“The Notebook”: Turning the bestselling romance into a Broadway musical

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Every Broadway show has a souvenir stand for things like T-shirts and mugs. But at a new musical that opened this past week, they’re selling boxes of tissues. 

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CBS News


“I guess this is one of the hottest little merch on Broadway, according to articles that I’ve been reading,” said writer Nicholas Sparks. “It is a tissue box. It’s got the logo of the play!”

Sparks has published 24 romance novels, all bestsellers. They’ve sold 130 million copies and been made into 11 movies. But the very first one he published is his biggest seller of all: “The Notebook,” from 1996. The 2004 movie version put young Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams on the map, and became a romance classic.

And now, it’s a Broadway musical.

Sparks was at the theater on opening night. And yes, he did cry. “You get a little weepy,” he said.

And he’s not alone. One audience member admitted she cried, “from the jump.”  

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A scene from the Broadway musical “The Notebook,” adapted from Nicholas Sparks’ bestselling novel. 

Julieta Cervantes


Every version of “The Notebook” has employed a framing device: as the end of his life approaches, husband Noah reads from a notebook to his wife, Allie, who has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the notebook containing the story of their own decades-long love.

“That was a story inspired by my ex-wife’s grandparents,” Sparks said. “They met when they were young, they were separated for years, she meets someone else, she comes back, finds her first true love, and they live long and happy. And then, in their final years, age begins to take its toll.”

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter wrote the script, and songwriter Ingrid Michaelson wrote the music and lyrics. They didn’t mind calling their show a tear-jerker. “If we are the play that makes you feel things-slash-cry, then there are worse boxes to be in,” Michaelson said.

It’s the first time either of them has worked on a Broadway show.

Michaelson said, “I thought, ‘I can do this. I can figure out how to make people who are gonna come with their arms folded, unfold their arms, basically.'”

“And then, let’s all laugh, you know?” said Brunstetter. “Kind of combining those two things constantly. Because laughter and tears are just so right there next to each other all the time.”

In the musical, three pairs of actors play the couple at three different ages. “From the very beginning, we knew we wanted three Allies and three Noahs,” Michaelson said. “You can have an older version of a character watching their younger self. Especially since we are dealing with memory so much, and losing memory and fragmented memory, that having these other versions of themselves on stage [was] really helpful.”

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The main characters of “The Notebook” are portrayed on stage by three couples playing Noah and Allie at different ages, in different memories. 

“The Notebook”


No Nicholas Sparks romance novel has ever included a Black main character. But in the musical, Noah and Allie seem to change races fluidly at different ages. “Race is not the story; you’re seeing the spirit of who they are,” said co-director Schele Williams. “You’re seeing not only their essence but their experience. And for someone like me who grew up looking at theater through a window and never through a mirror, being able to see myself on stage is powerful.”

Co-director Michael Greif said, “It grew out of, ‘How do we do this, in the best possible way, unique and, I think, very wonderful casting idea?'”

Many on the creative team relate deeply to the dementia depicted in the show. Williams’ mother has Alzheimer’s. “When I read the story, you know, it really spoke to me.”

“I also have a grandfather who had Alzheimer’s,” said Brunstetter, “so I had witnessed it first-hand. And it seems like pretty much everyone has a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle or a sibling.” And it affects the writing. “All of that is in there from us,” she said.

Reviews of the musical have ranged from rave to reserved. But Sparks suspects that a story this universal will be critic-proof. “It is a love story,” he said. “It is a story of young love. It is a story of reunited love. It’s a story of everlasting love. It is also a story of memory.”

And speaking of eternal themes, remember that box of tissues? Turns out the musical’s producers weren’t the first to recognize the marketing potential of Kleenex. Thirty years ago when “The Notebook” novel first came out, handkerchiefs were given out to critics and bookstore owners. “We gave ’em a hankie for their tears!” laughed Sparks. “‘The Notebook’ and genuine emotion have always gone hand-in-hand.”

     
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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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