Star of musical Beautiful finds inspiration in the life of Carole King

Sarah Bockel stars as Carole King in the music Beautiful.

When the album Tapestry was released in 1971, the world learned about Carole King.

But the legendary singer was an established songwriter long before the release of that generational record.

She started young. As a teenager she was a student at James Madison High School in Brooklyn New York and she was recording demos with a friend named Paul Simon. By age 16, she had met her husband Gerry Goffin and the two of them were writing songs inside the legendary Brill Building which was central to the American musical scene.

The songwriting team of King and Goffin produced hits like Will You Love Me Tomorrow? (Shirelles), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Up On the Roof (The Drifters) and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).

Her story is now part of a musical called Beautiful that will be at the National Arts Centre starting New Year’s Day.

Sarah Bockel plays King in the musical which tells the story from her high school days to the release of Tapestry and a famous concert she gave at Carnegie Hall.

Bockel has been living in King’s shoes for almost three years now, first as an understudy for 18 months and now as the lead in a Broadway Across Canada tour.

“It’s a great role and to lead and carry a show on her life is a great opportunity. I love the music and I love her character arc. There aren’t a lot of roles like this out there. I really wanted to do it and believe me I was n0t sick of it” even though Bockel is a self-professed Joni Mitchell fan.

The musical follows King from age 16 to 29.

“It starts when she is living with her mom in Brooklyn. She auditioned a song for the record producer Don Kirshner. He liked the song. It had been turned down 12 times before,” Bockel said.

She gets a gig with Kirshner and she’s still going to high school where she meets her first husband Gerry Goffin. The two teens fall in love and become brilliant writing team.

The marriage eventually falls apart and in her heartbreak she wrote many of the songs for Tapestry.

King’s determination to carry on, to be a great artist, is a model for Bockel, who admires King’s ability “to be able to use what you’ve got. She (King) says, ‘Life takes you in different directions and when it does, use it and keep going’.

“She felt she had all this material to pull from and she started writing these songs. She couldn’t think of anyone else to sing them except her. So she did. She is one of the ultimate ‘Turn lemons into lemonade’ examples for me.”

Bockel, as King, says at the beginning of the musical that “Sometimes life goes the way you want and sometimes it doesn’t and when it doesn’t you find something beautiful.”

The line is the statement of the show.

Bockel believes her tenure with the musical has worked out just fine.

“I got lucky in the way things worked out for me.

“There was no way I could have led this show when I was first hired. It’s the biggest job I have ever had. I wasn’t a union actor when I got the job. But I got to understudy Abby Mueller and she taught me the importance of consistency, graciousness and openness every night.

“Basically she taught me pretty much about how to be a leading lady. How to deliver the same performance with just as much honesty each night but also how to be a leader in the company off stage. How to take care of yourself how to travel and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“I also got to understudy Julia Knitel who taught me even more. She is quite young, effervescent and full of life. She goes at everything head on. That taught me about how to bring the same energy every night and to be a teenager and grow into a woman every night.”

Bockel did take a break from the musical for five months.

“I was tired after 18 months on the road and we were in Detroit for Christmas. It’s so close to Chicago where I live that I decided I had had enough travelling. I was home for five months and they called and asked if wanted to take over the lead role. And I jumped at the opportunity.”

Bockel has met King a couple of times. Last fall in Costa Mesa, California was memorable.

“She saw me do the show for the first time. I didn’t know she was there, thank God. But she is so gracious. She makes sure to see all the Caroles and she has final approval on all auditions.

“She had seen my tape which is cool, but having her see the show and come on stage and sing I Feel The Earth Move with us, was unforgettable.

“Having the Carole King seal of approval works for me.”

Bockel says her favourite King song is It’s Too Late.

“It is the first song we sing from Tapestry and that was definitely my favourite of hers before I was even aware of the show. It’s one of my break-up songs, one of the best.”

Generationally the music still works its magic, said Bockel, who wasn’t born when the album was released. Nightly grandparents bring their grandchildren and a new generation of fans are converted.

The songs are “easy to sing,” she said and “fun to sing.” It never gets old. I do add her sound to the songs, but I can’t add too much or I would lose my voice.” She does  But does add the way King sings vowels and consonants to her performance.

“People do want to hear Carole King.”

She prepared by studying King on YouTube. And she read her autobiography Natural Woman.

King’s life wasn’t all happy. Her first husband abused drugs and cheated on her. He also battled mental illness. A later relationship was abusive. But her resilience offers an important message, Bockel believes.

Broadway Across Canada presents Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 1 to Jan. 6
Tickets and information:

Carole King songs written with Gerry Goffin

Will You Love Me Tomorrow? Shirelles

Take Good Care of My Baby Bobby Vee
Some Kind of Wonderful The Drifters
Halfway to Paradise Tony Orlando
Every Breath I Take Gene Pitney

Keep Your Hands Off My Baby Little Eva
The Loco-Motion Little Eva
Go Away Little Girl Steve Lawrence
Point of No Return Gene McDaniels
It Might As Well Rain Until September Carole King

Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby) The Cookies
Hey Girl Freddie Scott
One Fine Day The Chiffons
Up On the Roof The Drifters

I Can’t Hear You No More Betty Everett
I’m Into Something Good “Earl-Jean” McCrea
Oh No Not My Baby Maxine Brown

Don’t Bring Me Down The Animals

1967 Pleasant Valley Sunday The Monkees
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman Aretha Franklin

With Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann

On Broadway The Drifters
We Gotta Get Out Of this Place The Animals

Good Good Lovin’ Charlie Thomas

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ Gladys Knight & The Pips

Shades of Gray The Monkees

I Really Want to Know You The Partridge Family

Here You Come Again Dolly Parton

We’re Going All the Way Jeffrey Osborne
All I Need To Know Bette Midler

Baby Come And Get It Pointer Sisters

He’s Sure The Boy I Love Phil Spector

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.