Dialogs: Two Artists Discuss Developing The Notebook for Chicago Shakespeare in American Writers Museum Event

It may seem a daunting task to take on developing the stage version of a beloved book and film, with thousands of fans. Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson and playwright/screenwriter Bekah Brunstetter took on the task and talked about it for an audience at the American Writers Museum this week. Museum development director Linda Dunlavy moderated the discussion, which included audience questions,

The Notebook is a sentimental, romantic novel by Nicholas Sparks, published in 1996, about the enduring love of a couple named Allie and Noah in two stages of their lives: their teenage summer romance, followed by a breakup, reunion—and old age. It was the first of Sparks’ 22 published novels and was adapted into a 2004 film, directed by Nick Cassavetes, and starring Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes' mother) and James Garner as the couple at the two stages of their lives.  

The musical play, The Notebook, will have Its world premiere next month at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, after a long pandemic delay. It will most likely be headed for Broadway.

Ingrid Michaelson (left) and Bekah Brunstetter. Photo by Nikki Geslani.

Michaelson, who’s known for her soulful folk-pop music and four top 20 albums, talked about how she began writing songs early in the process before Brunstetter joined the creative team. Brunstetter has been producer and writer for the NBC award-winning series “This Is Us.” She’s known here as author of The Cake, produced in 2018 by Rivendell Theatre. Michael Grief (Dear Evan Hansen, Grey Gardens, Rent) and Schele Williams (Aida, Motown the Musical) are the directing team. Choreography is by Katie Spelman.

The play was workshopped for two weeks in New York in January 2020, headed for its original fall 2020 opening here. Michaelson and Brunstetter agreed that the long collaborative process resulted in a dramatic evolution of the play over time. “You can’t live in a bubble,“ Michaelson said. “I welcomed the challenge of letting go of things” as the collaboration proceeded.  

“Musicals are beasts,” Brunstetter said. You’re “constantly cutting the book to make it sync with the music.” Michaelson described how songs were edited by changing a word or a line or even deleting a song completely. See a video below of one of her songs for The Notebook.

They refer to the work as a musical play, rather than a musical because the dialog and songs are completely interwoven; The Notebook will not be a “sung-through” musical.

To fans of the film, both Michaelson and Brunstetter pointed out that they did not set out to make a carbon copy of the film. “You won’t see anyone hanging from a Ferris wheel,” Brunstetter said, referring to a scene early in the film where Noah tries to convince Allie to go out with him. 

It’s relevant to observe that any adaptation of a work of art should be seen as a totally new work. Comments like :”The book was better” or “The film didn’t grab me as much as the book” are irrelevant. Don’t go to see The Notebook at Chicago Shakes because you loved the movie. Go to see a new work created by some of today’s interesting and award-winning artists. And take a supply of tissues along; it’s that kind of story.

A special screening of the film, The Notebook, will be at 7pm Monday, August 22, at the Music Box Theatre, followed by a conversation with Michaelson and Brunstetter. The film is also streaming on HBO Max; it's free if you're an HBO subscriber.

The Notebook opens in previews September 6 in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are on sale now for $41-$125. Running time will be 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission. Watch for our review of the show after it opens on September 28.

The American Writers Museum is located at 180 N. Michigan Ave. For information on its exhibits, programs and membership, visit their website.

“If This Is Love” from The Notebook

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.