Tony nominated actor Will Swenson is Neil Diamond in Broadway’s latest bio-musical A Beautiful Noise. The show, which centers around the singing/songwriting legend, had its world premiere this past summer in Boston at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. Now Swenson and his cast are readying for a New York bow at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre. NY1 News journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Swenson to talk stepping into the shoes of his pop idol, and more.
From what I hear, for years your party trick has been doing a Neil Diamond impersonation. When did that start?
It comes from my dad. My dad’s favorite singer of all time is Neil Diamond. It was constantly playing in our house and in our car. I always had his voice in my ear. And I think when I realized I had a similar baritone timbre to my voice. And I played guitar; in the eighth grade I wanted to start to “woo” girls, so I picked up the guitar and started playing some of his songs. It was a gradual thing, but I completely place the blame on my dad. [Laughs.]
What’s your go-to Neil Diamond song?
When I was playing songs around the campfire, it was “Play Me.” And that’s hilarious because I don’t really think I examined the lyrics back then. It was just a pretty song. [Laughs.]
Is this a dream project? It sounds like you’ve been working up to this point your entire life.
It is a dream. It seems bizarre: It’s one of those things where you think, “Does manifesting stuff into the universe really work?” Because I think this time it worked. I’ve literally over time said to folks, including producers, “I’m just waiting for the Neil Diamond musical.”
You’re collaborating with Neil. Tell me about the first time you met him.
It’s surreal. The first time I met him was when we were doing readings to run it by him and to see if he liked the piece and to get his approval of the book and the song order and the actors. The first time I met him, we had done a reading all week and he was coming to watch it at the end of the week and to give his approval and notes. And that was the first time he saw me do the part, so it felt very much like an audition. And I thought, “If I don’t nail this and he doesn’t like me, this isn’t going to be my part.”
Neil was present for your first performance during your out-of-town tryout in Boston over the summer — and the crowd went wild! Were you nervous before walking on stage?
It was our first preview, but Neil was there the night before and the night before that watching dress rehearsals. Watching the audience go nuts, I thought, “I guess we don’t have to win them over because we can already see their joy for being here.” That night we had to hold for 20 minutes so they would stop screaming for Neil Diamond.
Also in Boston, you shared an incredible moment with Neil and your cast when you all performed “Sweet Caroline” at a Boston Red Sox game.
I’m a big baseball fan and I had never been to Fenway before, and that’s the Holy Grail of baseball stadiums. And Boston is in love with Neil, to another degree at Red Sox games. Neil is like a deity; he brings their team good luck. It was a surprise for the crowd, which was amazing — they all turned around and were like, “HOLY CRAP — THAT’S NEIL DIAMOND!” We were all on cloud nine, getting to advertise the show and perform with Neil at the same time.
Describe the framing device for this show.
A lot of it stems from our book writer, Anthony McCarten. He’s a screenwriter primarily, and it’s a memory play. It exists in memory rather than in an office building or a recording-studio space. It’s almost everywhere at once.
The show plays like a rock concert! Chatting with the people around me when I saw it in Boston, it was their third or fourth time seeing it. What did you learn from the show in Boston that you’re going to apply or even change for New York?
It’s figuring out how thick the fourth wall is, and when it’s there and when it’s not there at all. The biggest learning curve is just how much is the audience going to want to be a part of this show. We knew during “Sweet Caroline” they’d want to sing along; we didn’t know they were going to want to sing along that much. They want to sing along to quite a few of the songs.
The show is so much fun, but I also have to point out that at times it’s quite serious and emotional.
When you think “Neil Diamond musical,” you think this is going to be a good, fun night at the theatre, upbeat and fun songs, joyous songs. But a lot of people don’t know his story intricately. And the thing I was most surprised about was how invested people are in his life, success, and happiness. He’s someone who has struggled with sadness in his life, and a lot of his songs reflect that.
Bio-musicals are trending on Broadway. Why now for Neil’s story?
The tunes are fantastic. Everybody loves it, and a lot of people miss Neil, so it’s a way for people to revisit Neil’s concerts. As an art form, I love the pushing-of-the-envelope aspect of our show. The bio-musical came along with Mamma Mia, and it was one thing, and then people asked, How can we do this differently? And then Jersey Boys was a turning point. And people were like, If we can do that, then we can do this! So I love what our show is doing for the form — expanding the bag of tricks and using art to tell a story.
Going back to “Sweet Caroline,” we get that tune a couple times in the show, including at the very end. Quite the crowd-pleaser, I must say.
It’s pretty great. It’s not too often in life that a gigantic group of people are engaged in the same activity at the same time. Think at a baseball game when people sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I think it’s such a powerful and memorable thing for people because it’s thousands of people singing a song at the same time. And when you’re doing the same activity with a large group of people at the same time, there’s something magic about it. And we get to do that every night with “Sweet Caroline.”
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