In the first half of our interview with Kaylee Harwood last week, we followed her journey from Vancouver to the Broadway stage.
Now fully immersed in New York’s musical theatre scene, including roles in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway and as part of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Harwood’s rising star would eventually bring her to the touring production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which arrives at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre this month.
Playing multiple roles
Like many touring productions of its kind, over time Harwood found herself performing five different characters; three as principals, including as understudy in the role of Carole King herself.
“There is Carole, Cynthia Weil, who is the friendly foil to Carole in the piece, and Carole’s mom, Genie,” explains Harwood. “The other two are female ensemble parts.”
Gradually learning the five roles over the course of a year, she has since performed each in equal measures. As the understudy for Beautiful’s central character though, it is understandably the role Harwood finds particularly excited to play.
“Because she is still alive there’s a lot of reference material to inform my playing of Carole,” she says. “Then at the same time I think the producers and director have been very wise in directing the people who do play Carole to really make it their own because, as everybody knows, Carole’s voice is so iconic.”
And although there are distinctive traits to King’s performance style, Harwood wasn’t out to impersonate the singer.
“A lot of the notes about playing Carole are to pare it down and to have it be really, really authentic,” explains Harwood. “It’s not about showing off, and it’s not about doing a great impression, it’s about being very, very honest.”
Seeing a similarity between herself and the other women who have been cast in the role, Harwood says the most genuine performances come from a down-to-earth sensibility, and in the musicality.
“It’s the percussive way she hits the piano, and it’s the little licks and musical flair that she uses in her songs that is a lot simpler than a lot of contemporary singers tend to be,” she explains. “A lot of singers nowadays add a lot of licks and flair that’s really exciting and awesome to listen to, but Carole’s are very specific.”
Becoming a fan
It also helps to have been a fan of King’s music, although it was not immediately apparent to Harwood just how prolific King’s music really was.
“I didn’t know how much of a fan I was because of how much music she wrote,” she says. “I didn’t even know that some of the most iconic chart toppers of the 20th century were written by her.”
Harwood first remembers becoming a fan of King via television, long before she would ever play her on stage.
“To be honest, my introduction to Carole King was through Gilmore Girls because she had done a new recording of her song “Where You Lead” with her daughter, and made a couple cameos on the show,” says Harwood. “Through the years of course, as I’ve learned more and more about her music, I’ve become an even bigger fan.”
Helping to tell King’s story
Harwood’s fandom has definitely informed her portrayal of the iconic singer-songwriter in Beautiful, in a show that only highlights King’s seemingly endless hits, but one that also chronicles her life.
“I really love the story of the first half with Carole as a young singer-songwriter who meets the love of her life, Gerry Goffin, and they write together,” says Harwood. “Carole undergoes quite a bit of heartache, and in the second half of the show Carole really comes into her own, and becomes her own voice; metaphorically and literally in terms of her release of Tapestry.”
In fact, it is in the performance of “It’s Too Late” in act two from King’s Tapestry album that is a pivotal moment for both Harwood and the audience.
“That song always gets a beautiful reaction from the crowd,” she says. “There’s almost like a release when everyone realizes what she’s playing.”
It is in that scene where Harwood can see the impact the show is having on the audience.
“When I sit in the audience and watch, or when I’m on stage, I can honestly hear the audience gasping or you can see people’s hands slip over and grab the hand of the person next to them when their favorite song comes on,” she says. “But “It’s Too Late” is such a special moment because it’s really where Carole has started to channel her own emotion and heartache into her music. She’s doing it for the first time from a really real and raw place.”
Meeting the woman
Highlights for Harwood on tour so far have included live appearances on both Dancing with the Stars and America’s Got Talent.
“It was exciting to take what is normally a show that’s done for an audience of 2,500 people a night, which is not something to sniff at, and then get to do performances from the show for millions of people in a live broadcast is just an amazing feeling,” she says.
But while performing for the masses on live television remains a fond memory, it would be King’s appearance at a performance just a few weeks ago that Harwood and the rest of the cast will not soon forget.
“It was the first time she’d been out on the road since I joined the tour, and it was overwhelming. She’s a gem. She’s such a joy, and she took so much time with the cast, and was really gracious,” says Harwood. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when she stepped out on stage.”
A beautiful and empowering message
Much more than any single moment on tour or in the show though, Harwood points to the uplifting and family-friendly story which makes Beautiful so enduring and endearing.
“It truly is an empowering message about owning your story, and using it to propel your life forward,” she says. “Carole’s an incredibly uplifting and energizing source herself as a human being, and to get to tell her story, to get to witness her story is such a joy. So I think audiences really take that away too.”
In having to cover five roles, Harwood usually has no idea which character she might play on any particular night. Fortunately, on her return to Vancouver, she will be given an opportunity to perform as Carole King before a hometown crowd at both the matinee and evening performances at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on November 18.
“I’m so happy that I get to share playing Carole with my friends and family back home,” she says.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical opens at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on November 13 and continues until November 18. Visit vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.