Like most aspiring artists and singers, Ben Fankauser knew the iconic songs of Carole King, but he had no idea about her story.
Like most aspiring artists and singers, Ben Fankauser knew the iconic songs of Carole King. But he had no idea about her story, especially the common bond they share and how — even now — it should still inspire aspiring artists today.
He says that’s the message Beautiful, the jukebox musical story of Carole King, which runs March 22 to April 3 at the Academy of Music, should leave you with.
“Here’s a young girl — 16 years old — born in Brooklyn, who goes to work tirelessly at her dream of being a songwriter,” said Fankhauser, who plays Barry Mann, part of a legendary New York songwriting group that included King, her future husband, Gerry Goffin, and Mann’s future wife, Cynthia Weil. “We get to see her rise to stardom. It’s a story about an underdog basically rising to the top — that’s something we all can relate to.”
Carole King, born Carol Joan Klein, the daughter of a teacher and New York firefighter, is Jewish. So is Fankhauser; in fact the Zurich, Switzerland-born actor is the only Jewish member of the cast. He lived there until his parents split up when he was 5 and his mother moved the family to Cleveland.
Fankauser saw the Broadway production of Beautiful in 2014, courtesy of a few friends in the ensemble. Not until seeing it again a year later and deciding to pursue getting cast in the show’s national tour, did he begin to truly appreciate her journey.
“I knew Carole King mainly how everyone knows Carole King — from her post-Tapestry era, I’ll call it,” said the 26-year-old Fankhauser, who left Ithaca College to go on a national tour of Spring Awakening, then originated the part of Davey in Newsies. “I knew her as the composer of ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ Tapestry, ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ — that kind of stuff. What I learned, once I started getting involved in the show, was she was a part of a pretty big Jewish group of songwriters in the Brill Building in the ’60s. She was writing for all those big singing groups of the day — The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Chiffons. It was real interesting for me to learn Carole had been part of the writing community.”
So was Mann, whose part was originated in the 2014 Tony Award-winning musical by Jerrod Spector. Fankauser knew of Mann through his hits, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway,” “Never Gonna Let You Go,” “Sometimes When We Touch,” “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” to name a few. He got to meet Spector and pick his brain before the tour started six months ago, and got a congratulatory email from the now 77-year-old Mann, whom he hopes to meet when the tour stops in L.A.
The rest is his own interpretation. “I’m playing him in his young 20s,” said Fankhauser, who says meeting with Beautiful writer, Doug McGrath, who spent extensive time with King and the rest of the characters, was invaluable. “The cool thing about Don Kirshner” — the legendary music producer and TV rock concert host — “was he had this knack of hiring young people to write for young people, so the majority of writers in this building were young, ambitious and hungry for success. These people were separated by cubicles — they would come in and write all day and borrow ideas from each other. It really was an intense environment. The ambition of the four writers is what the story centralizes around.”
Fankauser describes Mann as “a really sort of hypochondriac who liked to present himself as a man with the plan.” His relationship with Weil develops throughout the story and serves as a vivid contrast to King’s rocky marriage with Goffin, which took place after she became pregnant at 17.
“The show really doesn’t highlight Judaism as a cornerstone of the story,” Fankauser explained. “But Carole is Jewish, and Barry and Cynthia are Jewish. A lot of those popular songs are written by Jews. I enjoy being a Jew playing a Jew.”
Even more so, his 2011 Birthright experience gave him a newfound appreciation of his heritage. The story’s a little fuzzy, but according to Ben’s mother, Binnie, her parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. Both his grandparents were able to go into hiding until it was safe to come out.
That may be in part why he found his trip to Israel so meaningful. “It was pretty profound; one of those things that’s indescribable,” said Fankauser, who considered being at the Western Wall a spiritual highlight. “I felt it when we landed in Ben Gurion Airport. You have a sense of ‘I’m coming home’ and ‘Everyone here is like me’ in a way I never really experienced before. I’d definitely like to go back. I was feeling a sense of belonging, like, ‘Maybe I want to marry a Jewish girl to sustain my lineage.’ It made me want to continue the tradition.”
Being the only Jew in the midst of a yearlong contract on a national touring company figures to make that difficult at present. While somewhat intoxicating, it’s also a lonely life traveling each few weeks or even less to a different city, living out of a suitcase in a hotel.
When the tour arrives here next week, it will be Fankhauser’s first time ever in Philadelphia. But at least he should remember where he is, which isn’t always the case, as he searches for some good local coffee and perhaps makes a trip to the National Museum for American Jewish History.
His own history is kind of fascinating. “My parents met in Detroit,” said Fankhauser, who’s excited about the next stop after Philly when the tour comes to Cleveland and he’ll perform on the same Palace Theatre stage where he used to watch shows growing up. “My dad was very musical. I was always singing. When I was in sixth grade, I played Joseph in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Since a very young age, I’ve dreamed of getting into Broadway — my passion has always been musical theater. It wasn’t until college that I found a love for acting.”
Beautiful has some of both, enabling Fankhauser to bring Barry Mann to life while telling the story of his fellow colleague, friend and Jew, Carole King. “I was really blown away when I first saw the show,” said Fankhauser. “Jukebox musicals can tend to sometimes be trite or be all about the music.”
“When I look at this script and see this character I try to use my own life experiences and imagination to conjure up what this guy goes through.”
Because winter, spring, summer or fall life for Ben Fankauser right now is truly “Beautiful.”
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