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Very Serious Naches – review of A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Story

The day started out promising enough—the Q got me from my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue in 15 minutes flat. But nothing, absolutely nothing—not the passage of time, billions of dollars in taxpayer money, or the competing civic visions of a succession of mayors—could relieve the depressing spectacle of Times Square. It was Hieronymus Bosch updated for the digital age.

As I emerged from the subway, the anorexic dream girls of H&M beckoned me to buy clothes while Steve Madden noodged me not to forget about shoes. Wait a minute! Didn’t that guy go to prison for fraud? Down on the plaza an army of Dirty Elmos was hustling tourists and anyone else who slowed down. I remembered what our friend Irene told us years ago, when Stan and I first moved to the city: Clutch your bag to your person and look straight ahead.

So I did, walking north beneath vertiginous glass towers splashed in lurid shades of Pepto Bismol-pink and chartreuse green. Even though this part of town was called the theater district, you had to stroll the side streets to find the actual playhouses, so many of them named after dead Jews: the Neil Simon, the Gerald Schoenfeld, the Samuel J. Friedman and now, the Stephen Sondheim, olev ha-sholom.

Beyond Taco Bell, Bubba Gump, and the Armed Forces Recruiting Station, I turned left on West 44th Street. My destination was the Broadhurst, right across from Sardi’s, just past a sign for Junior’s Cheesecake, an interloper from Brooklyn but not a bad place for a nosh before a show. Traffic, compared to before the pandemic, was light, which meant I could step off the curb without getting killed.

As I took my place in line, I noticed that people were still getting dressed up to come into the city, even if it was only in expensive athleisure wear and gold chains. And the theater kids were back in force, the ones who memorized the soundtracks of all the big musicals, probably one or two of them so insanely talented and driven that someday, they’d end up on Broadway too.

Then I saw the sign on the marquee, gold letters on black: “Good times never seemed so good.” Right. I knew that song. I’d heard it once at a baseball game. Or maybe a karaoke bar. What did it even mean? It struck me as pure Hallmark sentimentality, the bane of my father’s existence. Once, an old friend of the family sent us a greeting card that said, “Love life and life will love you back.” Dad just shook his head and said, “What a fool!”

Soon, the line started moving and I walked in the door, got my ticket scanned, and entered the theater. Along the back row of seats, bright merch was for sale, including tote bags and T-shirts that said “so good, so good, so good.” That song again. Should I buy something too? Maybe. Probably. But not until I saw the show.

The truth was, I knew almost nothing about Neil Diamond, except for that song, “Sweet Caroline.” It was kind of a fluke I was even at A Beautiful Noise, the show about his life. But I’d read a pretty good review of it in the New York Times. The writer compared it to the jukebox musical about Carole King, which I’d seen and loved. It also name-checked the Brill Building, the song-writing factory where the two of them got their start, along with lots of other Jewish songwriters.

And I had this thing about Yiddishkeit—about seeking out the landmarks of my Jewish American heritage. In the years since Stan and I moved to New York, I’d made pilgrimages to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the Tenement Museum, and to Ratner’s, the Carnegie Deli, and Sammy’s Roumanian before they closed. So, I decided I should go see this show about a guy who sold more than 130 million records worldwide and for a time was known as the Jewish Elvis.

As I was buying my ticket, I asked Stan if he wanted to go. He was the music maven in the family. When we met in San Diego in the mid-1980s, he was listening to punk and new wave while I was coming home late from work and zoning out on the couch in front of Thirtysomething and Hill Street Blues. When we moved to New York together, he brought the stereo into our relationship and subsequently spent years haunting high-end audio stores, searching for the perfect speakers. I wasn’t surprised when he said no as a look of disdain, or perhaps indigestion, crossed his face. Oh well. He might have been a musical snob, but at least he had an opinion about Neil Diamond. I didn’t.

