A best-selling 1996 Nicholas Sparks novel and a popular 2004 film with a cult following, “The Notebook” has finally been unveiled as a long-anticipated Broadway-bound musical after several years in development.
On paper, such an enterprise seemed precarious. How could a musical adaptation carry the gravitas and nuance of the journey of an elderly ill couple trying to relive and recapture the joys and turbulence of a lifetime of love through the fog of Alzheimer’s?
The brainchild of former Deerfield resident and Broadway impresario Kevin McCollum—who also originally developed the Tony Award-winning “Six” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater where “The Notebook” had its world premiere Thursday night—the master stroke was recruiting folk-pop singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson to write the songs and lyrics.
This is Michaelson’s first musical but she has completely hit her debut effort out of the park. So much of what makes a musical work is not great songs alone, although “The Notebook” has those aplenty. Equally significant is how organically the music enhances the narrative, what it can communicate that words alone cannot. Here, the answer is everything.
There are three incarnations of Allie and Noah: Younger Allie and Noah, Middle Allie and Noah and Older Allie and Noah. Michaelson’s compositional voice remains so consistent through all of the music that we do not notice nor care about the shift back and forth (and yes, thanks also to the amazing vocal and dramatic virtuosity of a stellar cast). The beauty of this is that all three Noahs, for instance, can sing in unison or harmony at the same time. Younger Allie and Noah can join the ranks of we, the audience, watching what happens when Middle Allie and Noah reunite after years apart. Music is brilliantly allowed to convey atemporality. At one point, Middle Allie and Noah are singing a duet of their innermost thoughts which are never said directly. It is a stellar moment as it allows us to soar with their hearts while their heads are still sorting things out.
In fact, this show consistently turns upside down our normal expectations of time. From the opening when Older Noah is watching Younger Allie and Noah, we leave everyday time and enter into a dreamlike world that is far more “real” than clock time.
So much so, that when all is said and done, it is all that is left for Older Allie, at least when the words she wrote in her notebook about their life’s journey of love are repeatedly read to her and can temporarily spark an ember into reignited passion. That music is used to do this—what is said to be the last thing to go when memory of the everyday evaporates—is immensely powerful and thought-provoking.
“The Notebook” in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand, chicagoshakes.com, (312)595-5600. Through October 30.