Ingrid Michaelson Talks 'The Notebook' Musical with Star Carson Stewart, a Former ELLE Employee

the notebook
Ingrid Michaelson Talks 'The Notebook' on BroadwayJulieta Cervantes

Grab the tissues, because The Notebook: The Musical has come to Broadway. Based on the classic Nicholas Sparks book, which was adapted to the famous 2004 movie led by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, the show spans the lifetimes of its two central characters: Noah and Allie. The musical shows them at three different points in their lives (each played by three different actors), but focuses the most on their oldest iterations at the end of their lives. Known as one of the world’s greatest romances, the musical is filled with tear-jerking moments, all of which are only amplified by the chorus of sniffles from the audience. The Notebook: The Musical, with music and lyrics by singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson and a book by Bekah Brunstetter, opened at the Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway on March 14.

One of the show’s actors, Carson Stewart, who plays the roles of Johnny, a physical therapist at Allie and Noah’s hospice, and Finn, Noah’s best friend, worked at ELLE as a fashion assistant in 2021 as he was auditioning for the Broadway production. Here, he joins Michaelson, who has been working on the musical for seven years, in conversation to discuss the show, their Broadway debuts, and the ultimate kissing-in-the-rain song.

How Ingrid Michaelson Ended Up with The Notebook

Ingrid Michaelson: I went to school for musical theater. I actually did a lot of musical theater as a kid. I taught musical theater to children after I graduated from high school. It’s always been floating around my life. When I graduated college, I realized pretty quickly I didn’t have the Elphaba [from Wicked] voice. I figured, “Okay, what can I do that’s still creating, still singing?” I started to write music. It all just came together and in this really beautiful way. I started performing. It felt like I was still performing a version of myself, but not quite being myself on stage. Then I just started to do well in the singer-songwriter world. I figured, “I guess this is where I am now.” But I never really, fully let go of my love for musical theater and theater in general.

Fast forward to many years later, I met with one of the producers [of The Notebook], Kevin McCollum. He and I were talking about possibly working on another project together. He knew that I wanted to write a musical. I had no idea what I wanted to do, or what it was going to be about. I just knew that I wanted to try my hand in this area of the world.

All of a sudden, he just snapped his fingers, and pointed at me. He was like, The Notebook. Apparently, he was in the middle of trying to acquire the rights. I thought that meant, “You’re hired. This is your job.” I went along, and started to write songs for it, even though I wasn’t hired, and just sending them to him. Eventually, I think he figured, “This woman is really connected to this piece.” I guess he liked the songs, and so he hired me.

I think I remember seeing the movie when I was younger, and just being so obsessed with the story. Our show is a bit more intergenerational, but there’s something about the longevity of that love story, and that commitment that really just resonates with many people. But it’s what people strive for, is to have that kind of long lasting love in their life, and support in their life. I always just loved the story. I’m built to write about that.

On the Personal Nature of the Alzheimer’s Storyline

Michaelson: A lot of people in our cast and creative team have people in their lives that are suffering with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It goes to show how this disease, and not just Alzheimer’s, but memory loss in general, is all over. It affects us all at different levels and different ages.

Our show is a cathartic cry, I think that’s an important point to make. Our show is becoming known as the show you go to if you want to cry. I don’t want that to be misconstrued with, “We’re trying to manipulate anybody.” It’s just that the story is just so beautiful, and so touching. It allows you to feel.

On Carson Stewart’s Journey to The Notebook

Carson Stewart: I was a senior at Northwestern. My professor sent me the casting email [for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre pre-Broadway Notebook audition]. He was like, “I think you would be good for this. You should go out, and try it.” I’d obviously been an Ingrid fan for a very long time. I sang “You and I” at my middle school talent show. We arranged “Ghost” for my a cappella group in college. I sent in my tape. Then I went to Chicago in person, and did the material for them.

Michaelson: I remember, I was on Zoom for that.

Stewart: I walked into the room. I was like, “Ingrid's not here. I can breathe. I don’t have to be scared,” and then the last introduction was Ingrid on a laptop.

