Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Sarah Bockel earns her opportunity to portray Carole King in BEAUTIFUL

By John Mark Rafacz

It’s a Tony Award-winning musical about a shy girl from Brooklyn who becomes one of the most successful pop songwriters of all time. But casting directors for BEAUTIFUL—THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL have found that three actresses raised in Chicago, not New York City, have the right blend of talents to evoke the star of the show.

Jessie Mueller won the 2014 Tony for best actress for her portrayal of King. Her sister, Abby, took over the role for the first national tour and is now playing King on Broadway. And Sarah Bockel, who understudied one Mueller on Broadway and the other on the road, is in her second season as King in the national tour that will come to Penn State for seven performances, February 19–24, at Eisenhower Auditorium.

BEAUTIFUL chronicles a dozen years from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, when King met and married lyricist Gerry Goffin, they wrote a river of hit songs together, and their marriage imploded.

“I wasn’t aware of the story about her life, at all. I honestly just knew Tapestry. I knew those songs,” says Bockel, who understudied the role of King for eighteen months before getting her turn to perform the character every day. “I came in contact with her music a lot with the people that have covered her songs. I was a big fan of Amy Winehouse, and she did a beautiful version of ‘Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow.’ I don’t think I even knew Carole King wrote that song. And I thought Kylie Minogue wrote ‘The Loco-Motion.’”

“King and her then-husband and lyricist, the late Gerry Goffin, had a major impact on the pop world in the ’50s and ’60s, and the story of their rise to fame—and the troubles that came with it—is a compelling one,” writes critic James Hebert for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “BEAUTIFUL weaves that story into a show that dazzles at times with its splashy visuals, and is stuffed with memorable songs, beginning with such early King/Goffin gems as ‘Take Good Care of My Baby,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ and ‘One Fine Day.’

“As King, Sarah Bockel captures a winning sense of both the earthy and the ambitious, and sings with an appealing and versatile voice that echoes King’s own soulful vocals without straying into mimicry.”

In preparing for the part, Bockel recalls in an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, she watched countless YouTube videos of King performing so she could absorb the songwriter’s sound. But when it came to interpreting King on stage, the actress had to put the research aside to avoid seeming like she was doing an impersonation.

“I just try to live in her circumstances. Personally, how would I react? I try to look at is as the character Carole King. I’m not playing her as a person because this is a musicalized version,” says Bockel, who before her work in BEAUTIFUL had appeared almost exclusively in non-Equity productions at small theatres in the Chicago area.

“The beginning of BEAUTIFUL … isn’t a full-blown orchestral overture to introduce the story of legendary singer-songwriter Carole King as one might expect from a Broadway musical,” observes deadline.com reviewer Dino-Ray Ramos. “Instead, it starts with a lone baby grand on the stage and Sarah Bockel, who plays the titular music icon, walking out on stage as if this is her memorable 1971 concert at Carnegie Hall. She sits at the piano and starts performing ‘So Far Away,’ swaddling the audience with the emotional song about two distant lovers, setting the tone for this jukebox musical that doesn’t feel anything like a jukebox musical.”

“That gig,” notes Hebert, “serves as a framing device for the saga of King’s early success, her relationship with the talented but troubled Goffin …, and her growing sense of independence.”

The show’s emotional core centers on King’s transformation from a teenager seemingly content to fulfill traditional roles as a wife and a mother to a reluctant singer who becomes an empowered voice of her generation.

“I identify with the character I play so much—the insecurity, the ability to laugh at yourself, feeling inferior, and wanting that domestic dream that I obviously do not have,” says Bockel, who earned a theatre degree at Illinois Wesleyan University. “I kind of let go that I’m playing an internationally loved icon, and I’m just myself with an accent.”

Although the musical is set half a century ago, BEAUTIFUL’s story of a woman transcending personal setbacks and succeeding in a male-dominated field resonates with countless women today, Bockel says.

“I do feel inspired being able to do this show for however many hundreds of women are in the audience every night. I hope that they feel a boost of confidence. I hope that they feel comfortable with where they are at in their lives—that, you know, things never work out the way you think they’re going to work out, but you have to keep going, and pushing through, … and living your own gifts.”

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts.