‘The Notebook’ musical arrives after a delay that added depth

Novelist Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 romantic tearjerker “The Notebook” has sold 105 million copies. It was made into an equally weepy hit movie in 2006 starring a young Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

Now get those hankies ready once again for the musical theater version, which on Tuesday has its world premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

It was early 2017 when singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson had a meeting with prolific Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (“Six,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) about working on an adaptation of the novel/film. While she wasn’t immediately hired, she was excited about the project.

“I started working on it immediately,” Michaelson recalls with a laugh. “I was busy writing songs but not actually hired until later that year.”

Michaelson was eventually paired with book writer Bekah Brunstetter, a writer and producer on the NBC drama “This Is Us.” The Broadway-bound project, originally scheduled for a fall 2020 premiere, was another in a long list of in-the-works theater pieces affected by the pandemic.

Brunstetter, who also is a playwright, found the extra time a huge help as the musical was workshopped via Zoom during the shutdown.

“There was more time to investigate and fix things about the book that you don’t always have time to do,” says Brunstetter, 40. “I was really able to focus on the book in more depth, which felt very special and necessary.”

As for Michaelson, she found her perception of reality and humanity shifting in good and bad ways during the pandemic,which affected the way she was looking at the piece. Songs she wrote in 2018-19 mean something totally different to her now.

“It really did allow, I think, an expansion of heart for all of us in our writing and in our conversations. I’m grateful that out of such a tumultuous world we had the opportunity to make something even better than when it started out being.”

Rachel McAdams plays Allie, with Ryan Gosling as Noah, in the hit 2006 film version of “The Notebook.”

New Line Productions

“The Notebook” unfolds over the lifetimes of Allie and Noah, moving back and forth from their young romance to her descent into Alzheimer’s and his steadfast love and care for her.

Broadway directors Michael Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Next to Normal”) and Schele Williams (“Aida,” “Motown the Musical”) helm the production, which features choreography by Katie Spelman. The 13-member cast includes three actors each portraying Allie (Jordan Tyson, Joy Woods and Maryann Plunkett) and Noah (John Cardoza, Ryan Vasquez and John Beasley) at different chapters in their lives.

Brunstetter grew up in North Carolina near where the novel takes place, but it was another compelling connection that she says drew her to Allie and Noah’s story.

“There is a lot of Alzheimer’s in my family, and I’ve seen what it can do to relationships, so I felt that connection,” she says while also admitting to a bit of initial apprehension. “When I was first approached about it, I thought this could be very beautiful or very terrible. But then I heard Ingrid’s music, and I thought this is going to be powerful, beautiful, cathartic.”

Michaelson, 42, is known for her soulful folk-pop style on nine studio albums, including four Top 20 albums and two platinum singles: “The Way I Am” and “Girls Chase Boys.” Many of her songs turned up on soundtracks to TV shows and feature films.

Writing songs from another person’s perspective was a new challenge for Michaelson.

“It’s a departure from what I’ve done in the past. It wasn’t hard but it also wasn’t easy. Only one song from the original batch remains. I definitely have just as many songs that are not in the show as are in the show at this point.”

Once Brunstetter and Michaelson moved into the room with directors and actors, the musical came together in new ways.

“It’s not lost on me that this is our child that we have created, but without the help of many people it would not exist in its final form,” says Michaelson. “It does take a village.”

With the popularity of the novel and movie, “The Notebook” has a built-in audience, and Brunstetter hopes “the beautiful story” of undying devotion and love will also attract new fans.

“We hope people see it and leave with a renewed sense of how important your loved ones are. How all that matters at the end of the day is just making the best of the time you have with the people you love.”

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