‘The Notebook’ Musical Cast Recording Is Here. It Will Probably Make You Cry

Ingrid Michaelson is used to people crying when they talk to her about The Notebook. Earlier this year, she tells me on Zoom, her piano in the background, she did an interview about her work on the Broadway musical adaptation of the beloved 2004 film, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. The journalist she was talking to had lost both of his parents, and Michaelson had lost her parents as well — her mother in 2014, and her father three years later. “We both were staring at each other for like 30 seconds and his eyes were bright red,” Michaelson tells me. “And he was like, ‘OK, moving on.’”

I would like to report that I refrained from weeping profusely during my hour-long conversation with the singer-songwriter, who prior to The Notebook was probably best known for penning dreamy, contemplative pop ditties like 2007’s “The Way I Am” and 2014’s “Girls Chase Boys,” as well as a brief stint on Broadway in 2017 in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. But I cannot in all honesty say that. Though I am not an easy crier by nature, merely thinking about the musical adaptation of The Notebook, or listening to the official cast recording, which comes out April 19, is enough to feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest, and start the waterworks percolating. But fortunately, it doesn’t bother Michaelson, whose own experience with grief and loss informed the songwriting process of The Notebook.

“I actually weirdly like talking about my grief. Because I feel like the more I talk about it, then it’s not just this thing, this walnut stuck in my throat,” she says. “I can express it. I can share it. And I can hold hands with it, and hold hands with you and hold hands with the people in the audience. It’s a connective tissue that I think I need as a human to continue.”

Those averse to exploring the outer limits of how much fluid they can secrete from their lacrimal glands would be wise to steer clear of The Notebook. Like the beloved 2004 film, the musical ping-pongs back and forth in time between the present day, where Older Noah (played devastatingly by Dorian Harewood) is caring for his wife Allie (Maryann Plunkett), who is in a nursing home and deep in the throes of dementia. Allie has forgotten who Noah is or anything about her former life, so he reads to her from a notebook documenting their epic love story, which is reenacted by actors playing them in their dewy youth and early-but-still-hot-middle-age, after they were forcibly separated by Allie’s snooty parents.

Michaelson has been involved with the production process of The Notebook for more than seven years. Like her friend and fellow singer-songwriter turned musical theater star, Sara Bareilles, who penned the score for the adaptation of Waitress, Michaelson is a former theater kid who had always fantasized about being on Broadway. “It felt like this mammoth huge dream that I couldn’t possibly reach,” she says. In early 2017, she ran into the producer Kevin MacCollum at an afterparty for Something Rotten, the Broadway show then starring her boyfriend Will Chase. “He said, ‘Everyone wants to write a musical,’” she says. “And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can, but I do.’”

After an initial meeting a few weeks later, Michaelson started immediately writing songs, starting with “I Know,” sung by Plunkett at the end of the show, when her memory fleetingly returns. It is the only song Older Allie sings in the show, and that is by design: It was inspired, Michaelson says, by her memory of her father, who also struggled with dementia before he died of Parkinson’s and could not remember the names of his neighbors, but knew every word to Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.

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“There’s something about music, where we hold it in this different space in our brains,” she says. “And it never really lets go of it. And I thought, how can we put that that scientific truth into the art here. So it was very important to me that she didn’t sing until she reach some form of clarity.”

Unlike many Broadway musicals based on films, The Notebook, which is directed by Michael Grief and Schele Williams, with a book by Bekah Brunstetter, is not a one-to-one adaptation of its source material. Young Noah and Allie begin their love affair in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, rather than in the 1940s during World War II; unlike the original film, which is lily-white in its casting, most of the actors playing Noah and Allie in their various incarnations are people of color, adding an extra layer of poignancy to their arc as star-crossed lovers.

Some of the most memorable moments of the film, such as Noah hanging off a Ferris wheel in order to get Allie to date him, are also absent, and intentionally so, says Michaelson. “We didn’t want him to come across as resorting to some sort of toxic manipulation to get her attention under the guise of being charming,” she says. “Ryan Gosling can somehow get away with it, because he’s Ryan Gosling. But we wanted to make sure we weren’t treading that water, for sure.” (Fans will be pleased to know that the kissing scene in the rain still exists, albeit in slightly different form.)

Perhaps the biggest deviation from the original Notebook, however, is the themes most prominently on display in the musical adaptation. While the original Notebook is primarily framed as an epic love story spanning the boundaries of space and time, the musical has been transmogrified into something quieter, smaller, and arguably more devastating. Though the show is ostensibly set between the late 1960s and the present day, the majority of the songs, from the chirpy “Carry You Home” to the contemplative ballad “Leave the Light On,” could have been written in virtually any decade. Michaelson’s sweet, contemplative score doesn’t evoke the grandeur of a sweeping and majestic love, but something less dramatic and more intimate: hearing the person you love hum while they’re cooking, or walking down the street hand-in-hand, looking into other people’s windows, contemplating lives you’ll never lead and feeling gratitude for the one you’ve built together.

“We were striving for a universality and a kind of watercolor memory, floating out of time and space,” Michaelson explains. “These people could be you, they could be anybody. Rooting it very fiercely in a time period felt like the wrong choice. We wanted it to feel ethereal. And when you’re playing with memory, and you have multiple characters swirling on stage, dealing with dementia, there is sort of a lack of specificity that goes along with that.”

