Carole King Surprises Cast of Broadway Musical Beautiful With Impromptu Performance
The age of the jukebox musical has provoked lively debates on a number of critical theatrical issues. What does the prevalence of scores composed of extant pop material mean for the future of original scores written specifically for the stage? Which rock and pop artists write inherently "theatrical" material that lends itself to the stage, and which do not?
One topic that hasn’t received much attention is the new challenges such shows pose to casting directors. A number of newer jukebox musicals — including Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and On Your Feet!, as well as the long-running Jersey Boys — use the music of a specific artist to tell the story of that artist's life. That means the casting directors have to find actors that sing, act, look and seem at least a little like Carole King, Gloria Estefan and Frankie Valli.
As ond might imagine, that is no mean feat.
"During the initial casting process I auditioned approximately 75 actors for the role of Carole," said Stephen Kopel, the casting director of Beautiful. "The creative team ended up meeting eight or nine of those actors during the final callback process."
As we all now know, Jessie Mueller eventually won the role, to great critical acclaim, and won a Tony Award for her work. She has since left the show, but the hunt for new, believable Caroles continues.
"That number has, obviously, grown exponentially now that there are three companies of the show," said Kopel. "At this juncture, I’ve auditioned over 1,000 actors for the role."
For On Your Feet!, which tells the tale of Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio, casting director Justin Huff looked at more than 3,000 people for the role of Gloria through open calls in New York and Miami, as well as online videos and agent and manager submissions. That was narrowed to about 15 women and then four who to come in for final callbacks. Anna Villafañe claimed the job in the end.
The hunt for Emilio was considerably easier. "Josh [Segarra] performed the role in our first reading and everyone agreed from that point that we had found the right man," said Huff.
Beautiful marked the first time that Kopel was required to find actors to portray real, living people (as opposed to say, characters who are based off real people). For Huff, too, it was new territory.
"Not only real people, but real music legends!" marveled Kopel. "It’s a challenge, but also incredibly rewarding."
Kopel was not obsessed with finding a doppelgänger for King. More important was finding someone who captured what the public perceived to be King’s personality and essence.
"From very early on it was clear that finding an actor who was capable of capturing King’s essence was the key to cracking the role," said Kopel. "Carole is a music icon, so finding someone capable of commanding the stage with real star quality was vital. But almost more importantly, we needed an actor who was able to tap into King’s grounded, honest, vulnerable qualities as well. Finding an actor who could do both was — and still is — paramount to successfully telling her story."
Huff benefitted from a little casting guidance from the Estefans themselves.
"Gloria was very clear that we needed someone who sounded like her and who could sing the Latin rhythms as well as the pop music, could speak Spanish and who could bring authenticity and heart to the role," said Huff. A tall order. But then Villafañe walked in.
"Finding Ana, a Cuban-American who could be Gloria's daughter looks-wise, who grew up in Miami and who even attended the same high school as Gloria, and is one of the most radiant actors-singers we've seen in a long time, was beyond our wildest dreams," said Huff.
Far from finding the Estefans input intrusive or disruptive, Huff regards their insights as invaluable to the casting process.
"We were fortunate to have Gloria and Emilio be such an integral part of the casting search," he said. "It actually made it easier. They knew the indescribable things we needed to find in the performers playing them and they lit up when seeing both Josh and Ana, so we knew we had the right actors."
Of course, not all actors realize that the shows are looking more for someone who can "emanate a certain persona," as Huff put it. So auditions are frequently filled with a fair number of impressionists.
"We knew some people would" do that, claimed Huff. "However, we knew from the get-go that we didn't want a Gloria Estefan impersonator. Gloria especially did not want that. We all wanted someone who could capture Gloria's essence but make the role her own."
Kobel actually found the spot-on King impressions made for good entertainment — at least for a little while.
"It’s fun to hear someone walk into an audition room and sound just like King," he remarked. "But those impressions often just skim the surface and don’t always get to the core of who Carole is."
At Jersey Boys, casting director Tara Rubin has been scouring the Earth for Four Seasons members for a decade. In her efforts, she has been assisted by the director and writer of the musical, who guide her in terms of how much verisimilitude is necessary for the characters.
Frankie Valli is by far the member of the singing group that is most familiar to the public. In casting the part, Rubin looks for a combination of the right look, something close to that distinctive Valli falsetto, as well as a certain Valli-like quality.
But, she never forgot that Valli — unlike King and Estefan — is a member of a group. "We also try to cast with an eye towards how all four look and sound together as far as type, vocal quality and the era," she added.
Unlike Huff and Kopel, Rubin's experiences in trying to find actors to play well-known figures ranges beyond Jersey Boys. For a 2009 show called Pop at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT, she had to find people to play Andy Warhol and his coterie. Given the artist's unmistakable look (white-blonde wig, glasses), however, that wasn’t so terribly difficult.
"It’s pretty easy to make someone look like Andy Warhol," said Rubin.