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New Broadway musical 'A Beautiful Noise' explores Neil Diamond's life and career


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The playlist is personal for the team distilling the life of and legacy of Neil Diamond in the newly opened Broadway musical "A Beautiful Noise."

Without Diamond, we would not have "Sweet Caroline," The Monkees wouldn't have had number one hits like "I'm a Believer," and there would be no song about "Coming to America."

Diamond's decades-long march through the music charts is portrayed in the musical, which first ran in Boston this summer.

That's where special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH got an early look for Canvas, our series on arts and culture.

Jared Bowen: For the team distilling Neil Diamond's life on stage, the playlist is personal.

Linda Powell, Actress: My gateway drugs for Neil Diamond really were a theatrical in a way, because it was seeing the movie "Jazz Singer."

Michael Mayer, Director: "America" and "Brooklyn Roads" and "Shilo," I think they speak to his heritage and to his childhood. So, we understand what it is to be the son of immigrants fleeing terror in Europe and coming to America, and seizing that opportunity, and then finding yourself in Brooklyn, and lonely, and creating an imaginary friend named Shilo, who is your constant companion.

Jared Bowen: And for actor Will Swenson, who is playing the superstar singer-songwriter, his Diamond pick:

Will Swenson, Actor: It seems like maybe he learned early that -- like, that honesty is the currency that people respond to. He was never afraid to put himself out there personally.

Jared Bowen: We spoke with the team as the show was deep into rehearsals.

Will Swenson: And it's kind of the story of a man coming to grips with who he is today and the challenge that he is today, and grappling with the decisions that he made in the past and wishing he could change them.

Jared Bowen: The 81-year-old Diamond retired from performing in 2018 after a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. It was only when he stepped off the stage, says director Michael Mayer, when Diamond, who has been part of the process every step of the way, was ready to tell his life story.

Michael Mayer: He is probably truer to the human he was before he became a star.

We reveal in the show the showman of Neil, the Jewish Elvis, if you. That is a character that he put on. It was a way for him to take someone who is innately shy and quiet and kind of a loner. That's how he could stand on a stadium stage and sing to 80,000 people.

Jared Bowen: Mayer, the Tony-winning director of shows like "Spring Awakening," the Green Day musical "American Idiot," and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," has shaped the show as a memory play, not simply a night of Diamond's greatest hits.

Michael Mayer: We're not doing the, and then I wrote and then I wrote and then I wrote. It's a much more emotional and abstract exploration.

Jared Bowen: Teased out by way of a therapist played by Linda Powell, helping an older Neil Diamond reflect on his younger days. Now decades into her own acting career, it's a concept with which she deeply identifies.

Linda Powell: It starts from an older person looking back at their life and looking back at the experiences they went through and trying to figure out, how did that make me who I am? Why did I do that way? I'm not that person anymore. Who am I?

Will Swenson: I relate to it endlessly.

Jared Bowen: Will Swenson plays the younger Neil Diamond, who began writing songs at 16, whose hits date back to the 1960s, and who's ultimately sold more than 100 million records.

Will Swenson: He was just being played on a loop in our house growing up. One of my earliest memories is of the "Hot August Night" eight-track tape in my dad's van in like 1976, I think.

Jared Bowen: So, with Diamond virtually in his DNA, Swenson says he had an out-of-body experience the first time, during rehearsals, he had to perform Diamond in front of Diamond.

Will Swenson: I just was trimming my guitar thinking, keep it together, keep it together. And I went about five feet too far down stage, and one of the ensemble members bashed it to be. And I was like, oh, a terrible way to start.

So, yes, I don't remember a lot of it, just because, as a positive to that, I don't think I will ever be more nervous in my life ever.

Jared Bowen: Clearly, he's become more comfortable, joining Diamond recently as he made a rare appearance singing "Sweet Caroline" at a Red Sox game.

Swenson says Parkinson's disease may have curtailed Diamond's career, but his spirit rages on.

Will Swenson: He reminds me my dad a ton. They're the same age, roughly. And he's great, sharp as a tack, and still so invested in the music and the sound.

And he's been singing along with us. And we feel privileged to get to be in the room while he's singing "Sweet Caroline" with us. It's amazing.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

Judy Woodruff: And that's definitely one to see, if we possibly can.

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