Additionally, where the film tends to gloss over the devastating realities of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, the musical offers a more unflinching approach. Many members of the creative team had a cared for a family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia, Michaelson says, and the show sought to “honor the difficulty and the heartbreak of that”: “we wanted to make sure we weren’t doing a quote-unquote musical theater version of someone with Alzheimer’s,” she says.

In one hauntingly choreographed musical number, “I Want To Go Back,” Older Allie struggles to remember who she is, and the loving home and family she has built with her husband. “I didn’t know the last time I left the house/Would be the last time I’d see my house,” the younger versions of herself mournfully sing as she frantically paces the stage. This was lifted directly from Michaelson’s own experience losing her parents, particularly her mother, who died in 2014.

“When she went to the hospital for the last time, it was not ‘a big deal,’ quote unquote, until it was,” she recalls. “And she never went home. It was so hard for me because I’m so sentimental that when I go away on vacation, I say goodbye to things in my house: bye-bye kitchen, bye-bye room. But she didn’t even get to say goodbye to her dog. She didn’t know. None of us knew. And if you’ve experienced loss, there’s really no getting over it. It’s just getting over moments.”

Michaelson sought to capture that sense of loss, albeit in a more understated way than the format of a Broadway musical typically demands. “Don’t get me wrong, I love a spectacle. I love big tap numbers. I love the razzmatazz of a Broadway show. But that’s just not me. I couldn’t make that if I tried,” she says. “I just wanted to make something that was quieter, and that felt more like a meditation on life and on choices. And this is why the producers chose me and not somebody with a track record: I’m a newcomer to this world, and I think they saw that direction as well, in sending this musical in this quieter path.”

Not everyone has been a fan of this quieter path. In a scathing review for the New York Times, professional curmudgeon Jesse Green wrote that the musical left him “cold and stony,” writing that Michaelson’s lyrics were “budding with cliches” and that the “Hollywood varnish” of the original film was “the only thing holding the picture together.”

From the start, Michaelson says, she was aware that many critics might react this way. “What I’m learning is — and I already knew this — that people either haven’t seen The Notebook and don’t have any idea what it’s about; they have seen it, and they hate it; or they have seen it, and they love it,” she says. “There doesn’t really seem to be a middle ground. So we knew going into it that we were going to have a built-in audience and also built-in detractors. But you can’t really do anything about that.” To The Notebook‘s detractors, she says: “If you want to watch the movie, go watch the movie. We wanted to take the story and bust it out and create a theatrical version of the story that could only exist on the stage.”

It’s true that both The Notebook musical and its original source material are replete with cliches — Green’s review takes particular umbrage with the lyric sung by Older Noah, “I wanna know that my old heart can grow like spring again,” though arguably any piece of media that includes a kissing-in-the-rain scene is at least as egregious as that particular metaphor. But given the universality of the central themes of The Notebook — the concurrent sadness and joy of the human existence, the “back and forth, back and forth, like a Ping-Pong game,” as Michaelson puts it — the use of the occasional trope only contributes to the resonance of the material.

“I do think that it’s difficult when you’re dealing with a property that people love, or people don’t love, or if they have a very specific expectation of what they’re going to get out of something,” she says. “You’re either set up for success or failure.” But seeing the tear-streaked faces of the audience members, or the actors on stage during the curtain call, when she’s snuck into see the show during the second act, makes her feel like she did something right. “I started writing music to begin with just to feel less alone, or to feel like other people felt the same things that I felt and maybe I could say in a way that they didn’t know how to say it,” says Michaelson. In writing The Notebook after dealing with the loss of her parents, her goal was to achieve some sense of communing in grief in the same way. “I think that’s why it means so much to me when I see people that are moved by it — because it makes me feel less alone.”

Michaelson would like to write another musical after The Notebook run ends, though she’s not quite sure if she wants to go down the adaptation route again. “I remember seeing Poor Things and thinking, this would be such a bizarre musical,” she says. “But the more think about it, the more I don’t know if that’s even possible [to adapt].” She’s releasing a record this summer: “It’s very orchestral, and it feels kind of in that post-Big Band, pre rock n’ roll era, where there’s just a peacefulness to it, with lots of harmonies and strings” she says. But she also admits to being burnt out on the music industry.

“Unless you’re constantly touring, or you’re very popular and you have millions and millions and millions of streams, I don’t know how people make a living,” she says. “I feel like I don’t understand that world. And I understand the world of theater. It feels more tangible to me. Not like it’s easy to make money in theater, either, but the music world certainly feels terrifying to me right now.”


With The Notebook, Michaelson’s one regret is that her parents weren’t around to see it. “There’s a line in the last song that everybody sings that says, ‘you’ll always be in my bones,’” she says, pointing to her piano in the background. “And as I was writing that, right over on that piano, there’s a piece of artwork on the wall that a friend of mine had commissioned for me when I was in Great Comet.” She excuses herself and takes the drawing off the wall, a New Yorker-style cartoon showing her mother, her father, and her mother’s dog in the audience.

“I remember as I wrote that song, I would stare at the back of their heads,” she says. “I would be writing and I would just stare at them and thinking about how proud they would be of me. And that there, that last song is a reminder that when you lose someone, yes, you lose them, but you can keep a little bit of them, if you choose to do that.” She’s crying on Zoom, and I’m crying on Zoom. I can see my coworkers a few feet away, and I feel ridiculous. But it feels better to cry with someone than it ever would crying alone.