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So Far Away

Out on tour, Julia Knitel finds groove portraying young Carole King

Rumor has it that if you played Carole King’s chart entries back to back, you’d be listening to about five hours of music. Just the hits. For five hours. So it’s difficult to think that a musical of her life would be anything but reductive. But Beautiful—The Carole King Musical, nominated for a Tony for Best Musical in 2014, has broken box office records and has sparked talk of a film adaptation, proving that even a small number of King’s songs can shape a big idea.

“People love her. They want to love her,” said Julia Knitel, who plays King in the national tour of Beautiful, coming to the Ohio Theatre this month. “The people that I meet at the stage door are all just so grateful to have had some time to listen to this  music, to be impacted by her again.”

Part jukebox musical, part biomusical, Beautiful tells the story of Carol Klein, a rebellious 16-year-old musical prodigy growing up in Brooklyn who becomes Carole King, one of the most expansive and timeless songwriters and performers of the latter half of the 20th century. Along the way, she emotionally and musically collaborates and competes with fellow artists Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, and Barry Mann. Together, they write “the soundtrack of a generation.”

Knitel, a New Jersey native and lifelong performer, also began her professional Broadway career at 16 in Bye Bye Birdie and now plays Carole in Beautiful’s touring cast. At 24, she is the youngest woman who has played the role. But despite being a member of a generation hooked on Justin Bieber and Rhianna, Knitel feels a deep, if not genetic, connection to the music of the ’60s and ’70s.

“I grew up on the music,” explained Knitel, whose parents are both actors, musicians, and die-hard Carole King fans who raised their daughter on James Taylor, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and The Monkees. “It was part of my DNA, growing up…so I’m spoiled growing up with really, really wonderful music.”

Beautiful spans from 1958 to 1971, focusing on the emotional journey King took to release Tapestry, her first solo album. The journey contains many of the darker moments of King’s life, particularly in her marriage to Gerry Goffin, a relationship that produced more than two dozen chart hits, but also ended in heartbreak.

“It was a challenge for her,” said Knitel, referring not only to King’s tumultuous relationships, but also the way that her career was hidden, either by songwriting for others or by putting her career aside to take care of her children before she became a solo performer in her own right. “But at the same time she persevered, and she forged a path that I am fortunate enough to follow. I think it’s important for women my age especially, to hear her story and to be thankful for what she’s done for us.”

Young and musical and thrilled to be on tour, sharing music with different cities each week, Knitel has fallen quite easily in the footsteps of King’s younger self.

“I think I bring a different perspective to Carole. She was a dork,” Knitel laughed. “She was a kid who was obsessed with music and obsessed with playing music and writing music and dissecting music. And I think I’m a little bit of a dork, too. So it’s fun to bring out that side of both of us every night.”

On portraying a character who has a real, living, legendary counterpart, Knitel seems unfazed by expectations or potential comparisons. If anything, Knitel welcomes the parallels drawn between her and King with a certain eagerness; King is, in Knitel’s words, “still rockin’ and rollin’” through her music and activism.

“It’s a fine line because her voice is so iconic,” explained Knitel, who dug into the vast amount of video, audio, and reading material available about King in preparation for the role. “If I didn’t sound anything like her, I think there would be an uproar. But at the same time, she wasn’t a singer first and it’s about her music and…the creators have been very clear with me that it’s not about doing a note-for-note impersonation. It’s about my own interpretation.”

That interpretation has been garnering Knitel some spectacular reviews, as well as a stamp of approval from the show’s renowned inspirational figure. King stopped in to visit  the Broadway company of Beautiful, of which Knitel was a member at the time, to celebrate its 1,000th performance.

“But then she came to see me play her in Boise, Idaho because she’s got a farm outside there. I got to meet her before the show, which was overwhelming because I knew she was in the audience,” said Knitel with a bit of understandable giddiness to her voice.

“But she was very kind and seemed to be very proud, and liked my take on it.”

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