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'The Notebook' on Broadway — A Love Story That's Universal

Based on the popular book by Nicholas Sparks, the Tony Award-nominated musical is about a couple facing Alzheimer's and bound by love

By Debra Wallace

Fond memories of falling in love are easily evoked during the romantic new Broadway musical, "The Notebook," inspired by the 1996 bestselling book by Nicholas Sparks and the subsequent 2004 film.

A still from The Notebook Broadway performance. Next Avenue
Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood in 'The Notebook' on Broadway  |  Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The movie about a devoted couple who never lose sight of their bond is considered one of the highest-grossing romantic dramas of all time and stars Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands and James Garner.

Noah reads to his ailing wife from The Notebook, their life story that she put down on paper years before her memory started failing.

In this stage version of the story, which is a musical, there are three sets of actors portraying the main characters, Allie and Noah, a couple who fall deeply in love as teens, come back together as young adults, and are separated in their golden years by Allie's Alzheimer's Disease.

Allie is residing in a nursing home and her devoted husband Noah insists on continuing their lifelong love affair by refusing to leave her side.

To bring her back to him, their family and their precious memories, Noah reads to his ailing wife from The Notebook, their life story that she put down on paper years before her memory started failing.

Portraying Older Allie and Older Noah with a combination of humor and pathos are Maryann Plunkett, who won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for "Me and My Girl," and Dorian Harewood, an NAACP Theatre Award winner and an Emmy nominee.

A Lifetime of Love

Plunkett and Harewood have both been nominated for Tony Awards for a leading role in a musical for "The Notebook." The 77th Tony Awards will take place in New York City on Sunday, June 16 and be televised live on CBS. (Check local listings for times.)

The message of the show is that true love conquers all. Even though these two lovers come from two different worlds (he works at a lumber yard and she is from an affluent family that tries to keep them apart), they share a lifetime of love that even severe memory loss cannot fully hamper.

After being married to his wife, Nancy, for 45 years, Dorian Harewood strongly identifies with the love story in "The Notebook."

In an interview, the 73-year-old Harewood said that kind of "fairy tale love" resonates with audiences, especially those who have experienced these emotions. "It is powerful to find that special someone to share your life with," he noted.

Harewood, whose decades-long career has included stage, film, TV and voice acting for more than 100 cartoons, calls "The Notebook" a special project, with extraordinary talent on stage every night.

A still from The Notebook Broadway performance. Next Avenue
Maryann Plunkett  |  Credit: Julieta Cervantes

"I feel this is one of the most unique musicals I've ever been in or ever seen. Getting the Tony nomination is wonderful, but it's just another way for me to thank the people who I am working with," he explained.

Harewood credits his co-star with making "The Notebook" such a rich experience at every performance.

"Maryann is a very, very giving actor. All of us have to be ready because she doesn't do anything the same way every time," he said. "One of the most important things in acting is listening. I have to be on my toes with her and I truly look forward to this during every show."

Harewood says Plunkett was instrumental in making the rehearsal process flow so well. "We had five or six days where we got together before our first official rehearsal," he explained. "Once we started the official rehearsals, we already knew our individual habits, or at least our instincts, and the way we worked, so we were extremely comfortable from the first day. I credit her with that, and it was smooth sailing all the way."

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Harewood said he has never experienced a show that had three iterations of the same couple, another aspect of "The Notebook" that makes the show so unique.

The Influence of Bette Davis on Dorian Harewood's Career

"I've grown to know the actors who play Young Allie (Jordan Tyson), Young Noah (John Cardoza), Middle Allie (Joy Woods), and Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) and they are tremendous performers. It's exciting to work with them and interesting to watch them create their magic every night; the pride I feel is kind of like watching my kids," he said.

Thinking back to his early career, Harewood has legendary stage and screen siren Bette Davis to thank for the path he has pursued. In 1974, while performing the lead role in the musical "Miss Moffat," the musical version of the movie "The Corn is Green," Davis took the young actor under her wing and gave him sage advice.

"She said she liked my dramatic instincts, which she thought were like hers, and told me I should consider exploring dramatic acting."

He remembers her saying, "I really loved your singing, but I also really loved what you were doing with the acting part, as well. Have you ever thought about acting?"  

Harewood replied that he started as a singer, and acting was not on his mind. "She said she liked my dramatic instincts, which she thought were like hers, and told me I should consider exploring dramatic acting. I told her, 'Well, coming from you, I definitely have to take that into consideration.'"

