Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a jukebox show that captures the magic of the American singer-songwriter's early career and her collaborations with ex-husband Gerry Goffin as they wrote hits recorded by Little Eva ("The Locomotion") and others.
In production since late 2013, the show made its Broadway debut in 2014 and is currently on tour with Sarah Bockel in the role of King. Beautiful arrives in Wichita on Wednesday, May 15, with performances ending Sunday, May 19, all of them at Century II Concert Hall.
Chicago-born Bockel recently spoke with KMUW about her history with the show and the indelible mark King, whose 1971 album Tapestry has sold more than 10 million copies to date, has left on popular music.
Where did your journey with Beautiful begin. Was this something where you [were aware] of the role and said, "That's something I could really do" or was it something else?
It was more like, "Wow I wish I could have the chance to be involved with that show." But I just never really thought it was possible because I lived in Chicago, and I was an actor in Chicago waiting tables, doing some stuff on the side. The woman who originated the role, Jessie Mueller, is from Chicago. Everybody knew her and was proud of her, but I never thought I would have an opportunity to [take on this role].
My agent thought it would be a good fit for me so I sent in a video; it was a long shot. I wasn't even a union actor at the time. I ended up flying to New York three times for callbacks. I got the understudy for the first year of the tour. I was the understudy for the first two years. I stayed on and then I got asked to be Carole the third year. Now we're in our fourth year of the tour.
I actually just came back from Broadway. I played the role on Broadway for about a month. I've kind of milked this puppy for everything it's worth. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Chicago is not a bad town to grow up in or do theatre in.
What was your experience like there? Were you doing a lot of musical theatre? Experimental shows?
I did whatever I could do. There's a lot of work there for non-union actors. It's really amazing. And I got to be involved in some equity productions and get some EMC [Equity Membership Candidate] points toward the union. I got to work in some of the bigger regional theaters there to understudy. That gave me some time to step away from my day job for weeks or months at a time. I auditioned for anything and kept seeing where I could go.
You mentioned being an understudy. Can you talk a little bit about what that's like? Because you're cast in the role but not cast in the role.
Exactly. What a lot of people don't know about understudies is that, typically, they're just as good [as their counterparts]. If you get called back for a role or you make it to the final round of auditions that means that the creative team can see you in the role and is taking you very seriously.
I've had people who have come up to me at the stage door and say, when I was an understudy, "When we saw that the understudy was on, we almost left!" [Laughs.] It's like, "Well, I'm glad you didn't." [Understudies] are still very talented and very capable, 99 percent of the time. I love being an understudy, and I've learned a lot. I've understudied lots of amazing women that gave me lots of opportunities, and I've been really lucky in that way.
Some people never let their understudies go on. Sometimes that's out of pride and sometimes that's out of fear that their understudies will be better than them! [Laughs.] That's its own thing, but it's a really great learning opportunity.
What was it about the role of Carole King that struck you?
If you look at all the women who have played here, we're all very different. Very different looking and different sizes and different types, a lot of unique voices. What's great about the role is that the creative team lets you play [the role] as yourself in her circumstances. It's not an impression or an imitation of her sound. It's your sound in her songs. You're able to bring a lot of yourself to it.
It makes sense that this music would make it to the stage because there's drama in the music and the lyrics.
I think one of the things that's helped this show be successful is that so many people have a personal connection to [Carole] and her music. The lyrics, both those that she wrote and that her ex-husband longtime writing partner Gerry Goffin wrote, are both universal and personal. People can kind of give their own meaning to the music.
What people don't think about is what she was actually going through while she was actually writing these songs and her personal connection. People think about their own personal connection to her music but not necessarily hers. What was going on the first time she sat down to play "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" looking at her husband Gerry's lyrics for the first time. That, I think, is what's really interesting.
You've been living with this music in the show for four years now. Between the time you started and now is there a song that resonates differently with you today than when you first started?
"Natural Woman" was this enigma for me. It's obviously one of her most well-known songs because of Aretha Franklin's cover. Those lyrics are kind of abstract to me. I didn't really know what she meant. Her husband wrote [it] so… he was his own genius. He was able to write from a more feminine perspective in a way that you'd never guess a man wrote that song. That was kind of elusive to me, what a natural woman is and what she means.
To add another layer on, what's happening in the show, when she sings that song is that she has gone through a divorce and is recording Tapestry in California; she's moved across the country. Her record producer thinks she needs one more song and it's "Natural Woman" because it's such a special, incredible song.
She says it's too painful to sing it. [Her] ex-husband wrote the lyrics and [she] can't look at it. There are a lot of different layers. [The producer] finally convinces her to give it one try in the studio. It's a really joyful song but at the time she sings it it's painful and it becomes joyful. She doesn't need anyone to feel beautiful and good enough. And, essentially, what's a natural woman is you accepting yourself and feeling enough.
That, at least, is what that song, in that moment, is to me. I had to go through my own heartbreak and my own self-acceptance while in this show to actually get what she was going through in that moment when singing those lyrics. The meaning of those lyrics has grown in the last four, five years and gotten richer and deeper for me.