Why Utah’s Will Swenson has been hanging out with Neil Diamond
Sporting a Red Sox jacket, Neil Diamond recently led Red Sox fans in a spirited singalong of ‘Sweet Caroline.’ Right by his side, singing along and grinning ear to ear, stood Utah native Will Swenson
When Neil Diamond revealed to fans that he had Parkinson’s disease, another bombshell announcement quickly followed: He would be retiring from concert touring.
The news came in 2018, following a remarkable 50-year career filled with hit after hit. Diamond reassured fans that although it was difficult for him to perform, he would still remain active in other projects, including writing and recording, the Deseret News reported.
Which makes what happened a few days ago all the more special.
In a rare post-retirement appearance, Diamond showed up at Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, to give a live performance of “Sweet Caroline” during the eighth inning — a longstanding tradition at the ballpark.
Sporting a Red Sox jacket, the 81-year-old belted his 1969 hit, leading Red Sox fans in a spirited singalong. Right by his side, singing along and grinning ear to ear, stood Utah native and Broadway star Will Swenson.
And it’s a moment Swenson will never forget.
“I haven’t quite returned to earth yet. Wow,” Swenson shared on Twitter on June 19. “Sir, it was the thrill of a lifetime to be asked to sing at your side!”
The once-in-a-lifetime moment for Swenson comes as he takes on the role of Diamond in a brand-new musical that is now on its premiere run in Boston before it heads to Broadway in the fall, Billboard reported.
And of all the musicals Swenson has sung in, this is probably the one where he’s feeling the most confident.
A family love of Neil Diamond
Swenson hasn’t always been confident when it comes to his voice.
“His confidence in his singing is not as strong as it is for acting,” Swenson’s wife, Broadway superstar and six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, previously told the Deseret News. “He asks my opinion. It’s hard for me. I think he has a fantastic voice. He feels insecure about it; I wish he would just trust that his voice is good.”
The irony is that the Utah native, who starred in Latter-day Saint-themed movies like “The Singles Ward” and “The R.M.” in the early 2000s, has made a name for himself over the years performing in a range of musicals on Broadway — including “110 in the Shade,” “Hair,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Les Miserables” and “Waitress.”
But “A Beautiful Noise” is different — and Swenson has his father, a die-hard Diamond fan, to thank for that.
Swenson grew up knowing just about every Diamond song. One of his earliest memories is listening to Diamond’s 1972 live album “Hot August Night” on the eight-track in his family’s van, according to the Boston Globe. In the eighth grade, the actor learned Diamond’s ballad “Play Me” in an attempt to woo girls.
“I used to sing it around the campfire. And then I started doing a Neil Diamond voice on top of it,” Swenson, a BYU and Cottonwood High graduate, told the Boston Globe. “The other day, my best pal from high school was like, ‘Will, you’ve been training to play this part your entire life!’”
Broadway producer Ken Davenport had heard about Swenson’s Diamond impression, and approached the actor about doing a reading.
“I came in and I knew all the songs by heart, and I’m not even exaggerating,” Swenson told The Associated Press. “I just had it all in my DNA because it was such a part of my upbringing, just constantly on in the car and constantly on at home.”
The minute Swenson landed the role, he called his father in Lehi, Utah, who congratulated him and then immediately imparted some advice: “You make sure that ‘Red, Red Wine’ is in that show,” according to the The Patriot Ledger.
And while Swenson brings a strong love and knowledge of Diamond to the production, he is adamant that he hasn’t set out to strictly impersonate the singer.
“Neil has a gravely, gritty sound. If you go for absolute imitation, you run into trouble,” he told The Patriot Ledger. “What we need to do is to honor his sound and honor his music.”
What is ‘A Beautiful Noise’ about?
“A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical” explores Diamond’s rise to stardom, telling how “a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn become one of the most universally adored showmen of all time,” per Broadway World. The musical features some of Diamond’s biggest hits, including “Sweet Caroline,” “America,” and “Cracklin’ Rosie,” according to the production’s website.
But according to Anthony McCarten, the musical’s writer, it’s not “all singing and dancing and flashing lights.”
McCarten got the idea to center the show on a series of Diamond’s therapy sessions from the 1970s — and he reportedly did hours of interviews with Diamond to develop this concept. In the opening scene of “A Beautiful Noise,” Diamond is struggling to make progress in therapy, leading his therapist to pull out his songbook in an effort to encourage him to open up.
“I wanted it to be about something, and Neil, to his great credit, was not afraid to go there,” McCarten told the Boston Globe. “My job is not to flatter. It’s to get to the bottom of something. And Neil was happy for me to ask the questions, and he was nothing but honest in his responses.
“That’s what made him an extraordinary artist,” he continued. “If you examine his songs, even though they were pop tunes, there’s a lot of depth and self-inquiry in them.”
When will ‘A Beautiful Noise’ premiere on Broadway?
“A Beautiful Noise” had its official premiere at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre on June 21, and will run through July 31 before having its Broadway opening night Dec. 4, according to Theatermania.com.
And like the fans at that recent Red Sox game, theatergoers were treated to a rare appearance from Diamond, who attended the show’s premiere, CBS Boston reported. Of course, the night ended in an enthusiastic singalong of “Sweet Caroline.”
It’s unclear whether Swenson will continue the role of Diamond on Broadway, as the Broadway cast will be announced at a later date, according to Broadwaynews.com. But as a lifelong Diamond fan, Swenson is just enjoying every single moment.
“If you want to talk about a surreal moment, try singing 30 Neil Diamond songs while portraying Neil Diamond, 10 feet away from Neil Diamond,” Swenson told The Associated Press. “It was the most crazy, crazy experience of my life.”