Starring role in Beautiful on Broadway almost got away from Canadian actress, who relates to the songwriter she’s playing.
By: Richard Ouzounian Theatre Critic, Published on Sat Mar 28 2015
NEW YORK—On the afternoon of March 7, 2015, Chilina Kennedy stood backstage at Manhattan’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre and felt something she had never really felt before.
“I thought I was ready to go, doing great, then I said to myself, ‘This is it, you’re starring in a Broadway musical’ and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe.”
Kennedy was about to play her first performance as one of the icons of popular song in the hit show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and the magnitude of the moment suddenly hit her.
“You know me, I’ve been at this for over 15 years. I’ve starred at Stratford, at Shaw, at Charlottetown. I’ve toured North America. I even played Broadway before in Jesus Christ Superstar, but this was something different.”
Still, the 36-year-old former army brat from Oromocto, N.B., who got her training at Sheridan College, didn’t climb so high up the show business ladder by being weak or indecisive and she wasn’t going to wimp out at a crucial moment.
“I thought, ‘Look, if you’re going to climb a mountain, you don’t think about the mountain, you think about the steps that you need to get there.’ So I focused on the first step, the first song I had to sing and I just concentrated on that.”
That got Kennedy onto the stage and, as she admits with a grin, “It’s one of those roles that hits the ground running. You go full speed from the start and you don’t get off the train until you reach the station. I knew that all I had to do was begin and I’d be able to finish.”
It’s a chilly spring afternoon and Kennedy is sitting in the wood-lined lobby bar of the venerable show-business hangout the Algonquin Hotel, sipping at a mineral water as she thinks about how she got through that first performance.
“You know, one of the great things about Carole King is that she admits in her biography that she had stage fright, so I felt I could use that to get through any fear I might feel.
“She also talks about how she liked to think of the audience as old friends that she was inviting into her living room every time she performed and that gave me a good feeling.”
And the audience feels the same. At a recent performance, they started cheering for Kennedy early on and, as the evening progressed and she gave full-hearted emotion to every tragedy and triumph in King’s life, they laughed and cried along with her.
“I have had support every step of the way on this. I get it from the audience at every performance; I get it from the company who welcomed me into the show so warmly and I get it from all my friends who Canada who never let me forget that they’re out there pulling for me.”
Kennedy is replacing Jessie Mueller, the Chicago performer who captured New York’s heart and won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical for creating the role Kennedy is now playing.
And in one of those “might have been” scenarios that only come true in the theatre, Kennedy is starring in a role she thought she’d lost forever.
“I had been involved with the audition process from the beginning,” she says, choosing her words carefully, “but things just didn’t work out. Schedules. Plans. Lots of things.”
Her eyes actually well up as she recalls the disappointment.
“But when I knew I wouldn’t be cast in the show, I did something I never do. I kept the script and the music because my heart was so involved with it. I kept it in this secret folder that nobody even knew I had.
“When I found out that they were still interested in my replacing Jessie, I pulled out the music and said, ‘Thank You!’” she says, gazing upward.
“The energy we put out there into the world comes back to us. I believe that.”
And while it’s wonderful to be starring on Broadway, Kennedy says that sharing King’s music and vision is the best part of it all.
“She was very brave. She put a lot of her heart and soul on the table in her songs and she wasn’t afraid to do it.
“We can all relate to the pain she felt in her relationship with Gerry (Goffin, her collaborator and husband, whom she finally left). We’ve all been through something like that and it’s nice to share it, because you don’t feel so alone.”
She stops and smiles, remembering.
“At one performance, I was singing ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and I looked out in the audience and there was this whole group of women in one row, singing along, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth to the music. It was beautiful.
“That’s why it’s such a honour as well as a pleasure to do this show.”