After playing a couple for almost a year, Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen haven't lost that lovin' feelin' yet. The 2014 Tony nominees star in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical as Grammy-winning Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the prolific husband-and-wife team behind such hits as "On Broadway," "Walking in the Rain," and, yes, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'."
"We're perfect wherever we are — office, bedroom," Mann tells Weil in the show when proposing marriage. "We're good in all the rooms."
In which rooms are Spector and Larsen good? "There are certainly rooms we are not good in, because we're both in love with other people," says Larsen, laughing.
Adds Spector, "We're decent and respectful in all the rooms." Right now, an hour before curtain, they're good together in Larsen's dressing room at Broadway's Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where Beautiful opened January 12 under Marc Bruni's direction and continues to draw packed houses. "This is unusual," notes Larsen, gesturing to Spector beside her on the sofa, "because a while back we made a conscious decision not to greet each other before the show. Normally when our characters meet for the first time, we're actually seeing each other for the first time that day. It adds a little extra spice to that moment."
Spector and Larsen hadn't met until what they call an "arranged marriage" on the first day of Beautiful rehearsals, prior to last fall's pre-Broadway, world-premiere engagement at San Francisco's Curran Theatre. "You just hope the village elders picked well for you," says Larsen, whose Broadway credits include Avenue Q and Xanadu. "We lucked out because we're so compatible in terms of work ethic and our relentlessness in wanting to make every moment work. The crew makes fun of us because we'll still come off stage griping about not getting a laugh."
"We knew we had good timing and chemistry early on," Spector says. "Even before the reviews came out."
The onstage spouses took each other in sickness and in health. A few days into rehearsals, Larsen underwent emergency surgery due to a twisted and obstructed colon. When she returned to work less than a week later, her physical weakness strengthened the bond between her and her co-star. "I couldn't stand for very long, but I tried to be macho because I didn't want anyone worrying about me, and I didn't want to risk losing the show," Larsen recalls. "The minute we finished a scene, Jarrod pulled up a chair next to me because he could see that I needed it but wasn't going to ask for it. Just knowing that he had my back was very moving and meant a lot to me."
The actors supercharged their chemistry by befriending their real-life counterparts, who have been married for more than 50 years. "The more time we spend with Barry and Cynthia, the more we can imbue our scenes and book writer Douglas McGrath's dialogue with their personalities," says Spector, who's no stranger to bio-musicals, having played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys for more than six years and a record 1,500 performances. "The creative team was also open to suggestions based on our conversations and interactions." Spector and Larsen renewed their commitment during awards season when they were both Tony-nominated in the featured acting categories. "That we lost together just feels right," says Larsen. "It wouldn't have been fair for one to win without the other."
"Her losing did make my losing easier," Spector admits.
Larsen remembers first clicking with her pretend partner while they tackled a troublesome bit during tech rehearsals. "Jarrod had some ideas, and I told him, 'I completely trust you.' It's a cardinal rule that actors don't give other actors notes, but we became comfortable saying to each other, 'What if you try this?' We're such a team that we don't have egos about that."
"It's ultimately about making each moment better, which makes us both look better," says Spector. "The more the audience laughs at one of us, the more they'll laugh at the other. Without implicit trust, you can't be funny."
As supporting foils for Tony winner Jessie Mueller and Jake Epstein, who star as romantically doomed songwriting duo Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Spector and Larsen do keep audiences in stitches. But all jokes aside, they insist there's more to their B-plot best pals than comic relief. "What's beautiful about Beautiful — yeah, I said it — is that it has so much heart," Larsen explains. "People fall in love with our characters as they fall in love with each other. They're not just laughing at us. They're rooting for us." That doesn't mean Spector and Larsen aren't having fun playing second fiddles. "It's kind of like Jessie and Jake work all day to cook your delicious entrée, but we stopped at a bakery and brought you dessert," Larsen says. "Everyone loves dessert."
"We're the dessert and the appetizer," Spector clarifies. "And definitely the cocktails."