I was cast for almost a full year before we even started rehearsals, because of Omicron at the time. I was a swing [for the tryout]. I got to watch and witness the greatness every day. I then got to go on in Chicago for the role that I play now for a week during previews, when COVID was going around the cast. Then that production finished, things shifted around, and I got to originate the role on Broadway. It’s been an absolute dream.

Michaelson: The person who played the role [in Chicago], was fabulous, we love him. It is just the way schedules work. He has another project. But, we already knew that Carson was so great when he stepped in, because of COVID at the last minute in Chicago, and completely just floored us all. It’s not that we didn’t know he could do this, because he did the audition, but it’s one thing when you see someone in an audition do it once, then you see somebody in front of an audience. He just handled it with such professionalism and grace. It was so funny that we knew when that slot opened, we were like, “It’s a no-brainer.”

Obviously, there’s sadness in letting go of the person who was with us in Chicago. But there’s also this great excitement about having Carson. When somebody goes out, you’re like, “Oh no, what’s going to happen?” Then he came out, and had his own take on it. He wasn’t mimicking what the other actor was doing. He had his own vibe. It was so good. I am so happy this is the way it turned out. He’s such an important part of this piece, the character and Carson. Carson, don’t get sick.

Stewart: My middle school, high school, and college self are all freaking out. Ingrid just talked about me. That’s crazy.

Michaelson: I hope you already knew that I felt that way about you.

Stewart: Just, thank you. I totally fell in love with the character I play, Johnny. Johnny brings the joy and hope to the story, the humor.

Michaelson: But you also get to play another character, Finn.

Stewart: I do.

Michaelson: The way Bekah wrote it was that these characters, even though they’re in different time periods, they’re played by the same person, because there’s a slight throughline. Finn is young Noah’s best friend and confidant. Johnny is older Noah’s somewhat of a confidant and a trusted friend. There are parallels.

Stewart: Yeah, I come back on as somebody else, and then I switch again. That’s something that’s so exciting, and inherently theatrical that you couldn’t do in a movie, or you can’t really do in a book. It’s so intentional, and just so beautiful too.

a person playing a guitar
Carson Stewart in the sitzprobe for The Notebook: The MusicalMichaelah Reynolds

On Their Broadway Debuts

Michaelson: I was put into a show that already was running, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I only did it for six weeks [in 2017]. It was a short run, and I originally thought [it was] relatively low commitment in terms of what I had to learn. I thought [Sonya Rostova, the part Michaelson played] was a secondary character. After [I first saw] the show, as a kind of a joke, I was like, “If the woman who was playing the role ever wants to take a little vacation, I’ll step in,” thinking it wasn’t a lot of material. Within 24 hours there, people were like, “Does she want to come in?” I was like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

We settled on a very short run of six weeks. They got me all the material. It was so much. This character was in every song up in the balcony, dressed in different clothes. It was just so much more than I thought, which was terrifying at the time.

I had maybe three weeks of rehearsal, then I was put in. I don’t really remember it, to be honest. It felt like it just happened so fast. The beautiful thing that I experienced in that show was that everybody was there to help me since I was the newbie. Everybody was there to catch me and help me.

It was definitely a very scary, intense, and magical experience. I only did it for such a short amount of time. I don’t know what it would be like to do a show over and over again. I can’t imagine how you keep that fresh, Carson.

Stewart: For me, we’re only a month in. I’ve been learning a lot. I had a similar experience from my Broadway debut as well. I just blacked out. I was happy that I was there. Then in the finale, as well, I was like, “Wow, we did that.”

I think where it differs is that I’ve been a part of the development of this for like two years. We definitely had more time with the material. I feel like it’s been more personalized. Also, we have a book writer and the composer in the room that it's like, they’re constantly adding things or adding lines. Ingrid will write a song in 30 minutes, and then it’s in the show that next day.

