Interview: Lowell Native Maryann Plunkett Brings Real-Life Experience to THE NOTEBOOK: THE MUSICAL

Musical now at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

By: Apr. 13, 2024
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Interview: Lowell Native Maryann Plunkett Brings Real-Life Experience to THE NOTEBOOK: THE MUSICAL
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The Notebook

Tony Award winner Maryann Plunkett has played a wide range of roles in her Broadway career. The Lowell native’s latest, an elderly woman dealing with dementia, in “The Notebook: The Musical,” may be her most personal, however, as she recalls her own mother’s struggle with debilitating memory loss to bring her current character to life.

Based on the bestselling 1996 novel by Nicholas Sparks that inspired the hit 2004 movie of the same name, “The Notebook” features music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, a book by playwright Bekah Brunstetter, direction by Tony Award winner Michael Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Next to Normal,” “Grey Gardens,” “Rent”) and Schele Williams, with choreography by Katie Spelman, the musical – which had its world premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in September 2022 – is now at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

In addition to Plunkett and Dorian Harewood, as Older Allie and Older Noah, the cast includes Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie), John Cardoza (Younger Noah), Joy Woods (Middle Allie), Ryan Vasquez (Middle Noah), and Andréa Burns (Mother/Nurse Lori).

Set in a Mid-Atlantic coastal town in the late 1960s, the late 1970s, and the present day, the musical follows Allie and Noah, who share a lifetime of love despite outside forces that threaten to break their enduring bond. Their story is read from a timeworn notebook by a frail old man in the present day to a fellow nursing home resident who happens to be his wife of over 40 years.

Plunkett – whose own parents were married for 58 years – was born in Lowell. When she was eight years old, the family, which includes her three brothers, and a sister, moved to Tewksbury. She attended the University of New Hampshire at Durham. After college, Plunkett began her acting career in Boston with Next Move Theatre and other companies.

Along with four-time Tony Award-winning producer Spring Sirkin (“Master Class,” “Skylight,” “A View from the Bridge,” and “Hello, Dolly!”), Plunkett was a founding member of the Profile Theatre Company, renamed Portland Stage, in Portland, Maine, and also an actor with Sirkin’s Boston-based Chamber Repertory Theatre, a touring company bringing original adaptations of classic literature to young audiences.

Plunkett made her Broadway debut in 1983 when she replaced Carrie Fisher as Sister Agnes in “Agnes of God,” with Elizabeth Ashley (succeeded by Diahann Carroll) and Geraldine Page, later playing the role on a national tour – this time with Ashley and Mercedes McCambridge – that played Boston’s Shubert Theatre. Plunkett went on to replace Bernadette Peters as Dot/Marie in the original 1984 Broadway production of “Sunday in the Park with George.”

As Sally Smith in “Me and My Girl,” Plunkett earned the 1987 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Her subsequent Broadway appearances include 1991’s “The Crucible,” 1992’s “The Seagull,” 1993’s “Saint Joan,” which she also performed to great acclaim at the Huntington in 1986, and 2008’s “A Man for All Seasons.”

With husband and fellow actor Jay O. Sanders, Plunkett has starred in playwright Richard Nelson’s 12-play “Rhinebeck Panorama.” On television, she has guest-starred on “Murder, She Wrote,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and “Law & Order,” while her feature film appearances include “The Company Men,” “Little Women,” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” In January, Plunkett won an Obie Award for her performance in the 2023 off-Broadway play “Deep Blue Sound.”

On Zoom recently from her home in New York City, Plunkett talked about “The Notebook,” her mother, and more.

How does it feel to be back on Broadway in a musical?

It’s glorious! I love this story, this music, and this cast.  Every night there's something new that surprises me. There's something new that touches me. And there's something new that just impresses me. It’s wonderful to be a part of it.

What attracted you to this role?

Well, I have a personal association, with my mom having lived with dementia, and so that was the first thing that drew me to this part. But I also love in the script that she's alive. She's a human being. She's striving. She's searching. She's not just someone who sometimes people think of when they think of people with dementia – someone who’s passive, and thinking that they're just lost as opposed to still being among the living.

Tell me about the song you perform that speaks to this?

It’s called “I Know,” and it has my character expressing her desire to return to a time when she was well. She sings “I want to go back,” and the refrain is “I am still in here, you know.” From my experience with my own mother, it's that she was always looking. She was always still curious. She was always seeking, even when the frustration would come. And she didn't know what she was looking for. She didn't know where she was at certain times, or who we were at certain times, but she was always reaching out. There was a curiosity and a yearning to understand.

