For decades, Neil Diamond was on top of the world. He toured arenas packed with shrieking fans. He wrote “Sweet Caroline,” an irresistible anthem that continues to trigger Pavlovian singalongs — a feat that would delight most performers, but Diamond didn’t leave it at that and was a prolific hit machine.
A 1986 profile in The New York Times described him in these words: “Olympian aspiration, raw aggression and agonizing self-doubt.”
As unlikely as this might sound, it is that last trait that forms the narrative engine of “A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical,” the ambitious, often rousing, occasionally heavy-handed biographical show that opened on Broadway on Sunday at the Broadhurst Theater. We meet a superstar with no confidence, despite being known to engage the beast mode in concert and prowling stages in tight pants and a wide-open satin shirt. He seems perpetually dissatisfied, as if on a fruitless quest — but for what? What gnaws at him?
To answer those questions, the book writer, Anthony McCarten, put Diamond on the couch, or more exactly in an armchair: “A Beautiful Noise,” directed by Michael Mayer, is framed as an extensive therapy session between the aging singer (Mark Jacoby) and a psychologist (Linda Powell).
Diamond is there because his wife Katie — spoiler alert: she’s the third one — and kids forced his hand. Apparently Diamond is “a little hard to live with these days,” we’re told. Maybe his family is frustrated by his grouchiness and poor interpersonal communication skills, at least based on his laconic sullenness with the doctor. When she presses him for insights, he curtly says, “I put everything I have into my songs.” Fine, then let’s see what they have to tell us about the man who wrote them.
And so Diamond makes a second entrance, but now he is in his prime and portrayed by Will Swenson (“Les Misérables,” “Assassins”) in a gravity-defying statement pompadour. This is a swaggering coif that means business, but it is contradicted by the 1965 Diamond’s passive posture and apologetic stammering.
As the doctor and the older singer revisit his catalog — often commenting on the action from their chairs, like a double vision of the narrator in “The Drowsy Chaperone” — we retrace Diamond’s journey, starting with his early days at the Brill Building. One of the influential American hit factories, the location also played a key role in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and it’s where the mighty Ellie Greenwich (an amusingly perky Bri Sudia) starts mentoring the shy young man from Brooklyn in the mid-1960s.
Diamond, after writing hits for others, like “I’m a Believer” for the Monkees, sets out to perform his own material, with smashing results. In one of the most entertaining episodes, he signs with Bang Records, a mob-associated label run by Bert Berns (Tom Alan Robbins), himself a songwriter good enough to earn his own tribute musical, “Piece of My Heart.”
By the end of the ’60s, Diamond was a serial chart-topper; by the early ’70s, he had mutated into the Lord Byron of soft rock, all strutting gloom and troubled romanticism. That turning point is when Swenson, a stage veteran and Tony nominee for the 2009 Broadway revival of “Hair,” really takes ownership of the role. While he doesn’t entirely let go during the concert scenes — a common issue with Broadway performers playing rockers — Swenson gets close to Diamond’s swaggering sexuality and delivers hit after hit with a relaxed confidence: “Sweet Caroline,” of course, and especially “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.” But there is no “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” the epitome of Diamond in his louche Lee Hazlewood mode, which could have really spiced up a musical that can feel timid; likewise, the show’s title echoes Diamond’s 1976 album and one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if his 1968 LP “Velvet Gloves and Spit” had inspired McCarten instead.
In any case, the superstar continues seeking, especially love. While still married to his first wife, Jaye (Jessie Fisher), he falls for Marcia (Robyn Hurder, channeling Ann-Margret). The latter gets some of the numbers directly connecting a character’s motivation or emotion with a song — she sings “Forever in Blue Jeans,” for example, when feeling neglected by her constantly touring husband.
But much of the time McCarten — who wrote the screenplays for the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and whose play “The Collaboration” opens on Broadway later this month — refrains from shoehorning new meaning into existing lyrics by manipulating the context in which the songs are used, à la “Mamma Mia!” Many of this show’s most effective moments simply use the songs as surface signposts, an approach that defeats the purported point of the book but reflects the way many listeners experience pop music: We associate it with events and moods, recall what was happening when a hit came on the radio or when we attended a concert.
One such scene is Diamond’s debut at the Bitter End. He performs “Solitary Man” and the audience members, sitting at nightclub tables, slowly lean forward, like flowers drawn to the sun. This is the most striking example of Steven Hoggett’s subtle choreography, which to its credit looks like nothing else on Broadway right now: The movement is fluidly, organically incorporated into the scenes, rather than awkwardly grafted onto them.
As Diamond sharpens his live persona in Act II, David Rockwell’s set, until then dominated by hanging lamps, morphs into a “Hollywood Squares”-like concert stage that incorporates the orchestra. (Considering how energized Diamond was when performing, having to retire from touring in 2018 because of Parkinson’s disease must have been especially painful.) It all looks and sounds great, but the clock is ticking — therapy! — and we are no closer to understanding the real Neil.
Until, at long last, the older singer cracks and stops obfuscating. Naturally, the source of his discontent can be found in his childhood, and the show finally makes the essential connection between Diamond’s artistry and his roots, including hisJewishness. By that point it feels rushed and not quite earned, not to mention a little too nakedly sentimental.
And yet, the beating heart of “A Beautiful Noise” is that sequence, featuring “Brooklyn Roads” and “America”leading into “Shilo,” which becomes Diamond’s Rosebud and is performed with almost unbearable grace by the ensemble member Jordan Dobson. Never mind: naked sentimentality is just fine.
A Beautiful Noise
At the Broadhurst Theater, Manhattan; abeautifulnoisethemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.