On the Rehearsal Process

Michaelson: We had five weeks of previews. The way that it works normally is, let’s say, on a Tuesday you watch the show. “Okay, this line isn’t working, we have to change this line.” Or the button of the song isn’t long enough, it needs to be longer or shorter. After the show comes down, the actors get out of their hair and makeup. They go home. The creative team meets in the house of the theater. We have a notes session. What changes do we need to make? How do we implement them? You can’t throw too many changes at the actors at one time, because they’ll short circuit, they’re humans. You kind of have to have a backlog if you have a lot of changes. You have to schedule, “When can we try this? When can we do this?”

Our big goal for the whole preview process was just to tighten, tighten, tighten. Make everything really clean. Transitions, music, just everything. Just trim all the fat away. It’s just watching, learning, seeing what the audience thinks or seeing how I feel about things. We were really fortunate to be in a very good place coming into these previews. We got all of our changes. We’re done.

Stewart: I can’t even imagine what that feeling is like for you.

Michaelson: It’s freeing and terrifying. I’ve been working on it for seven years. The thing with all art, in my opinion, is because I’ve been making records for so many years, is you can keep working on something until it’s worn down to a nub. You know what I mean? You have to know when to just let it go, and let it have its life.

On Working at ELLE Magazine vs. Being on Broadway

Stewart: They were both dream jobs. I think they both rely on a similar skillset. I think a huge one of them was creative problem solving. I think being able to be on the fly and trust your instincts was so big, something that I really learned from ELLE.

On the stage, it’s the exact same thing. Our first preview stopped for a technical problem for seven minutes. I knew that I had to come on stage in the next scene. I was like, “How am I going to play this? Do I play it differently? Do I play it the same? Do I acknowledge what just happened? Or do I just keep going?”

It’s always trusting your instinct, and being available to a change or something unexpected. There’s also an attention to detail in both. Just knowing exactly where to stand on stage and what set pieces are moving. It’s hearing a cue for a song from a bird.

Michaelson: You guys make it look easy. They have to be thinking about eight things while they’re doing the one thing that everybody’s seeing them do. There’s so many other things happening. The main thing being like, “Don’t let a piece of moving scenery hit you in any part of your body.” I’m so impressed.

Stewart: This is my lifelong dream come true, which is just so beautiful. I've always loved entertainment, culture, writing, and collaboration. I think those are consistent across those two things. I had such a wonderful introduction to New York through ELLE.

This is just a crazy full-circle moment that I spent my first day at the ELLE offices organizing the magazine, all the editions, and now, I’m with one of my heroes doing an article for ELLE. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

a couple of women posing for the camera
Ingrid Michaelson at the first rehearsal for The Notebook: The MusicalJenny Anderson

On How Writing a Musical is Different from an Album

Michaelson: They’re not too entirely different. I feel like I’ve always had some sort of a narration in my head when I’m writing songs. The biggest difference for me is that The Notebook was coming from an outside source as opposed to coming from something within me. But, because I have such a connection to the story, I’m such a romantic, I have experienced very deep loss, I feel like even though the story is not mine, once it entered my heart, it kind of became mine.

I also like the chaos of musical theater. I don’t think this is a traditional musical theater score. I know some musicals, there’s the tap number, there’s the townsperson number. I think this piece, I’ve been allowed to really just make what I want to make. I don’t think it’s a traditional musical theater vibe, but I’m very proud of it. I love it. But I do think it leans over into the singer-songwriter world. They are different in many ways, but I find a lot of connective tissue between both, for sure.

The Song They Wish Would Play for Their Own Dramatic Kiss-in-the-Rain Scenes

Stewart: “Power of Two” by The Indigo Girls, definitely. I think it would be a beautiful song like slow dance in the rain. That was my parents’ love song.

Michaelson: “Fix You” by Coldplay. I just love that song. That’s one of my favorite songs. I’m such a broken human that the idea of just the healing power of love and the rain, the big epic guitar solo, that would be my choice.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carson Stewart plays Finn/Johnny in The Notebook: The Musical with music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson and a book by Bekah Brunstetter at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here.

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