By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“She’s … normal,” says Sarah Bockel, musing on the woman she plays in the jukebox musical that arrives on the Jube stage Tuesday under the Broadway Across Canada touring banner. “She’s grounded. Pretty self-effacing. And also insecure! Something I can identify with….”
There’s some kind of wonderful in all that normalcy, of course, since the woman in question is one of contemporary music’s legendary talents, Carole King. The soundtrack of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a stellar array of songs that you know all the words to — chart-toppers that will connect you instantly with your previous selves … Up On the Roof, One Fine Day, I Feel The Earth Move among them.
And the list is stunningly long, since King’s career trajectory began in the ‘60s, as a teenage writer and seller of songs for other artists to make into hits. In this the Brooklyn kid from James Madison High partnered with her unstable and dysfunctional first husband Gerry Goffin; together they penned dozens of indelible chart entries, like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, The Loco-Motion, Take Good Care Of My Baby, Go Away Little Girl…. Bockel imagines the scene in the storied Brill Building, 1650 Broadway: “teenagers wandering around smoking cigarettes, writing the kind of songs that teenagers listen to.”
But, as the 2014 Broadway show celebrates, King’s ascent to stardom wasn’t marked by a voracious appetite for centre stage herself. Solo performing came later, inspired by the vicissitudes of life, marriage, the sexism of the music industry. And the approach to the stage was tentative, full of doubts. That resonates strongly with Bockel, a friendly and self-deprecating voice on the phone from Minneapolis, where the Beautiful tour opened a couple a weeks ago.
For one thing she’s from Chicago, where self-deprecation vis-à-vis New York is congenital. And her roots, as she says, are in “the storefront scene” there — dozens of tiny indie companies doing innovative, off-centre work in unexpected spaces. “I started seeing storefront shows in high school,” she says of her young “theatre junkie” incarnation. Think of the high school in (the Greta Gerwig movie) Lady Bird, Bockel laughs.
After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan in musical theatre (she’d originally intended to be a Spanish teacher) and moving back into Chicago eight years ago, she joined in. “There was so much work to be had, dream roles! So exciting. Everyone making no money, working three different day jobs to pay the rent.” It makes her interested in the indie scene in Edmonton. “I miss that so much!” she says of that collaborative DIY spirit.
“Everybody in Chicago knows about Jessie Mueller, hometown pride!” Bockel says of the Chicago actor who was the original Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway. “When she won the Tony, we all cheered…. I knew I wanted to be like Jessie; I wanted to be her.”
It was in “a weird production of (Sondheim’s) Into The Woods” by an indie Chicago company — she played Cinderella/Rapunzel — that Bockel had her big-M Moment of “discovery” by a prospective agent. “I made a tape and flew to New York, and three more times after that.”
In the end, she understudied Abby Mueller, Jessie’s sister, “a friend now,” who’d taken over the role for the national tour that left New York in 2015. “That was best, really,” Bockel says cheerfully. “I was very starstruck.” But the role would have been “just too much pressure. I wasn’t even Equity at the time.”
There’s an echo of King’s famous shyness and holding back in her story, as Bockel concedes. “I felt like it’s not a stretch for me to play the role. It’s a good fit…. She can laugh at herself, which I love. She’s very funny.” Bockel had a chance to discover that firsthand. “I met Carole for 15 minutes in Orange County after she saw the show. “She made jokes, she laughed, she was so friendly….”
Of the show’s songbook, Bockel does enjoy singing the earlier stuff by King and Goffin and their hit-making friend/competitors Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Walking In The Rain) “who are still married and still friends with Carole.” And in the show the relationship between the two couples figures prominently, as “a kind of comedic relief,” says Bockel. But her own favourites are from “the Tapestry era,” as she says of “woman’s perspective” built into the 1971 King album that sold 25 million copies world-wide, remained on the charts for six years, and for two decades held the record for consecutive weeks on the top of the Billboard 200 by a female soloist.
It’s Too Late, one of the hit singles from the album, gets a context in the show, as Bockel explains. Gradually King’s marriage disintegrates, Goffin’s mental issues exacerbated by drugs and electro-shock therapy. “The pressure to be the next Bob Dylan, the trying to keep up with each other after such early success….” Bockel considers. “But he was such a brilliant lyricist.”
It’s Too Late comes in the last half-hour of the show. “The bass line plays, and everyone sits up in their seats; you can feel it,” says Bockel. “It’s everybody’s break-up song. It’s mine too….”
When Bockel first saw Beautiful and heard You’ve Got a Friend, she “just wept. Such a sweet anthem ….” The show, she says, is “a memory bank…. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard that song. Or who they used to sing it with.”
Beautiful: the Carole King Musical
Broadway Across Canada
Written by: Douglas McGrath
Directed by: Marc Bruni
Starring: Sarah Bockel
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: Tuesday through Sunday