These days, one of the most notable things about Neil Diamond’s extraordinary career is the continuing success of
his 1969 hit Sweet Caroline. You hear it everywhere, not just coming from bar room wall speakers but from the throats of enormous stadium crowds at sporting events.
This gives rise to the strange phenomenon of tens of thousands of men and women singing along to an exuberant
love ballad minutes before two terrifying heavyweight boxers step into the ring with the aim of knocking the other one senseless.
Unlike sportsmen, Diamond’s working life has endured for well over half a century, although health problems have sadly curtailed his live appearances as he edges towards his eightieth year.
The song, with its irresistible invitation to audiences to join in, bides its time in the tribute stage show, A Beautiful Noise, waiting in the wings as the other monster hits – Cracklin’ Rosie, America, I Am I Said – march past like decorated heroes. When it finally arrives – the ultimate encore in any Diamond setlist – it is easy to forget its origins as a song in praise of Caroline Kennedy, the late president’s daughter, who was eleven years old when it was released in 1969. He later sang it at her fiftieth birthday party in 2007.
When a bio-musical is made of such material, it has little need for a plot. The narrative is the songs. The motivation is the writing and performing of them. The payoff is mass participation. There is comedy too, much of it provided by the audience itself. This is largely composed of fans deep into pensionhood but standing, crooning along, yes and bopping as if it’s 1967 and Lulu’s on Top of the Pops doing The Boat That I Row.
The show does have a stab at a documentary, opening with monochrome footage of 1960s New York and the all-important Brill Building. Premises can attain stardom, and this 1930s Broadway office block is right up there with such as Abbey Road or Madison Square Garden for its association with global celebrity. For it was here, in a musical culture slung between postwar and pre-Beatles, that the creation of pop music went industrial. Giants clocked in and laboured through the week in cramped spaces: Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, the Neils Sedaka and Diamond.
As A Beautiful Noise demonstrates, the Brill Building produced songs with a feel that was distinctive but also eclectic, formed of influences as diverse as black gospel, Latin and rhythm-and-blues. In 1962 the place housed more than 150 music organisations. Within its walls an aspiring songwriter could go through the whole business of publishing, demo-ing, promoting and broadcasting. It was in effect a hit factory, with sheet-to-street facilities, and its success re-affirmed the truth that in the realm of popular song hard graft is as vital as inspiration.
As Diamond, Fisher Stevens sparkles like the original. So does his band, with its glorious brass trio of Glen Johnson, Nichola Pope Matthews John Moakes. At his best, in the lower vocal register, he could just about pass for the real thing. Yet in this joyful mish-mash of a musical, the figure he portrays becomes a kind of human juke-box, tackling hits that were not of Diamond’s making.
There’s irony in the fact that the evening’s finest moment does not belong to Diamond, nor to the man portraying him. It comes from the singing of Woman In Love by Rebecca Cole, one of Stevens’s two hard-working backing singers. This was, of course, a mighty hit in 1980 for Barbra Streisand, and was written by the Bee Gee brothers Robin and Barry Gibb.
Who cares? On the evidence of Monday evening’s performance, not a soul. Afterwards, down in the foyer of the aptly named Lyric, there’s Fisher Stevens in a crush of women who look as though they’re not even seventy yet. He’s taken on Diamond’s mantle so whole-heartedly that he’s surely scribbling those autographs as Neil. Fake news? Not really, just conviction.
The fans are so into him that this could almost be the early 1960s, with England yet to win the World Cup, Neil Armstrong yet to do the moonwalk, US pop stars fighting their way back into the British charts while a scruffy band called the Rolling Stones is about to do the same in America.
Review by Alan Franks
Award-winning Fisher Stevens makes his West End debut in A Beautiful Noise, a show which celebrates the life and music of Neil Diamond, one of the world’s greatest ever singer-songwriters.
“What a beautiful noise / Comin’ up from the street / Got a beautiful sound / It’s got a beautiful beat”…. these lyrics from his 1976 hit song, A Beautiful Noise, underscore more than any others the evergreen appeal of Neil Diamond, a performer, songwriter and entertainer whose name will echo down through the ages.
Though he has declared his touring days over, Neil Diamond’s star will burn forever.
Monday 88th July 2019