Human Error director Shelley Butler’s first-hand account of putting local favorite in her Broadway debut as Carole King
Two weeks ago I stood outside the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on 43rd Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue in New York City. A crowd of 500 had gathered on the sidewalk to grab autographs from the new star of the musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. A family walked past me, a mother and her teenage daughter, and as they turned toward the crowd to see the cause of the commotion, the teenager shouted, “MOM, THAT’S SUPERGIRL!”
Yes, it was. It was also the woman currently playing Carole King eight times a week on Broadway, Melissa Benoist. Known to the world from her television role on the CW as the female counterpart to Superman and from her star-making turn on “Glee,” where the Littleton native and Arapahoe High School graduate belted out songs like Wrecking Ball, New York State of Mind, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend and other chart-topping hits. Beautiful marks her Broadway debut, and I had the great thrill of directing her into the role.
I hadn’t met Melissa before we began rehearsals together, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would she be down-to-earth, or diva glamorous? And how would she fill the shoes of a role originated by Tony award winner Jessie Mueller and followed by a line of remarkable actresses?
I’ve been working as the associate director on Beautiful for two years, and when I’m not directing world premieres of new plays and musicals, I’m working at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre directing actors into the leading roles of the Broadway and first national touring companies. I also collaborated with the West End production of Beautiful and I staged the Japanese production. So I’ve worked with actresses all over the world on this role, and each time it is a different and uniquely rewarding experience.
But I was surprised by how much fun it was working with Melissa on her Broadway debut. We instantly clicked. Minutes into our first rehearsal we bonded over our shared experiences with Denver. I had just returned from directing the world premiere of Eric Pfeffinger’s comedy Human Errorfor the DCPA Theatre Company, running through June 24 in the Garner Galleria Theatre. I had previously directed The Most Deserving there, and am currently in pre-production for The Constant Wife opening in The Space Theatre on Sept. 21.
I can say without a doubt that Melissa, who is scheduled to play Carole King through Aug. 4, is one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met and she is exactly as delightful as you hope she’ll be. She’s the same wonderful person whether she’s surrounded by TV stars (like she was at the party after her opening) or speaking to a fan who’s traveled from the Midwest to see her live on stage.
When Melissa and I first sat down to read through the script together, I was immediately taken by her excellent instincts and her insatiable curiosity. Throughout our entire first session, she was eager to ask questions about the story, the character, the relationships, and over laughter and discussion we were able to quickly hone in on the tone of the show. Before my eyes she transformed from Supergirl to Carole King.
It is always a thrilling challenge to take unique artists and work with them on how to find the soul of this role — a role that must honor the spirit of both the real Carole King, and the aesthetic of the theatrical show, as brilliantly created by the talented director (and my wonderful friend) Marc Bruni. But perhaps the thing I most relish as Associate Director is that Beautiful allows me the freedom to bring out the best in every actor I work with, so that the character can be uniquely their own. Musical Director Jason Howland also does this gorgeously with the Caroles vocally, so that audiences simultaneously hear the singular voices of the actresses while at the same time recognizing a tone and intonation that embodies Carole King.
After the one-on-one sessions with Melissa working on script and character, it was time for staging and choreography. Our first rate production stage manager Peter Hanson taught the movements to the leading lady and the dance captain Sara Sheppard led her through the choreography. After Melissa had integrated the singing and dialogue with the staging (some which is very tricky due to the large moving set pieces) and had a few sessions with other actors on stage, she was ready for her “put-in.” A “put-in” is Broadway slang for a rehearsal with the full cast and all the technical elements in place (lighting, automated set moves) but without an audience.
When we added the full cast into the process, the entire company was quick to respond to Melissa’s warm energy on and off stage. I was particularly struck by the instant chemistry between Melissa and Evan Todd (who plays Carole’s husband, Gerry Goffin). It was a joy to tweak and tailor moments of their respective performances to integrate the two character interpretations and create a living, breathing marriage onstage.
(Pictured at right: Melissa Benoist and Evan Todd in ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.)
After all that it was time to add the most important ingredient, the audience. At the first performance the house was sold out and the entire audience was eager with anticipation; and I’ll admit to being a bit nervous while waiting for the lights to go down. After all, even though Melissa had conquered television, this was her Broadway debut, and I had to wonder what jitters she might be dealing with backstage. Before I knew it the show had begun, and there was Melissa, rising above any nerves and powerfully playing the nuance of each emotional moment and beautifully singing the great Carole King songs “Natural Woman,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and “I feel the Earth Move” and many, many more.
Clearly her early stage days in Denver and her theatrical training gave her a strong foundation, and in her Broadway debut she looked like a veteran.
During her quick preview period we met regularly to discuss the role and tweak moments, and she was a sponge for notes. She loves the details of the nuanced moments as much as I do, and with each preview the role became ironically both more her own and more a manifestation of Carole.
By the time of her opening, the joy radiating from both sides of the stage lights was evident. The cast backstage and the audience in front of the house love her equally. She plays Carole King with relish; bringing a youthful sparkle and drive in the first act, and then landing all the power and gravitas the second act demands.
As is probably abundantly clear by now, the role of Carole King fits Melissa like a glove. She sings the heck out of the songs and her performance is assured, natural and exhilarating. As I stood watching the crowds line the street in front of the stage door for her autograph, I was certain that this is only the first of many Broadway moments yet to come for Melissa Benoist.
The national touring production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which features a different cast than the Broadway production, returns to Denver’s Buell Theatre from Sept. 4-9. Ticket information
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shelley Butler, director of DCPA Theatre Company’s Human Error, running through June 24 in the Garner Galleria Theatre, is also the ongoing Associate Director of Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. She has more than 30 Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional credits to date and has worked extensively with writers on new plays and musicals. Previously she directed The Most Deserving at the DCPA, and next season returns for The Constant Wife. Recent productions include the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 at South Coast Repertory and the Japanese premiere of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo. She has directed and developed work across the country for theaters including: Ars Nova, Primary Stages, E.S.T., Women’s Project, Hartford Stage, South Coast Repertory, Denver Center Theatre Company, GEVA, New York Stage and Film, Dallas Lyric Stage, PlayPenn, New Dramatists, the Lark, New Georges, Dixon Place, The Playwright’s Realm, Urban Stages, Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theatre and Keen Company.
Melissa Benoist, second from top right, as Brigitta with Annaleigh Ashford (Liesl) in the Country Dinner Playhouse’s 2000 staging of “The Sound of Music.” In front of them is Jesse JP Johnson, who is now in Broadway’s “SpongeBob Squarepants.”