“My first memory, period, is listening to a track tape of ’Hot August Night’ in my dad’s white van. We were moving from Colorado to California, and I hadn’t turned four yet,” Swenson recalls. “My dad liked Neil so much that there was a picture of him hanging up in our garage. He was always playing Neil on a loop; he never took that tape out of his car.”
Now, Swenson plays his father’s favorite singer-songwriter eight times a week in A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Swenson, who is the grandson of Utah theatre impresario Ruth Hale, was urged toward the theatre from an early age, but his inner rockstar didn’t come into effect until his early teenage years. Neither of his parents played instruments, but they were scattered throughout the family home. One day Swenson picked up a guitar, intending to impress his eighth-grade crush. Jim Croce’s “Lovers Cross” left the object of his affections rather cross, but he stuck with it.
Diamond now plays guitar during A Beautiful Noise, accompanying himself on many of Diamond’s hit songs, such as “Sweet Caroline” and “Cracklin' Rosie.” “My high school buddy Peter said, ‘You’ve been preparing for this role your entire life.’ And I guess there is some truth to that,” Swenson says. “Neil is like a part of my family, he’s been in my life since the beginning.”
A quintessential team player, A Beautiful Noise is Swenson’s ninth Broadway show, following starring roles in revivals of Les Misérables and Hair, which earned him a Tony nomination. Known for his warm sense of humor and inspiring work ethic, Swenson is taking a leading role for the first time in A Beautiful Noise. He admits that “it feels like the top of a mountain.”
Swenson laughs off the pressure: “It’s a trip, because suddenly I’m supposed to give the inspirational speech. It’s like I’m the quarterback. I’ve always had a little bit of imposter syndrome, maybe because I came up through the ensemble and I didn’t have a lot of success early in my career. But I’m endlessly grateful for all of this.”
Swenson may have the title role, but he hasn’t let go of his ensemble mindset: He attended almost every chorus rehearsal, ensuring that “it doesn’t feel like I’m the lead when I’m onstage, because we are all in the same pocket of creating this thing together.”
Another first for Swenson: He and his wife Audra McDonald are back on Broadway at the same time this season, something they haven’t done since the birth of their daughter Sally six years ago. Swenson is at the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street while McDonald is four blocks north in Ohio State Murders at the James Earl Jones Theatre.
“It is a bit of a puzzle sometimes; Audra’s mom luckily lives next door to us, and we have a couple of great sitters,” he says.
In fact, when Swenson started to prepare for A Beautiful Noise, Sally was the audience he trained for. “If she hears dad playing the guitar, that’s where she wants to be,” says Swenson with a mischievous smile. “She’s got a few Neil Diamond songs now that she thinks are about her. And whenever she comes to see the show, she’ll think I’m singing the wrong words, because it's not ‘Cherry, Cherry.' It’s ‘Sally, Sally.’”
Swenson, who recently turned 50, plays the younger version of Diamond alongside Tony nominee Mark Jacoby, who plays the current Diamond, now 81. The structure of the show has helped Swenson process the realities of aging.
Diamond, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2018, now lives a very different lifestyle than the one Swenson portrays. As Swenson sees it, that transition is the core of the show. “It's about a man coming to terms with the fact that he isn't able to connect to that thing that fulfills him anymore,” he says. “Neil can't tour anymore, and that was the source of his sense of self and his joy; that was his form of expression.”
Swenson’s father, now 86, is going through a similar struggle. The actor tenderly explains that “this show makes me think a lot about my dad, and about myself as an artist. What will I fill that void with when I can no longer do this thing that I do? And that’s where Audra and Sally are everything; I will always be able to love them.”
His age hasn’t stopped Swenson’s father from seeing the show several times during its pre-Broadway run in Boston and in New York (“He literally calls me every day and wants to know what’s going on”). While his father and the real Neil Diamond have not yet met face to face, all three men are joined by one particular virtue: honesty. That same virtue speaks to the sea of weeping senior men that Swenson sees at curtain call every night.
“Neil is such a showman, but at the same time, there’s an honesty to his songs. Neil’s currency is really the truth,” Swenson says. “My dad’s not Neil, he doesn’t put on sequins, but he responded to Neil’s honest delivery and strength. He doesn’t just write pretty, catchy tunes, he writes from a place of honesty, and now it’s my job to present that truth.”
In short, playing Neil Diamond: “Well, it’s a trip.”