In 1994, Nicholas Sparks was 28 and had tried a range of odd jobs: He had worked in real estate and restaurants, started an orthopedic products manufacturing business, sold an orthopedic products manufacturing business, written two rejected manuscripts, co-authored a self-help book based on the Lakota tribe of the Sioux Nation (Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding), and gotten a gig in pharmaceutical sales.
He had never published a novel. In a last-ditch effort at literary life, Sparks spent six months writing a story. It was a tale of love and loss, of two people being birds, and upholding lightly but not overtly Christian values. It was a story of marriage withstanding the test of time and Alzheimer’s. It was called The Notebook, and it made a lot of money.
Less than a year after a literary agent picked the manuscript out of her slush pile, The Notebook sold to the Time Warner Book Group for a $1 million advance. When the book was published in 1996, it hit the New York Times bestseller list in its first week and stayed there for more than a year, selling more than 105 million copies worldwide.
In 2004, the story was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, and grossing more than $115 million internationally. In the years since, The Notebook has spawned a Bollywood variation called Zindagi Tere Naam, been optioned for a series on The CW, fueled many memes, and inspired the Bengali film Niyoti, about a millionaire entrepreneur who falls for a girl with dementia.
On Sunday afternoon, the story got yet another revival—this time as a staged reading for what would become a Broadway musical, produced by Kevin McCollum and Kurt Deutsch, with a book written by playwright and This is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter, and music by “The Way I Am” singer Ingrid Michaelson. The production debuted as a staged reading at Vassar College as part of New York Stage and Film’s 35th Powerhouse season, starring James Naughton, Jelani Alladin, Hailey Kilgore, and High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens.
But unlike most Sparks productions, which tend to find success with the same lack of controversy on display in Sparks’ prose, the reception of this reading was uncertain. It arrived on the heels of a tense week for Sparks, after a series of emails, published by The Daily Beast, revealed the writer detailing his outrage over the alleged formation of an LGBT student group at the Epiphany School of Global Studies, a Christian academy he co-founded and helps oversee. In other messages, Sparks attributes Epiphany’s dearth of black students not to “racism or vestiges of Jim Crow” but to “1) Money and 2) Culture.”
The emails emerged as part of the discovery in a five-year lawsuit between Sparks and the former headmaster and CEO of Epiphany, Saul Hillel Benjamin, over an alleged pattern of discrimination at the school against anyone “whose religious views and/or identities did not conform to their religiously driven, bigoted preconceptions,” according to the complaint. In a message on Benjamin’s alleged leadership errors, Sparks listed Benjamin’s “misplaced priorities at the school level (GLBT, diversity, the beauty of other religions, as opposed to academic/curricular/global issues, Christian traditions, etc.).”
Shortly after the story was first published, Sparks vigorously denied the allegations in a statement on Twitter, noting that the court had dismissed many claims against him, while conceding the case is scheduled for a trial in August. (“The article appearing in today’s The Daily Beast is not news,” Sparks wrote, “and repeats false accusations and claims made against Epiphany and me, and largely ignores the overwhelming evidence we have submitted to the court.”) Four days later, he issued an apology for his language, which “potentially hurt young people and members of the LGBTQ community.” He did not address the comments he had made about black students.
Sparks’ books have earned him an ungodly sum of money, and the controversy quickly prompted calls for action from the companies and corporations helping him make it. Color of Change, an online justice non-profit that has previously campaigned for the ousting of R. Kelly, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly from RCA and FOX, respectively, launched a petition to get Sparks’ publisher, Grand Central Publishing, to drop him.
But the implications of the lawsuit were especially acute for The Notebook on Broadway, both because it related to Sparks’ most lucrative project to date—gearing up for a stage run that would assuredly earn him further millions—and because of those it involved. Unlike the vast majority of Sparks’ stories and spinoffs, the Broadway team is quite diverse, with many employees aligned with communities the author allegedly maligned. “It was very interesting that this news hit at the same time that [Sparks] is going to be working with the Broadway community,” said Liz Owen, communications director for PFLAG National, an LGBT non-profit that called for Hudgens to address the issue on Twitter.
The production appeared to represent a kind of case study in the limits of accountability activism, of what happens when one man’s behavior affects a much larger group of workers—many of whom may not have known about the suit when they took the job—and what they owe their audience, if anything at all.
After Sparks’ apology, the Notebook production issued a statement, forgiving the author for his emails. “We are encouraged that Mr. Sparks has made a strong statement of support of the LGBTQ+ community today,” it said. “The Notebook musical team has been given complete freedom to create a very new piece of art from the source material of the book and our mission for the past 3 years has been and continues to be to create a story of love and humanity that reflects our core values of diversity and inclusion.”
Like Sparks, the team did not mention race. It has elected not to discuss the issue further. Representatives for James Naughton, Jelani Alladin, Hailey Kilgore, Bekah Brunstetter, Kevin McCollum, Kurt Deutsch, Michael Greif, New York Stage and Film, and Vanessa Hudgens either did not respond to or declined multiple requests for comment.
For Janaya Khan, a spokesperson with Color of Change, it was an apology that fell flat. “It’s not about making them responsible,” Khan said. “It’s about what can we do with this situation that tangibly changes the conditions that informed these ideas to begin with. You can’t do that if you ignore that they exist in the first place.”