'A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical' Star Will Swenson on Befriending Singer: 'My Dad's Going Nuts'
Will Swenson was a longtime Neil Diamond fan when he landed the role of a lifetime playing the Grammy winner on Broadway eight times a week
For lifelong Neil Diamond fan Will Swenson, stepping into the role of the legendary singer in Broadway's new musical about Diamond's life, A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, was a dream come true.
"Neil Diamond is my dad's favorite singer of all time," he tells PEOPLE of the singer's influence on his life. "I grew up with him in the house, just knew all of his songs just by osmosis, because I just heard all of them, knew all of them."
As an attempt to "impress girls," Swenson recalls learning to play the guitar, which of course meant picking up some of Diamond's tunes.
"I remember doing those around the campfire, and because I'm sort of a baritone, I remember trying to make a Neil Diamond sound," he notes of Diamond's unique sound, which is described in the show as "gravel wrapped in velvet." "It sort of became this party trick that I could do Neil Diamond."
What began as a "party trick" ended up being his ticket to a starring role on Broadway in New York City.
Swenson, whose first Broadway credit came in 2004, was approached by a producer who had heard about his ability to do "a pretty good Neil Diamond," he recalls.
Related:Neil Diamond Sells Entire Music Catalog, Including 110 Unreleased Songs, to Universal Music Group
"I was like, 'Yeah, I've been waiting my whole life for them to do the Neil Diamond musical,'" Swenson says. "He said, 'Well, you're in luck because we're developing something.' I was like, 'Sign me up. Sign me up.' So I didn't even have to audition. It was nice, although the whole thing felt like an audition because we were workshopping something to put in front of Neil Diamond, and if he didn't like me, then I wasn't going to be the guy."
After working on the project for some time, it was time to see what Diamond thought of it.
"I think it's literally the most surreal and simultaneously the most nervous I've ever been in my life," Swenson admits of the experience of performing the material for Diamond. "It was just so weird pretending to be him in front of him, making his sound, singing his... It was so weird, and then just so nervous too, wanting to do well for him."
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Following that first meeting, Swenson had the opportunity to join Diamond at Fenway Park in Boston, where people "love, love, love" the singer, to lead the crowd in rendition of "Sweet Caroline" — which is sung during every Boston Red Sox home game.
"It was one of those things I could never have dreamed up as a bucket list item, and there I was standing on top of the fence at Fenway singing 'Sweet Caroline' with Neil Diamond at my side was just absolutely crazy," Swenson remembers of the moment.
In 2018, following a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, Diamond announced that after decades of performing, he'd be retiring from touring.
"It is with great reluctance and disappointment that I announce my retirement from concert touring. I have been so honored to bring my shows to the public for the past 50 years," Diamond said at the time on his website. "My sincerest apologies to everyone who purchased tickets and were planning to come to the upcoming shows."
Diamond added, "I plan to remain active in writing, recording and other projects for a long time to come. My thanks goes out to my loyal and devoted audiences around the world. You will always have my appreciation for your support and encouragement. This ride has been 'so good, so good, so good' thanks to you."
Related:Neil Diamond Surprises Broadway Audience with Rare Performance of 'Sweet Caroline' — Watch!
Now, six months after the show opened at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, Swenson has gotten a front-row seat to just how passionate Diamond's fans are.
"It became apparent instantly," Swenson says. "My first entrance into the show, they're already, like, screaming in ecstasy because they love Neil so much. Neil can't tour anymore, so I think the people that have followed him around and are huge fans and always go see him when he comes through town, they're desperate to have that outlet and get their Neil fix."
He adds: "They certainly love Neil, and it's not lost on me what an honor it is to stand in his gigantic shoes."
To both Swenson and his father's great pleasure, the Tony nominee now has a relationship with both Diamond and his wife, Katie McNeil.
"The fact that I sort of know him as a person, and I've continued to text message with him and his wife, and they invited me to their house before opening to give me an opening night present. It seems absolutely crazy," he says. "My dad's going nuts. He calls me three times a week to just... 'How's it going? Has Neil called you?' I was able to introduce my dad to Neil on opening night, and my dad's 86, and he said, 'This was the best day of my life.'"
From getting to know him, and portraying him on stage eight times a week, Swenson says he's learned a thing or two from Diamond and how he's lived his life and navigated his career.
"I think what I have learned from Neil is that it's about the joy of performing and the process of doing it," he says. "And if you go up there looking for an award or a certain review, you might be disappointed, but that's not what's important. What's important is every night in this theater, we have 1,100 people screaming at the end of the night, having had a really good night in the theater. That's the lesson that I'm trying to learn, is that that is all the fulfillment that matters."
Related:Neil Diamond Says He Has Finally Accepted His Parkinson's Diagnosis: 'A Calm Has Moved In'
The show takes audiences from Diamond's first performance at the Bitter End in New York City all the way up to current day, as the singer reconciles with being unable to tour any longer. Swenson says that while going through all of the highs and lows of Diamond's life can be "tricky," he "learned a while ago to try to look at it as therapy."
"My wife taught me a good trick," Swenson shared, who is married to ten-time Tony nominee Audra McDonald. "Was to literally, before you leave your dressing room, just say, 'Okay, goodnight. Thank you. You stay here. I'm going home,' so that it's two very different compartments to your life."
Swenson and McDonald have been married since 2012 and share one daughter, Sally, and are also parents to children from previous marriages. McDonald is mom to daughter Zoe Madeline, while Swenson has two sons: Sawyer and Bridger. This year, McDonald was nominated for her historic tenth Tony Award — whichties her with Chita Rivera and Julie Harris as the three most nominated individual performers, The New York Times noted. She has previously won six Tony Awards — the most of any performer.
"For me, it's always just a given that she's going to be recognized and appreciated for the amazing talent that she is," Swenson said of his wife's nomination for her performance in the play, Ohio State Murders, that closed in January. "I'm lucky to live in a home with one of the best acting teachers in the world so that I can bounce things off of her and benefit from her expertise. She's amazing, and she deserves every single one of those nominations."
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