The two stayed in close contact during various roles and spoke a lot about acting and everything to do with show business. "Bette Davis is definitely the one who talked me into acting. She literally was my mentor in the business," he said.

The Appeal of 'The Notebook'

Of "The Notebook," Harewood said, "It doesn't matter what size you are, color you are, sex you are – it encompasses the entire human experience. It's a love story between two people, and their commitment to each other while navigating through the ups and downs of their relationship."

He added that "The Notebook" continues to have such a wide appeal because of "the uniqueness and universality of the love story. It goes across the entire human spectrum. That's why it affects everyone so deeply."

A still from The Notebook Broadway performance. Next Avenue
The cast of 'The Notebook' on Broadway  |  Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Harewood said that he believes that everyone, in one way or another, has been touched by memory loss and Alzheimer's.

"I grew up with a family down the street that was basically my second family; a terrific group of people. Unfortunately, my best pal Tony's mother and father both died from Alzheimer's. So, I experienced that secondhand through him," he shared. "Everyone has had some kind of connection with a friend or loved one who has had to deal with this."

Dealing With an Alzheimer's Diagnosis

An estimated 6.9 million Americans age 65 and older are currently living with Alzheimer's Disease, a number that could grow to 13.8 million by 2026 unless there are medical breakthroughs to prevent or cure it, according to the National Library of Medicine. Alzheimer's remains the fifth-leading cause of death among Americans ages 65 and older.

"Today, we see that our spouse is not going to remember the season or our names, but years later, she is not going to be able to use a fork."

Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, a psychotherapist with experience in Alzheimer's Disease/Dementia and a former gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University, is keenly aware of how difficult it is to reconcile the musical's theme of "time slipping away" for caregivers and their loved ones.

FitzPatrick says that since people can live with Alzheimer's disease and its symptoms for a decade or more, it presents a myriad of challenges for the patient and the caregiver.

"Today, we see that our spouse is not going to remember the season or our names," she explained, "but years later she is not going to be able to use a fork."

The CEO/Founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc. FitzPatrick's advice for caregivers like Older Noah is "to be kind to yourself and practice self-care. Try to learn everything you can about the kind of dementia your loved one has."

One book she recommends is "The 36-Hour Day," because it explains in great detail what caregivers can expect to happen, both in the mind and body of someone with Alzheimer's.

FitzPatrick said it is wise to accept help from everyone who offers to help you and your loved one.

"Don't screen people out because they are miles away or not as spry as they used to be," she said. "Friends and relatives can drop off a gift card for a favorite restaurant or offer to cut the lawn."

FitzPatrick is also the author of the 2016 self-help book, "Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One," a useful resource for caregivers that offers practical ideas and support, including help for those who are helping from a distance.

"Caregiving can be a big part of your life, but it can't be your entire life," FitzPatrick explained. "It is about reducing stress so you can be healthier while you are being a good caregiver."

The Power of Reminiscing

"It is important to realize that there are people you thought had your back and will disappoint you," FitzPatrick said. "Instead focus on the support you have from family, friends, aides, adult day care, an assisted living facility or nursing home, and hospice care. It is impossible to do this for decades on your own."

"As my character says at the beginning of the show, it's a love story that will affect and will connect to every human being that comes to see it in one way or another."

Writing in a notebook like [the one] in this story is a great vehicle, but FitzPatrick cautions that it is not quite as "flawlessly executed in real life because Noah is doing it in a way that is not pressuring [Allie]," she says, adding that some caregivers use flashcards with their loved ones which can add pressure for the patient.

"The idea of the reminiscing is beautiful because it focuses on long-term memory. So many people want to talk about what is happening in their lives right now and they get extremely upset when the person with dementia is not able to access it," says FitzPatrick.

Harewood says the themes from "The Notebook," both the smaller moments and bigger ones, are another reason the musical resonates with its audience each night.

"As my character says at the beginning of the show, it's a love story that will affect and will connect to every human being that comes to see it in one way or another," he said. "This happens because love is universal and this particular story about these two people who are in love is truly a universal story."

Editor’s note: "The Notebook" is currently on stage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and has an open-ended run.

Debra Wallace
Debra Wallace is a multi-award-winning professional journalist, author, editor, social media/web content provider, and autism advocate with 20+ years of experience. She regularly contributes to Parade.com, Orlando Family Fun, South Jersey, Monsters & Critics, Delaware Today, and several other print and digital publications. Her expertise includes celebrity profiles, entertainment, local heroes, health/wellness, special needs parenting, and autism advocacy. Wallace is a devoted single mother to her 18-year-old son, Adam. Read More
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