The Broadhurst was one of the great old theaters on Broadway, with its ornate ceiling, Greek friezes, and crystal chandeliers. A little faded perhaps, even down-at-the-heels, but not brassy or vulgar or nouveau riche. An usher showed me to my seat, just a few rows back from the stage but so far to the left it was billed as a partially obstructed view.

Even though it was still early and the theater was practically empty, a couple was already in the last two seats on the aisle. At first, it looked to me like they were my parents’ age. Then I realized they were only a few years older than me. She was tall, slender, the kind of woman who can tie a scarf. He was large, heavy-set, planted in place and clutching a sturdy metal cane. He struggled to get up to let me by, but she spoke to him quietly, with encouragement, and pretty soon they moved behind the red velvet curtain into the aisle. A few minutes later, we all had to stand to let more people by. That’s when I looked around and saw that the theater was packed.

It was a typical audience at a mainstream Broadway musical—not edgy or artsy, no one save me dressed all in black. Maybe a little more female and older, arrayed along a time line from 50 to 85. Lots of makeup, jewelry, and complicated hair. Women and their daughters, women and their mothers. And also gaggles—of girlfriends and work friends, like Girls Night Out at a rowdy rock and roll bar. A Long Island/New Jersey crowd, in the best and worst sense of those words. What my parents would have called vulgar, the hoi polloi.

My parents hated vulgarity. They recoiled at vulgarity. They inveighed against vulgarity. They were contemptuous of vulgarity. Vulgar was their worst slur. But vulgarity was unavoidable, which gave them a lot to talk about. It saturated the atmosphere when I was growing up. Every time we had to go to a family bar mitzvah or wedding or really, just about any gathering of regular, middle-class Jewish people in western Pennsylvania in the 1960s, there was vulgarity.

What was it? It consisted of a kind of materialism and braggadocio, a kind of loudness, gaudiness, brashness, and girth. (Better to be thin like the gentiles.) Big cars, big furniture, big cigars. Cousin Herbie and his shiny gray suits. Uncle Abe and his roll of $100 bills. Cousin Ethel and her matching white living room, which reeked of a decorator. Men, women, and children with all the latest gadgets, whether record players, cameras, or color TVs.

Because it was bad, they tried to keep us away from it. I remembered when Dad refused to attend a cousin’s wedding at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach because he thought the invitation, black and silver, with burnished letters, in an oversize envelope requiring extra postage, was vulgar. (Part of me wanted to go, just to see a chocolate fountain.) Then there was Ma’s remark upon returning from a 50th wedding anniversary party for an aunt and uncle at a tacky motel off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “Not even fresh flowers on the tables,” she sniffed.

When I was growing up, Ma and Dad tried to instill in us—me and my four siblings—a sense of good taste. As a result, I lived in terror of liking the wrong things. Dad, in particular, disdained anything he considered sentimental or schmaltzy, which, had I asked, would almost certainly have included Neil Diamond. He didn’t even like Rachmaninoff. Earlier this year, when I was reading the rapturous reviews of Yuja Wang performing Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos at Carnegie Hall in her slinky, sequined dresses, I wanted to see her so badly. But then, panic-stricken, I thought, Wait a minute, isn’t he the Russian composer that Dad hated? Even though Dad’s been dead for 34 years.

As the lights went down, I felt my body relax. The theater was warm, intimate, like so many of the older ones on Broadway are. I was involved, just by proximity, to everyone around me. To the guy behind me who looked like Chuck Schumer. To the ancient woman in front of me who looked like my mother’s best friend Adele, president of our synagogue when I was growing up. If a fire broke out, we were all going down together.

Then the curtain rose on a scene familiar to countless New Yorkers, including me—Neil Diamond in therapy. He’s old—it’s the present day—cranky and doesn’t want to talk about his feelings. Not until the day when the shrink brings in his massive songbook and asks him specific questions about the songs. That triggers a flood of memories, and suddenly, a young Neil Diamond materializes on the stage.

