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Q&A: ‘Beautiful’ brings ‘tapestry’ of Carole King hits to National Theatre

Sarah Bockel stars in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." (Joan Marcus)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Beautiful' at National Theatre

Jason Fraley

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WASHINGTON — If you feel the earth move under Pennsylvania Avenue, have no fear.

It’s just folks clapping along to “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” the Tony-winning Broadway smash that brings its national tour to National Theatre now through Dec. 30.

“We’re going to have you on your feet clapping and singing along,” actress Sarah Bockel told WTOP. “Come for the hit songs, but stay for the story. You’re going to be moved by her story.”

The jukebox musical follows King’s rise to stardom after starting as a Brooklyn dreamer named Carole Klein (Bockel), who formed a songwriting team with husband Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach) to pen some of rock ‘n roll’s biggest hits. Along the way, they engage in friendly rivalry with Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer).

“She has the most incredible life story,” Bockel said. “We tell from when she is 16 to 29. What you don’t know is that she got pregnant at 16 years old. … Even though she went through all these life challenges that would have derailed any other career — teen pregnancy, marrying your high school sweetheart, going through a divorce, moving across country, all these things that could have easily gone a different way — she still had such incredible success.”

Her journey begins at the famous New York City recording studio at 1650 Broadway, where we watch the King-Goffin team pen some of the biggest hits of the 20th century. That includes “Some Kind of Wonderful” for The Drifters, “Locomotion” for Little Eva, “It Might as Well Rain Until September” for Bobby Vee and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for The Shirelles.

“They had a magical connection as songwriting partners and created some of the top Motown hits,” Bockel said. “Songs that you know, but you have no idea what the backstory is.”

Meanwhile, the Weil-Mann team pens “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” for The Righteous Brothers, “On Broadway” for The Drifters, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” for The Animals and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” for The Crystals, all while Cynthia plays hard to get from Barry.

“Songs that you hear in movies and coffee shops and Walgreens, songs that have shaped your life,” Bockel said. “It’s a true story that Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann are still together, they’re still very close with Carole King, their friendship has lasted and they’re still writing today. It’s just really cool [seeing] their story, how they met and their competitive friendship.”

Did the two songwriting duos elevate each other’s work?

“Absolutely,” Bockel said. “How cool? It definitely was friendly, but they also needed the money. Just motivating themselves and making each other better, teasing each other. We get to have this really friendly competition going on: ‘Well, ‘On Broadway’ only made it to No. 3.’ ‘Well, it’s our turn now. ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ is going to No.1.'”

The parallel backstage romances culminate with King’s legendary breakthrough solo album, “Tapestry,” which won her four Grammys, including Album of the Year. You’d be hard pressed to find more hits in a single album: “I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Where You Lead” and “Natural Woman.”

“The audience didn’t know what they were going to get at the beginning, and at this point, hopefully they’ve forgotten they’re going to get ‘Tapestry,'” Bockel said. “It’s really cool to hear the rustling. Everybody sit up in their seats. Sometimes we get intro applause. It’s really cool.”

It all builds to the show-stopping finale with the title number, “Beautiful,” presented as if it’s King’s celebrated Carnegie Hall performance in 1974 after her Grammy-winning success.

“I walk out in her Carnegie Hall dress and sit at a grand piano and sing to the audience, ‘You’re as beautiful as you feel,'” Bockel said. “Just to motivate people and inspire them to keep going, especially the women in the audience. ‘You’ve gotta get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart.’ It’s an incredible way to end a show.”

For Bockel, it’s a similar breakout moment for her career, having understudied for both Abby Mueller at the Kennedy Center in 2015 and then Julia Knitel on the U.S. national tour in 2017.

“It was the perfect prep,” Bockel said. “Watching Abby every night taught me an incredible amount about acting, being present, being grounded, consistency, longevity. I learned so much from her [and] so many other things from Julia. Being able to take over the role in the third year, I felt like I was the best person for the job because I had so much experience watching and so much time to create [that] I was ready to take over and make it my own.”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full conversation with Sarah Bockel below:


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