Becky Gulsvig has played strong women in musicals before, but didn’t portray a real person until she was cast as songwriting hit machine Cynthia Weil in “Beautiful — the Carole King Musical.”
That challenge proved a bit intimidating until the Grammy winner corresponded with her.
“She had to approve the casting. It was exciting and daunting. On opening weekend, I got an email from the person I’m playing!” Gulsvig said during a phone interview from Chicago, where she was performing in the first national tour. The musical opens Tuesday at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis and runs through March 6.
Weil, and her husband, Barry Mann, play significant roles in Carole King’s story. Along with King’s first husband, Gerry Goffin, the four wrote hit pop songs that became the soundtrack of a generation. While competitive, the couples became best friends. Goffin died in 2014, but the other three are still close.
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“Carole and Cynthia were trailblazers,” Gulsvig said. “They made you feel a connection to their songs. They did great work and made their mark.
“My character is so refreshing — driven and smart and feisty. With her husband, in the play, they provide comic relief. And they are still together, which is awesome,” she said.
Weil and Mann married in 1961. They wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway” and “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place.” But their hits weren’t only in the 1960s. They were Oscar-nominated for “Somewhere Out There,” from the 1986 animated movie “An American Tail.”
In the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway, where much of the musical’s story takes place, King and Goffin shared the cubicle next to Weil and Mann, working for Aldon Music. That’s where the married duo wrote “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” for The Shirelles, “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons and “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva.
“Beautiful” chronicles Carole King’s life from fledgling teenage songwriter Carol Klein in Queens to one of the premier singer-songwriters of all time. She is in the Songwriter Hall of Fame and recorded 25 albums.
Her 1971 “Tapestry” album holds the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 by a female solo artist, and the longest time on the Billboard 200 for a female solo musical act, fifth overall. She won four Grammy Awards — Album of the Year, first female solo artist to win Record of the Year (“It’s Too Late”), first woman to win Song of the Year (“You’ve Got a Friend”) and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
“Everyone loves ‘Tapestry’ and knows those songs, but I think people are surprised to find out how many songs she wrote,” Gulsvig said. “It’s an inspiring story, to see where she came from, what she dealt with, and how she had to fight along the road to success. It’s a brilliant musical, about friendship and love.”
They had us come to the stage for a meeting after the show, and they brought her out. She was so kind and said such lovely things. The cell phones came out. We all had our photo taken with her.
Becky Gulsvig on meeting Carole King
King met with the cast, unannounced, after a performance in Boston. “They had us come to the stage for a meeting after the show, and they brought her out. She was so kind and said such lovely things. The cell phones came out. We all had our photo taken with her.”
The show is produced by Paul Blake, the former executive director of The Muny for 22 seasons, and St. Louisans Terry Schnuck and Mark Bosner. In 2014, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning two — Jessie Mueller as Best Actress and for sound design.
“Carole King might be a native New Yorker, but her story of struggle and triumph is as universal as they come —and her music is loved the world over,” Blake said. “We know that audiences throughout the country will embrace this show just as Broadway and London audiences have.”
Gulsvig said King ha s seen the Broadway show several times after her initial resistance.
“It was hard for her at first. It would be strange to see your own life told on stage. But she has been so complimentary and supportive.”
Gulsvig identifies with King working as a young mom raising two daughters. She has a 4-year-old daughter, Hazel. Her husband, is traveling on tour with her, handling child-care duties.
“It’s a juggling act,” she said. “My husband is super-dad on this tour, and it’s a super-huge gift to have him here.”
That support makes the grueling aspects of tour life more palatable, she said.
“I can play this great character and have the juice left to be a Mom. It’s fantastic to create childhood memories with Hazel, get up and go places, and not sleep the whole time. It makes the hard work more bearable,” she said.
The cast is a tight ensemble, too.
“It’s a really great group of people. It’s a blessing,” she said. “They are super-talented, and really are good people, too. I am happy to work with Abby Mueller (Jessie’s sister) as Carole. She’s wonderful.”
Gulsvig has been singing, dancing and acting since an early age. While growing up in Moorhead, Minn., she was hooked after viewing the movies “The Sound of Music” and “Annie.”
She credits training with a married couple, Eddie and Kathy Gasper, who had worked as Bob Fosse’s assistant and a ballerina, as a major influence.
“It was a different education because they were tough, hard on us, because of their experience in the world. They were demanding because of the high stakes. It was so great to have these people care about you. They wanted to make you better,” she said.
Gulsvig graduated from high school early, and was a finalist to play Dorothy in a national tour of “The Wizard of Oz,” which got scrapped. So, she headed to New York City. “Luckily, I had supportive parents,” she said. “I waited plenty of tables.”
Her first Broadway role was in the cast of “Hairspray,” as Lou Ann, and then understudied Amber von Tussle. She was cast in “Legally Blonde” as Leilani, then as Elle for the national tour. She performed the lead for two years, appearing at The Fox. Another national tour was as Wendy in “Peter Pan.”
She is thrilled with the receptive crowds on the tour, which began in September. And it’s not just Baby Boomers. The show appeals to multiple generations.
“It’s so much fun. From the first song, people are into it,” she said. “There’s the nostalgia and the excitement of hearing the songs. We can hear people in the audience sometimes. I heard a lady say ‘Ooh — my favorite one!’ It’s like a concert at curtain call. People are so happy when they leave.”
“I think the musical is the full package. You can laugh, you can be touched. You can be swept away by the great American soundtrack of people’s lives.”
“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical”
- When: Feb. 23-March 6
- Where: The Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis
- Tickets: www.fabulousfox.com; MetroTix: 314-534-1111