It’s 1966, and he’s at the Brill Building, writing “I’m a Believer” for the Monkees, which I used to listen to 20 times in a row every day after school. At age 12, boyfriends for me were still theoretical, so the opening line, “I thought love was only true in fairy tales, meant for someone else but not for me,” struck me as the truest thing I’d ever heard.

Twenty years later, I felt the same about UB40’s reggae cover of “Red, Red Wine,” with its aching entreaty “Red, red wine, stay close to me … ” At that point, I did have a boyfriend—Stan—but also memories of so many things that I relied on red (or white) wine to forget. Also, I couldn’t tell anyone I loved the song because all the people I respected, including Stan, thought it was Top 40 dreck.

As the musical progressed, I was starting to realize that I knew more Neil Diamond songs than I thought—I just didn’t know he wrote them. Soon, he was performing them himself at the Bitter End nightclub, telling Marcia, the woman who’d become his second wife, how much he loved the spotlight because it was the only time when the dark clouds above his head went away.

What? I’d been expecting a frothy jukebox musical about a scrappy Jew from the outer boroughs who, through a combination of grit and talent, claws his way to the top. (See: Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow). I wasn’t expecting a melancholy musical about an insecure and lonely misfit suffering from undiagnosed depression. As soon as he launched into “Song Sung Blue,” with that offhand, understated, heartbreaking line, “Me and you are subject to the blues now and then,” my eyes welled with tears and I knew I was going to be obsessed with Neil Diamond for a long, long time because his story was my story—but without any of the talent.

The show was building to an end-of-first-act climax. After a string of hits, Neil signs a contract with a shady record label. The mob is breathing down his neck. Under pressure to produce an album, he’s hiding out in a crummy motel room in Memphis. It’s been raining for days. He’s trying to write one of his typical boy-meets-girl love songs—but nothing rhymes with Marcia. The stress is unbearable. Then he goes over to the couch, sees a magazine picture of President Kennedy’s young daughter Caroline—a three-syllable word with lots of rhyming potential—and from out of nowhere, it all comes together.

He hears a chord sequence he’s never used before, A to A6 … “hands, touching hands” … a slowly building wave. You can sense it’s going to start going up but it’s a small change. Maybe it’s not going up at all, maybe it’s just kind of hovering there. And then it comes down … “Sweet Caroline (bah, bah, bah) good times never seemed so good,” and you can feel the resolution so deep inside of you, it takes your breath away.

I didn’t quite understand how the chord progression worked, but I understood all the sweetness and sadness in his words—“and when I hurt, hurting runs off my shoulders, how can I hurt when holding you …”—and I just lost it. Me and everyone else in the audience. One organism, electric energy, spontaneous applause. Then a muffled sound to my left, and the man beside me, who up until then hadn’t uttered a word, was singing too.

As I swiveled around to take in the whole theater, I saw rows upon rows of joyous people, with their perfume and pastel outfits, singing and clapping like they were at the best bar mitzvah party ever, the kind where the scandalously unkosher shrimp cocktail on the buffet table is always the first thing to go. And I wondered, how did I miss out on this variety of joy? I didn’t miss out on the Beatles. Or the Rolling Stones. But somehow, I’d missed out on Neil Diamond, and I was sure that if I could figure that out, I would learn something really important about my life.

At intermission, I typed “why is sweet caroline so popular” into my phone, and Google told me it’s one of the 103 best wedding songs of all time. That it’s played at every Red Sox home game at Fenway Park. And that Neil Diamond himself did a parody of it at the start of the pandemic, subbing in the words “hands, washing hands.” I could have read at least a hundred more stories but soon the lights went down and the curtain rose again, this time on Stadium Neil of the 1970s and ’80s, playing to packed concert halls around the world in tight satin pants and sparkly shirts.

