NEW YORK — When Anthony McCarten was growing up in New Zealand, there were no family photos on the mantel in his childhood home. But two pictures of men that his mother adored — the pope and Neil Diamond — held a place of prominence in the house. So when McCarten, a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter, was approached by Broadway producers to write a new musical about Neil Diamond, he was immediately hooked.
“[They] couldn’t have known the degree to which Neil was the soundtrack of my childhood,” McCarten says in a recent Zoom interview. “My mother had seven children. So whenever she was feeling stressed, worried, anxious, or blue with the lot that life had delivered, she would go to the record player and inevitably put on her favorite artists. She kind of medicated herself with Neil Diamond songs.”
The musical that McCarten helped to dream up, “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical,” uses some two dozen songs from the singer’s 60-year catalog to tell his life story, including such indelible pop hits as “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” “America,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” The show, bound for Broadway in the fall, premieres Tuesday at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for a six-week run. It stars Will Swenson (“Hair,” “Assassins,” “Rock of Ages”) as young Neil and Mark Jacoby (“Ragtime,” “Sweet Charity”) as older Neil.
Meanwhile, the synergy of the show premiering in the Hub won’t be lost on Red Sox fans, who’ve sung “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning at Fenway Park for more than two decades, or on Bostonians, who now claim Diamond as an adopted son.
The hook for the story came in a flash to McCarten as he was heading out to meet with Diamond, now 81, and producers Ken Davenport and Bob Gaudio for the first time. As he walked across Times Square, he recalled an anecdote that Diamond had disclosed in an interview about undergoing Freudian analysis in the 1970s, in which he and the therapist hit an impasse. “I sensed, like a truffle hound, that there was something to be dug up,” McCarten says. “What were the blocks that prevented this examination for someone like Neil who wrote so freely about himself?”
Despite his nerves, McCarten pitched his idea to center the show on a series of therapy sessions. “There was silence in the room. Then to my great pleasure, heads started nodding and said there’s something in this. In fact, his wife Katie disclosed that Neil had been working at times on an autobiography, and the organizing principle of the book was to be the analysis sessions,” says McCarten, who’s penned Oscar-nominated screenplays for “The Theory of Everything” and “The Two Popes,” as well as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Darkest Hour,” and the forthcoming Whitney Houston biopic that filmed in Boston last year.
“Neil’s songwriting is an expression of his inner life,” McCarten says. “He almost didn’t write a song that wasn’t about himself. There’s a deep interiority to his music.”
McCarten knew it was a risky idea — especially with Diamond now grappling with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, a diagnosis that he revealed in 2018. “It doesn’t sound inherently like musical theater, where it’s all singing and dancing and flashing lights,” McCarten says. “But I wanted it to be about something, and Neil, to his great credit, was not afraid to go there.”
The show’s director, Michael Mayer, who won a Tony in 2007 for helming “Spring Awakening,” says the approach gives the audience a “surprising entrée into Neil’s psyche. It’s a story of a man who is in crisis but is unable to articulate why. And he can’t go forward until he reconciles himself.”
In the show’s opening therapy session, Diamond’s patience has worn thin. “This isn’t working,” he says. “I don’t like to talk about myself.” To help, the psychologist produces a second-hand copy of “The Complete Lyrics of Neil Diamond” in the hopes of unlocking something. She reads some of the lyrics and asks him to chime in if anything sparks.
“She opens the book, and all 60 years of his songwriting and all that exploration pours out into a majestic musical collage,” McCarten says. “And once unloosed from the book, the songs take on lives of their own.”
Mayer, too, had a mother who was obsessed with Diamond, and he says the music was a place of “solace” for a lonely kid like himself. “He has this gift for writing songs that everybody wants to sing along to. They’re irresistible!”
Working with choreographer Steven Hoggett, known for his inventive work in “Once” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Mayer wanted the show’s ensemble not to function as a traditional group of dancers who each play small roles, but to instead transform into the “Beautiful Noise” inside Diamond’s head.
“They’re the embodiment of Neil’s psyche,” Mayer says. “Sometimes they’re the memories that he’s pulling out, and they move him and us back to [New York music club] the Bitter End, or to the apartment he had with his first wife, or to the Brill Building where he was recording a song. They’re also his emotional life. So when he’s struggling to write a song, they’re the ones who actually give it the physical manifestation. I want to feel like we’re inside someone’s consciousness.”
To play Diamond, producer Davenport approached Swenson, having heard through the grapevine that the actor did a good Neil Diamond impression. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been waiting for the Neil Diamond musical my whole life! My dad’s favorite singer of all time is Neil Diamond,’ ” Swenson recalls. “[Davenport] was like, ‘Well, we’re doing it! Do you want to do the reading?’ ”
One of the actor’s earliest memories is listening to Diamond’s 1972 live album “Hot August Night” on the eight-track in the family’s van when they moved from Colorado to California. When Swenson was in eighth grade, he wanted to learn to play the guitar to woo girls, and one of the first songs he attempted was Diamond’s ballad “Play Me.”
“I used to sing it around the campfire. And then I started doing a Neil Diamond voice on top of it,” he says. “The other day, my best pal from high school was like, ‘Will, you’ve been training to play this part your entire life!’ ”
For Swenson, the therapy sessions allow Diamond to reflect on his life, so that he can move into his twilight years unafraid to face the future. “Who are you when you don’t have that passionate thing that propels you as a human? So it’s a story of someone coming to terms with that and having to say goodbye to a piece of himself.”
Before he started writing, McCarten says he did hours of interviews with Diamond, likening his role to that of a therapist. “My job is not to flatter. It’s to get to the bottom of something. And Neil was happy for me to ask the questions, and he was nothing but honest in his responses,” McCarten says. “That’s what made him an extraordinary artist. If you examine his songs, even though they were pop tunes, there’s a lot of depth and self-inquiry in them.”
McCarten said one of his most precious possessions is a recording of Diamond teaching him to play “Sweet Caroline” on the guitar.
“He’s a very deep-souled individual, and he became deeper as he got older, because he kept turning over stones and peeling the onion,” McCarten says. “And a life spent that way inevitably leads you closer to the big questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What’s our purpose? So I found a dedicated man who’s now in the last part of his life, who seems to be at peace with that life’s work. And it’s ennobling to be with people like that.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A BEAUTIFUL NOISE
At Emerson Colonial Theatre, June 21-July 31. Tickets from $49. 888-616-0272; emersoncolonialtheatre.com