Are there things in Older Allie that you saw in your mother?

My mother lost her autonomy, and at times that made her angry. Older Allie lashes out because she’s frustrated at being told what to do. And while she knows she is searching for something, she doesn’t understand what. And yet she feels safe with Noah, especially when he is reading passages about their life together to her. I think theirs is a love story for the elders. Allie falls in love with the man she’s always been in love with, and eventually realizes who he is, even if only briefly.

What was it like being the child of someone living with dementia?

If you're living in a situation or being there for someone for years as I was for my mother, you live it. You don't have other options or anywhere else to go.  Sometimes you wonder what so-and-so say might say about a particular moment, but ultimately how you handle the situation is up to you. My dad, who passed away four years before my mom, had cancer. And I looked up everything I could about the type of cancer he had and what the prognosis was.

With my mom it was different. I learned from the Alzheimer’s Association that there are as many types of dementia as there are people with dementia. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of condition.

Is this story true to what you know from your personal experiences?

I find it immensely authentic and true, which is what allows me to channel my mother and use some of her experiences and behaviors as well as her reactions to things. I think Bekah has done a beautiful job with the book. There’s no fat in it. She wrote a 2-hour, 20-minute play out of a long book and still left space for life and breath and air. And with Ingrid’s magnificent music and lyrics, the story moves along in just the right way.

You play Older Allie, Joy Woods plays Middle Allie, and Jordan Tyson is Younger Allie. What’s it like sharing this role with two other actors?

Older Allie is on stage for the whole time so I get to watch them both as their parts of this story unfold. It fills me with something joyous. I love sitting and watching the beauty of Jordan and John as they first fall in love. They are both remarkable in that exploration of love. I feel the joy of what used to be me. I mean I have lived Younger Allie’s life – the first discovery of Noah and the first kiss they share. In the course of “Sadness and Joy,” the song Young Allie and Young Noah have at this moment, Older Noah is reading to my Allie, and it's the discovery for us, for older Noah and for me, that we have a strong connection that goes back over many years.

And when you see Joy as Middle Allie, she is involved with Lon (Chase Del Rey) and engaged to be married to him because she lost contact with Middle Noah after his military service in Vietnam. Lon is lovely and she loves him, but it’s sad because she knows she really wants to be with Noah.

Do you still have ties to Massachusetts?

I have one brother who technically lives in New Hampshire but he’s in Atkinson, which is on the Massachusetts line, so I like to think of him as living in Massachusetts. Between Boston, Cambridge, Tewksbury, and Mattapoisett, my family is all still in Massachusetts and I have good friends there, too.

What are your favorite memories of your early career in Boston?

I have so many, including “Saint Joan,” “Uncle Vanya,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and other plays I did during the time that Peter Altman was artistic director at the Huntington. I enjoyed doing a musical version of “The Miser” for Next Move Theatre with Karen MacDonald. When Karen left Next Move Theatre, I took her place and did additional shows there including the Boston production of “Talley’s Folly.” And with Chamber Rep, I toured doing “The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Necklace,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and more. I was the young’un in the company back then.  

Are you still in touch with Spring Sirkin?

Yes, in fact I had brunch with Spring and her daughter, Ashlyn Frank, a film and theater director, before a matinee of “The Notebook” a few weeks ago. Ashlyn has written a film script adaptation that’s very, very good and which we’re talking about now.

Speaking of children and their parents, what did your mother and father think of your career?

Both my parents were very supportive of my decision to become an actor. My mom was a musician and she used to play trumpet at the bandstand and dance hall at Hampton Beach, so she knew what it was to be a performer. My father worked hard all his life, but he also liked taking us on adventures and being silly to make us laugh. That said, I don’t think he initially saw the idea of me going into theater as a good thing. But gradually, over time, he became proud of me like my mother always was.

When my dad died, I found a suitcase in his closet in which he’d saved letters, newspaper clippings, and programs people had sent him over the years from shows I’d done. Knowing he had saved all these things blew me away. He never said a word, he just did it and kept it a secret. When I discovered it, I thought, “Oh, wow! Dad did this for me.”


Photo caption: Maryann Plunkett, Jordan Tyson, and Joy Woods in the current Broadway production of “The Notebook: The Musical.” Photo by Julieta Cervantes.  Head shot of Maryann Plunkett courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown.


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