Less than three years ago, Carole King’s music lit up San Francisco. And since it went so well the first time, the company has decided to do it again.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is making its return to the Bay Area after making its world premiere at the Curran Theatre in 2013, all grown up now after having been nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning two. Jessie Mueller was one of those recipients, playing the title character and bringing much joy and pathos to the walking complexities that is King – a powerhouse songwriter but a shy yet transparent and forceful performer.
And while Mueller is busy in New York serving up delicious pies in the Broadway musical “Waitress,” her sister Abby is in the unique place of jumping into this most recent national tour in the same role that her little sister made famous.
Two performers also joining the cast are responsible for portraying the friendly yet intense rivals of King and her fellow songwriting husband Gerry Goffin. Both Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were dominant in the 1960’s, cranking out hits such as “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” Walking in the Rain,” and the oft-covered “On Broadway.”
Playing Weil and Mann come with many challenges for both Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser. For one, there is a strong intimidation factor for any actor who takes on the role of a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being.
“I’ve never played a real person before, so that is something new for me and the most daunting aspect –we weren’t told to do a caricature,” said Gulsvig. “You want to always be respectful because this person can walk in the door and say, ‘Why are you playing me like that?’ (Weil) approved me to play her and I want to make sure to do her justice.”
Fankhauser was able to draw from his struggles as a young actor chasing down his dream through a stream of auditions and rejections.
“I approached the role the same as any other, by excavating truthful dimensions and aspects of their real life,” said Fankhauser. “It’s obviously a little daunting to play someone that is still living, but I started from a place of how do I relate to a character, and how can I bring that truth and authenticity to the stage?
“A lot of learning about the character was through my understanding of the actor’s world of auditioning and not getting a part. All of those artistic struggles were my way into the character.”
Both Weil and Mann spent a lifetime in this world. Not every song was a hit, not every song was recorded. And there were surely moments when King and Goffin had the upper hand in getting their work published at the expense of other songwriters working at the time.
Fankhouser also relates to that aspect of the story, considering that he’s auditioned plenty of times among friends who are auditioning for the same role.
“When I audition for a part with a best friend, I certainly want that part but it won’t ruin our friendship,” said Fankhauser. “Our business as actors means I have to find my way through that competitive world and navigate friendships through that.”
One of the great appeals of King’s music was how transparent it was. King was a huge star that wore her heart on her sleeve, a performer who shared oodles of truth and vulnerability to the masses. “Tapestry,” which came out in 1971, is one of the greatest selling albums in music history, listed as the 465th greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
As Gulsvig gets out around the country to share this iconic music, she certainly feels the love and the legacy of King and her contemporaries.
“Listening to the songs in the show and watching Carole navigate pregnancy and having kid after kid, you can’t help but notice all she had to overcome,” said Gulsvig. “A lot of her life was so rich and she was out there living life. Carole certainly brought that to her art. When she sits there at the piano and sings ‘It’s too Late,’ I’ve had so many women come up saying they cried so many times in high school (because of that song).
“It’s inspiring to see that story from a women’s standpoint. They were out there getting it done like anybody else.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents the national tour of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
Through Sept. 18th
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $45 – $212
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com