Beautiful, the musical that chronicles the life of singer/songwriter Carole King, comes to the Conejo Valley for the first time in American Theatre Guild’s national tour. Many performers have portrayed the legendary singer since its 2015 Broadway debut, but Kennedy Caughell’s performance promises to be something special. Born on a ranch in Oklahoma, Kennedy caught the acting bug at a young age, auditioning for a role as one of the orphans in Annie. From there, she fell hard for theater and ended up getting her BTA from Elon University in North Carolina. She made her Broadway debut in the acclaimed Tolstoy-based musical, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Her credits have since focused on portraying empowered female characters, such as Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked and her current turn as Carole King in Beautiful. We spoke with Kennedy just ahead of her appearance at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks, where Beautiful plays for a four-day run.
VCOS: I read that your first role in a musical was in Annie. What can you tell me about that?
KENNEDY: Well, when I was young, my mom took me to see Annie and, I don’t remember this happening, but my mom tells a story about the girl on stage singing “Tomorrow” and the curtain came down and I told her, “I can do that.” So after that, I never looked back. So she started looking around and found an audition in California for Annie. We went in, not expecting anything, and I got the part. I played Annie twice, once when I was 7-8 and once when I was 8-9. And it was so much fun!
VCOS: When did you decide that you wanted to aim for musical theater as a career?
KENNEDY: You know, I was always involved in the arts but for a while I wanted to be a veterinarian and wanted to go into my own medical practice. But when I was 13 I saw the original cast of Wicked on Broadway and I said, “Nope, nope. I want to perform.” So I was 13 when I decided that if I’m going to do this, I really need to do this, so I threw myself into lessons.
VCOS: Did you have a dream role or was Elphaba it?
KENNEDY: Elphaba was one of the ones. There’s a special kind of magic when dreams come to fruition, and going up in a lift, playing Elphaba for the first time was definitely one of those magical moments. This is joy. And playing Carole King is another one. One that I haven’t played yet is Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.
VCOS: OK, so you like female empowerment roles!
KENNEDY: Oh, yeah. Can you tell?
VCOS: Does that have anything to do with being a redhead?
KENNEDY: You know, I’ll bet it has a LOT to do with being a redhead! Most redheads are fiery, I think. I have yet NOT to meet a fiery redhead.
VCOS: You’ve played a variety of roles in your career so far. Do you feel any difference as far as freedom goes breathing life into fictional characters or playing someone who is not only true to life but who is still living, like Carole King?
KENNEDY: Oh yes, that’s a great question. Absolutely. It’s a different kind of freedom with fictional characters because you can bring yourself and your “take” – your entire take – on a character when it’s fictional, but when it is not a fictional character, someone who has lived a life, and in the case of Carole King, continues to live an amazingly abundant life, you have to pay homage to her and her life, and you have to bring truth to her story and you have to do your research. You have to understand what she went through, what she thought at the time, and I did a lot of research to try…because I’m not doing an impression of her. That would be fake. But what I am trying to do is to bring Carole to life while just adding a little bit of Kennedy to make it truthful. So what you’re seeing is kind of a mash-up of Carole and Kennedy. But for me, personally, I feel it’s fresher to bring honor to what she lived through and the audience has to be convinced that I’m Carole King from the get-go. That’s my goal. So it’s not that they’re watching an actor portray her, I want them to be fully immersed in the story and go along with Carole.
VCOS: How does your piano playing fit into that? Are you doing anything to replicate her style or does your own piano playing style get added into that as well?
KENNEDY: Well, you know, there’s so much that goes into it, but I have watched videos of her playing and you will see little nods, like the way she nods her head exactly on the beat when she’s singing certain parts of certain songs. But I am a pianist, so that kind of comes more naturally to me than other things.
VCOS: So that’s not something that you had to struggle with that much.
KENNEDY: No, thank goodness. We have had Caroles and Carole covers who have never played piano before and I can’t imagine doing that because there’s a lot of piano playing in the show.
VCOS: Do you recognize anything unique about her piano style?
KENNEDY: Yes! Carole King talks about this herself. She wants the piano to be a rhythm instrument, so you’ll see in her left hand, she’s pounding out that bass, just almost like she would a drum, and it’s usually right on the beat, very square. And then she kind of tinkles with her right hand, but that’s because she always thought of the piano as a percussion instrument, something that keeps the beat and keeps the drive of the music going. So that’s a very particular Carole-ism that I had to learn.
VCOS: It also shows that she spent a lot of her time playing by herself, not having a rhythm section with her.
KENNEDY: Right. Exactly.
VCOS: How are you different from Carole King?
KENNEDY: You know, I thought we were very different at first, but learning more and doing this role, I learned that there is so much about us that is the same. The one difference we would have is – how do I put this? – I feel like Carole is more outwardly peaceful, even though she might not be peaceful on the inside about a situation. And I am quick to speak my mind while Carole, in the show, does not.
VCOS: Was that a problem for her early in her career?
KENNEDY: Here’s the deal. I think that Carole is a special human being but truly, her personality lent itself to her being taken advantage of, as far as stronger personalities coming in and just bulldozing her. But I think that throughout her life and throughout her story, you’ll see that she finds her power, but that’s something that every girl has to go through. It’s the story of a woman finding her voice and standing on her own essence and power of who she is rather than letting other people dictate or letting situations dictate how she feels about her life. It’s a very uplifting and powerful story and I just love it.