The actor who played the young Neil perfectly captured his very Jewish sex appeal, kind of like the boys in my older brother Howard’s Sunday school class, especially his best friend Danny, whose eyebrows were as thick and black and beautiful as Neil’s. And suddenly it dawned on me what an incredible moment it must have been for certain members of the tribe, when ethnic was a little sexy, Dustin Hoffman got to sleep with Katharine Ross and Anne Bancroft, and a nice Jewish boy from Flatbush—who went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, noch!—could strut around on stage, showing off his hairy chest.

But I also wondered how it must have felt for my second-generation parents, who had tried so hard to assimilate into white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society and emulate their bloodless ways. No doubt, they would have thought the Jewish Elvis was unspeakably vulgar, just as they thought the real Elvis was. But clearly a lot of other people, both gentile and Jew, had some very serious naches that he got to be a heartthrob and a star.

Then the musical got darker. Now Neil had all the money in the world, more than he could ever spend. Marcia wants him to stop touring and come home. But he can’t. Of course, he can’t! Not when performing is the only thing that dispels the dark clouds over his head. As the story toggled back and forth between the past and the present day, I knew from my own life how utterly futile it was to try to fight forces that you barely understood.

I’d tried TM and tai chi. I’d been needled and rolfed. I’d experimented lavishly with alcohol, drugs, and inappropriate men. But nothing really worked until I got myself a good shrink, who gave my dark clouds some names from the DSM-5: depression, anxiety, eating disorder, unspecified. Neil Diamond might have been one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but his therapist was basically telling him the same stuff as mine. It’s nice to have success but you don’t need it to be loved. You might have been scared and lonely as a child but you’re not a child anymore.

When she pushes him to reflect on the recurring theme of loneliness in his songs, it summons up a series of devastating flashbacks to his childhood. His parents (they were dry goods merchants—mine owned a furniture store) are fighting, invoking the memory of his Jewish ancestors fleeing persecution. His mother is hocking him to come out of his room, alarmed to discover he has an imaginary friend. Neil, in such a world you can’t be a dreamer. We’re trying to protect you. Disaster is just around the corner.

It brought back memories of my own lonely childhood, lying in my room in the dark when life got to be too much for me. Dad would come upstairs and hover at the door, fretting that I was “subject to the blues now and then,” not built to withstand the immense sadness and suffering in the world.

Dad once told us, Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, and I knew exactly who he was talking about: me. I was a feeler, and even then—at age 10—I understood that my life would be tragic unless I became a thinker who was smart and discerning and appreciated the finer things of life, who knew how to distinguish between good and bad, and between high-brow and low-brow, in matters of taste.

And yet here I was at this show that was defiantly low-brow, the lowest of low-brow, a jukebox musical about Neil Fuckin’ Diamond and I was crying my eyes out to “Sweet Caroline.” I knew what my dad would have said if he’d been sitting next to me, instead of the guy with the cane. He would have shaken his head dolefully and made his damning pronouncement: Honey, this is Top 40 dreck. He might have even pointed out that the line, “good times never seemed so good,” was as banal as a Hallmark greeting card. And also a tautology, the needless repetition of a statement or idea. Like “Always and Forever,” the R&B bump-and-grind song that Howard played endlessly, which drove Dad crazy.

Versteh? he would have said. Yeah, Dad. I understand. But he was wrong. There are moments when good times never seemed so good—when, for instance, you’re the kind of person who feels things deeply. Or when you’re getting older and you realize your days on earth are drawing to a close.

Then the show was over, and when the cast came back on stage, the actor who plays the young Neil led the audience in a singalong of “Sweet Caroline.” I didn’t know exactly when, or even how, but the tall, taciturn man beside me had somehow sprung to his feet and was belting out the lyrics as if the music itself had the power to restore his vitality and his strength. Ever since the end of the first act, I’d been clenching my handkerchief to dab discreetly at my eyes. Now, I wasn’t even trying to hide it anymore. Tears were streaming down my face.

