Julia Knitel is only 23, but last September she took over the lead role in the national touring company of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which stops at Bass Concert Hall for its Austin premiere this week. Although Knitel is the youngest actress to play King on or off Broadway, it’s entirely age-appropriate because much of the musical takes place when the singer-songwriter was in her teens or early 20s.
The story actually begins when King was 16, the same age Knitel was when she landed her first Broadway acting gig. By the time King was Knitel’s age, she’d already written several hits.
Much of the Carole King story is likely familiar by now: Teenage girl from Brooklyn wants to be a songwriter, joins a hit-making factory in New York’s Brill Building, befriends fellow songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, falls in love with lyricist Gerry Goffin, learns that real life is more complicated than a three-minute pop song and eventually steps into the spotlight herself.
How does one prepare to play not just an actual living person, but someone so well known?
“I think there are some benefits and also some downfalls,” Knitel says. “There’s a lot of material out there for me to research. I can read her books and I can read books written about her, and listen to her music, and watch YouTube clips of her in interviews. That hands you a wealth of information to absorb. But the opposite side of that is everyone has watched and read that, so they all know her and love her in the same way. And you want to go onstage every night and do justice (to her). Our creative team and producers don’t want anyone doing an impersonation, because it’s not genuine, and it’s a caricature.”
Far better, she adds, is “finding the place within myself where I am similar to her and bumping that up and singing like her — but not note for note, just sort of suggesting her style. I think that really makes for a more dynamic show across the board.”
Playing the lead in a musical is supposed to be every musical actor’s dream, but in this show Knitel is onstage almost all the time, which can be strenuous work.
“Actually, it was not my dream; this is sort of an unexpected surprise for me,” she says. “I’ve been on Broadway since I was 16, and I’ve always kind of believed that I would be an ensemble actor, because I’ve always felt very confident in my abilities to do that, and I’ve always understudied. Then this show came along, and the producers and the creatives were adamant in my abilities to play the role full time. I think two separate nationwide searches (were done) for people to take over this role, and landed on me. Carole and I sort of mirror each other in that way, because she didn’t want to be a star and was happy in the background, supporting other people and letting other artists sing her music. I’ve always felt that way, too, as an ensemble member, and this is all an unexpected journey. It’s a challenging one, too, because I was shot out of a cannon – I mean, this isn’t a typical leading role. I’m truly onstage for two and a half hours. I have one bathroom break in Act One. It makes for a real adventure; you’re kind of on the roller coaster for the whole night.”
Knitel says her favorite moments in the show change all the time, depending on the city and the audience. “There’s so many variables. But I pretty much consistently love ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,’ because it really is the first song that everyone in the audience loves,” she says. “There’s a collective sigh of relief and joy when that first chord hits, and it makes for a really special moment.”
Knitel has met King twice. “Initially I was in the Broadway company for a year and a half understudying the role, and she came to celebrate our 1,000th performance,” she says. “And then when we were in Boise, Idaho, she has a farm outside of Boise and she came to see the show. We had to meet her beforehand, which was rather intimidating. But she was so proud and so excited — and you know, I’m a lot younger than all of the other women who’ve played the role so far, and I think she saw in me this spunkier, younger Carole, and we had this really genuine moment and she was so kind and so gracious and like, ‘Don’t be nervous!’ She’s just the greatest, she really is.”
King took a while after the show premiered to actually see it on Broadway, perhaps because it brought back some unpleasant memories. “There were some dark times that she probably hadn’t thought about in recent years, and it’s really hard to go back in there and watch it done in the style of a Broadway musical,” Knitel says. “But she loves it, and she’s seen every Carole who’s ever taken on the role.”
‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
When: 8 p.m. March 21-24, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 25, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. March 26
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Information: 512-477-6060, Broadwayinaustin.com