Composer Ingrid Michaelson and playwright Bekah Brunstetter share a similar aesthetic in their writing that makes them ideal collaborators. Michaelson is an indie singer-songwriter whose tunes include “Be OK,” “The Way I Am,” and “You and I”; Brunstetter’s plays include The Cake and Be a Good Little Widow, and she’s been a writer and producer on NBC’s This Is Us. Each of their works tend to straddle emotions, with one foot planted firmly in heartache and the other standing on happiness.
Those inclinations are also a match for the subject of their collaboration: the new musical adaptation of The Notebook, which begins Broadway previews February 10 at the Schoenfeld Theatre. In fact, there’s even a song called “Sadness and Joy.”
“We hold these two diametrically opposed feelings in our bodies at all times, and it’s just a matter of which one is edging out the other,” says Michaelson. “But they’re always there. I really try to choose to lean into joy, but sadness is always there, and that’s OK. When The Notebook came around, I was like, ‘Well, I’m perfect for this.”
Brunstetter agrees, saying she’s “exactly the same.”
Based on the 1996 novel by Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook centers on the relationship between Allie and Noah, following them from the first giddy days of their young romance, through time apart spent yearning and wondering, and as an older married couple with one of them affected by dementia.
Producers Kevin McCollum and Kurt Deutsch had been dreaming up an adaptation of the novel/film for years, and when they talked to Michaelson about composing the score, she set to work immediately, writing several songs before she was even hired. When Brunstetter was approached with the idea, she thought, “That’s either gonna be really good or really bad.” But they sent her three of Michaelson’s songs and she was immediately convinced. “I was like, ‘Well, this is gonna be beautiful and brilliant, and I have to do it,’” she says.
The Notebook marks the first musical for both Brunstetter and Michaelson. It’s been a learning curve, but they’ve been helped along by the show’s co-directors, Michael Greif and Schele Williams, guiding them on some of the technical stuff like how to write a song with a button or what is a proper-length book scene. “It’s turned into this beautiful thing, but it’s taken many years,” says Brunstetter.
Michaelson tacks on: “It does feel like we’ve been through the graduate program.”
And the story of The Notebook and how they tell it has become deeply personal to each of them. Brunstetter has a history of Alzheimer’s disease in her family, including her grandfather and all his siblings. There is a general sense of “Am I going to get this?” always present in her family, Brunstetter shares. Her grandfather was still alive when she began work on the project but passed away during the pre-Broadway Chicago run in fall of 2022. “Understanding what that is really like to live through, especially when people get it when they’re younger—it’s just devastating,” she says.
Michaelson’s deepest connection to the story is also loss. Her mother passed away in 2014, then her father in 2017. Shortly after, she began work on The Notebook. “A lot of the play is Noah trying to get his wife to remember him, to just have that moment of connection again. There’s already this idea that you’re mourning this person while they’re still alive. That’s the horrible part of dementia,” says Michaelson. “And how can you be hopeful through all that?”
Unlike the movie, where the older Noah and Allie seemed to sparsely and sporadically enter the story, this creative team wants to give a little more weight to the older couple. “We toss aside our elderly, thinking they’re not sexy and they’re not interesting,” says Brunstetter. “And yet, if we’re lucky, we all become old. So, it’s just wild that we don’t give them love and time on stage.”
In the musical, three interracial pairs of actors will play the lovers in the interwoven timelines, which have moved from the WWII-era South to coastal Maryland in the 1970s. And all three sets of Noahs and Allies are given the same amount of space. “I like to say that our play is real watercolor-y. It’s a memory play,” says Michaelson.
But the writers also acknowledge that the movie is a popular romance. And they didn't want to lose that. The poster, with a rain-drenched Ryan Gosling lifting Rachel McAdams into an embrace just before their lips touch, is immediately recognizable.
"We do want to honor the fans of the movie and give them that, while also deepening and elevating,” says Brunstetter. “We always wanted it to be for Allie—but not just a story about which guy is she going to choose. It’s like, ‘How do I want to spend my time on Earth?’”
“Yeah,” chimes in Michaelson. “We felt a real responsibility to not make it be ‘which guy,’ but ‘which life.’ When I get to the end of my life and I look back, which pathway is the pathway that will make me happiest?” Even in choosing the happiest path, there is that tinge of worry, or regret, or sadness. That duality that both writers work so well in. Though as Michaelson points out rhetorically: “That’s something we all grapple with, right?”