In front of me, the ancient woman who looked like my temple president, and whose hair was colored and styled and sprayed to perfection even though it was so thin I could see her scalp, was standing up and singing too. Beside her, a woman built like a linebacker but decked out in big, chunky jewelry, put her arm around her frail shoulders, and I wondered if she was the daughter, and if they had played “Sweet Caroline” at her wedding. “Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you …”

Everyone in the theater held up their phones and started taking pictures, and I did too. I just wanted the party to go on forever and ever and in the same moment, I was heartbroken that I hadn’t gone to more—that my life wasn’t filled with days and nights of loud, raucous Jews doing the hora and Macarena and electric slide, just waiting for Sweet Caroline to be played so they could call out in unison, “so good, so good, so good.”

Orange streamers rained down from the stage, and slowly, very slowly, the theater began to empty out. For the first time ever in my Broadway-going life, I wanted the lines to move even slower so I could soak up all the naches in the room. I wanted to eavesdrop on conversations and find out when everyone had first heard Neil Diamond and what they were doing and how they felt. Like the 40-something dude in front of me, who told his kid that it was “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore” on an 8-track tape deck in his mom’s car.

Outside, people were milling around in front of the theater and I noticed, to my great surprise, that I wasn’t filled with my usual rage, impatient for everyone to just please move along. If they wanted to come to a complete stop in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk at each other’s phones, well, so be it.

I was just about to cross the street when a pedicab bore down on me along the curb. I marveled at the driver’s ability to keep up his cheerful tour guide patter while pulling both the weight of his passengers and the bulky carriage. On the far side of the avenue, another Dirty Elmo approached me. This time, I was struck by how his mangy red Muppet suit seemed to glow against the slate gray sky. When he gestured toward me to see if I wanted to take a picture, I just waved him away and he disappeared in the crowd.

I paused at the corner, waiting for the light to change, momentarily transfixed by the neon orange signs for kebabs and knishes on a halal food cart. At that moment, as the fragrant smells of cumin and coriander mixed with the fumes of tour buses, taxis, delivery trucks, and cars, there was a kind of desperate beauty about Times Square, people absolutely killing themselves to entertain and be entertained.

I couldn’t wait to go home and tell Stan about everything that had happened, about how I’d become a Neil Diamond superfan so late in life. I imagined how I’d pour us a glass of red, red wine and try to explain that he’s singing about a joy that isn’t possible without sadness. And of course, Stan would protest. He would say it was schmaltz. He would say it was easy listening for an undiscerning crowd. But I knew that by the time we were through eating dinner and the dishes were cleared away, he’d go with me when I went back to the Broadhurst to see it again.

–Ann Levin

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6 thoughts on “Very Serious Naches – review of A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Story

  1. Wonderful story that touches so many bases, daring us to revisit long-held, inherited or learned opinions and prejudices through the lens of the human heart. I adore Ann’s Yiddishkeit details, humor, and, of course, language. I’m now headed to YouTube for the Best of Neil Diamond…

  2. ? so wonderful, Ann.
    Laughed uproariously and wept real salty tears.
    The gamut.
    Your droll humor kicks ass.
    Your sense of pathos is profound.
    Overjoyed to be related to such burgeoning Talent.
    Picking up where Ma left off.
    All of us kvelling like crazy.
    You go, Girl.

  3. I can hear your voice in every paragraph. Mark of a gifted writer. And the story is wonderfully evocative.

  4. What a gift you have to write about your experiences and especially your original obdurate opinion turned to elevated inspired mush. That’s real honesty and- I like that a mind can be changed. Healthy.
    I never liked Neil Diamond cause I thought he was a sell out and too pedestrian. I wanted to hear Led Zeppelin, Ritchie Havens and Aretha. Truth is-the hits reached our ears with those catchy tag lines and it is a commonality for our generation to celebrate what we remember together no matter what it is. I would like to go see this-
    thanks Ann-

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