VCOS: Was there a moment in your life when you had that kind of epiphany of, “hey, this is who I am and I’m being myself” instead of being what others expect of me?
KENNEDY: Oh, absolutely. Multiple times. It’s something that every young girl AND boy – every human on the planet has to come to this precipice of whether they can stand fully and proclaim who they are and be fully themselves to the world or they can decide to hide their life. And I think it’s been a constant struggle, at least for me, when was younger, when I cared a lot about what people thought. But there’s such a powerful, powerful choice when you decide, “I am enough.” And regardless of what other people’s opinions are, I’m enough and I’m going to stand on that. Everyone has multiple times in their life when they have to make that choice.
VCOS: You’ve talked about understudying and then going on to play a role full-time. What kinds of things did you do to make that transition when you went from understudying Carole to actually going on as her?
KENNEDY: Well, it was really cool, because when you’re understudying, your job is to do the show to the best of your ability while making sure you do all the technical things right so that nobody else’s show is impeded. So you kind of have to fit into the mold of the role that you’re covering. You have to know the important moments that they hit so that you can hit those moments for the other actors, or other things like locking and unlocking the piano, and other things where the show could not continue if you didn’t hit those things. So it’s important to do that so that you don’t get hurt and others don’t get hurt. But when you’re in the show full-time you can really relax and breathe into it and make your own choices a lot more than when you’re an understudy. So it really feels like it’s my own now.
VCOS: When you met Carole, were you still understudying her or were you officially in the role?
KENNEDY: No, I was still understudying and I got to meet her for all of ten seconds. She lights up a room.
VCOS: Knowing her through the show, were you surprised by anything you saw in that brief 10-second encounter?
KENNEDY: I wasn’t, really, because I look up to her so much, obviously because this story is continuing beyond what the music tells you, but I was absolutely star-struck. But one thing I was surprised about was that for the whole ten seconds I was shaking because I didn’t know what to say. It was like, “You know, I’ll bet you hear this a lot but…” and she stops me and says, “but never from you.” And in that one moment, she gave what I thought merit and it was very special for me. So I’ve borrowed that from her because it’s just a great thing to say. I mean I wasn’t surprised how great she was, but that really hit me as to how gracious she actually is.
VCOS: Has she seen you play her yet?
KENNEDY: She hasn’t. I hope she does. I would love to talk to her about it. I would love to ask her more questions and get more time because when you’re an understudy, her time is valuable and she spends most of her time with whoever is playing Carole but I would just love to sit down and talk to her so I continue to get deeper in.
VCOS: Let’s say you’re given sixty seconds with Carole and you get to ask her one question, what would it be?
KENNEDY: It would be “How do you pick yourself up again?” Her life has been a roller coaster and amidst what we see, which is the fame, the happiness, the Tapestry success, but there were so many downs in her private life, but also, I can imagine that there is a roller coaster in the business in general – you know, when you’re on top, and when you’re down, you’re down. So when you’re in those down moments and you’re just doing your day-to-day work that continues to get you where you want to go, it can get monotonous and tedious, so how do you pick yourself up?
VCOS: Do you think the answer is to maintain some kind of stasis or stability where you don’t get too high and you don’t get too low?
KENNEDY: Yeah, but if anyone figures out how to do that, they need to bottle and sell it.
VCOS: Is there a quality in Carole that might not be obvious to people that you like to bring out?
KENNEDY: Yes, but I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily hidden, but her ability to see the best in people, regardless of how somebody is treating her or how a situation is. She always tries to assume that the other person means well. Imagine if everyone in the world thought that the other person was just trying to do their best, we’d have a much more peaceful planet. So I try to bring that out in her – the love that she has for other humans. But also, people don’t know that she is a very competitive person when it comes to her craft. I’m like that as well. And in doing so, she brings the best in others around her. In the story you will see that she is a little competitive when she is younger. And I just love that about her, too, and that was a surprise to me.
VCOS: Is it almost like a defensiveness in her?
KENNEDY: No, not defensive. She’s just good at what she does and wants to present her best work.
VCOS: What do you think is her best work? And I’m going to do this in two parts: first, a song she wrote that she sang herself, and second, a song she wrote for someone else to sing?
KENNEDY: Oooooh! That’s really good! OK. Best work…hmmm. Oh my gosh. That’s such a loaded question because I think there are a lot of songs that she wrote, especially on Tapestry, like (sings) “If you’re ever gonna make it home again.” That one is so profound. And so is “So Far Away,” the lonesome melodies that she creates that provide the backdrop to so many people’s lives. But I really love (sings) “Where you lead, I will follow” – and when she performs that, it’s just so good. That particular one is not in the show but it is one of my favorites. Now, the two songs that I think are the best that she wrote for other people are “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles. She and Gerry Goffin created just an immensely deep song that’s almost indescribable unless you hear it, and then of course, “Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin. If I could place a crown on a song’s head, that would be it.
VCOS: My favorite song of hers was “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” which she wrote for the Monkees. The lyrics perfectly describes the numbing conformity found in suburbia and I found it an incredibly mature song to be put on a pop record in 1967.
KENNEDY: And she wrote that with Gerry Goffin as well.
VCOS: What amazes me the most is her versatility as a songwriter, that she could write things especially for herself but also have her songs recorded by such a wide variety of different performers.
KENNEDY: And at such a young age. Not only did she have versatility, but she was so young doing it and constantly propelling other artists forward. What a gift.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays from Thursday, February 13 through Sunday, February 16 at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks’ Civic Arts Plaza. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.