 years, and Michaelson made her Broadway debut as a performer playing Sonya in 2017’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Blending her pop songwriting skills with Broadway’s storytelling framework came naturally for Michaelson.

Ingrid Michaelson during The Notebook's sitzprobe. Photo by Michaelah Reynolds.
Ingrid Michaelson during The Notebook‘s sitzprobe. Photo by Michaelah Reynolds.

“I have always been somewhat of a narrative writer in my music, so angling more into narratives and moving a story forward wasn’t alien to me,” says Michaelson. “I found that even though I was writing about a specific moment, I gave myself more freedom.”

As for writing the book, Brunstetter expanded beyond the expected love story to instead present it as a memory play that examines the decisions that inform one’s holistic life. She also modified the story’s setting and timing, now being set on America’s northeast coastline in the 1960s, 1970s, and present day. Though a fan of the film and impressed by the screenplay, Brunstetter did not want to just transcribe the movie onto the stage. She did turn to the book for guidance as she fleshed out the characters.

“There’s a lot of description of Noah’s inner life and Allie’s world, which helped me understand who these characters are deeply and fully,” says Brunstetter. “There are some echoes from the film, but I really wanted to make something new that honors the old.”

Another noteworthy change for the musical is the ethnicities of Allie and Noah, which shift throughout the show. Allie and Noah are played by six actors: Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza as Young Allie and Noah; Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez as Middle Allie and Noah; and Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood as the oldest versions of the characters.

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and Jordan Tyson in The Notebook. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and Jordan Tyson in The Notebook. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

“We wrestled with it for so many years and asked, ‘How do we do it with not just white people that’s not irresponsible?’” says Brunstetter. “The conversation from color-blind to color-consciousness has evolved since we started working on this project. So we said, ‘Let’s just cast whoever we want and tell a story about souls.’ These three women have the same soul. Hopes and dreams happen to everyone regardless of race. Nothing is more universal than love, death, and time.”

Another distinction of this version is the lens that Brunstetter and Michaelson bring as women to a story originally written by a man. Though there was no specific discussion about it, the two shared a mutual vision of developing Allie’s autonomy beyond the romance.

“When two women are writing the book, music, and lyrics, inherently our perspectives shine through,” says Michaelson. “We did always know that we wanted our musical Allie to have a lot of agency.”

“We agreed early on we wanted to do everything we could to not make [Allie ask], ‘Which man should I choose?’ but ‘What life should I choose?’” adds Brunstetter. “Her big number when she’s deciding what to do sort of expands upon that idea.”

In the song “My Days,” Middle Allie contemplates the need to choose between the two men in her life, but, as Brunstetter says, it blossoms more into a reflection on what she ultimately wants her life’s legacy to be. Ignoring what other people in her life says she should do, she wrestles with what she truly wants:

“Sometimes I feel like I lost my only voice, but then I realize only I can choose my choice. … I want to live a life where I’m allowed to say that I’m proud of the way that I spent my days.”

A key song in the musical, it was the most challenging song for Michaelson to unlock.

“I went through three other songs before landing on it,” says Michaelson. “It’s such an important moment in the show. I think just writing multiple songs helped me unlock it. I had to get it wrong before I got it right.”

As for Brunstetter, she is experiencing her own reflection as she returns to New York City after living in Los Angeles and working as a writer for television shows such as This Is Us and Switched at Birth. She has taken time to revisit old neighborhoods and apartments she used to live in, and one of her old favorite haunts, the Drama Book Shop. She is grateful for the full-circle moment, to be present and soak in what she describes as “breathtaking moments.”

As she reflects, she recognizes that life as a playwright is not linear success. In her conversations with aspiring writers, she sees the misconception that writing should equal overnight success. While it’s true that some writers make a big splash into the industry, she warns that shouldn’t be the expectation. She herself has had smaller victories along the way, and advises younger writers to not put all of their eggs in one basket and wait for one opportunity.

Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood in The Notebook. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood in The Notebook. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

As for this opportunity to write the book for The Notebook, Brunstetter has identified several connections that make it feel close and meaningful, from having personal experiences dealing with Alzheimer’s, to her hometown roots near the story’s original setting, to frequently being a part of women-led spaces. Switched at Birth’s showrunner Lizzy White, The Maid’s Molly Smith Metzler, and now The Notebook’s co-director Schele Williams are three women she has worked with who have inspired her.

Still, growing up with three brothers, Brunstetter has never felt like she has to apologize for being a woman when she is in male-dominated spaces.

“I was just raised to believe that I belong wherever I am,” says Brunstetter. “I’ve never given context of why my abilities might be different. I just exist. I do get excited to give voice and lift up other women writers. It can be disparaging to hear that you got something just because of your identity. We all want to be recognized for the value of our work.”

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