Paying your dues: Sarah Bockel’s journey as Carole King in ‘Beautiful,’ coming to the Academy of Music

In college, Sarah Bockel was a Joni Mitchell fan. But after three and half years of performing in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Bockel is all about the “Natural Woman.”Bockel stars in the jukebox musical coming to the Academy of…

In college, Sarah Bockel was a Joni Mitchell fan. But after three and half years of performing in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Bockel is all about the “Natural Woman.”

Bockel stars in the jukebox musical coming to the Academy of Music beginning Jan. 8-20., which portrays how Carole Klein became Carole King, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. The show chronicles King’s early days crafting pop hits with her then husband, Gerry Goffin, their tumultuous divorce and to her taking center stage and creating her groundbreaking album, Tapestry.

This is the second time the national tour of the Tony- and Grammy-award-winning musical has stopped in Philly. During its initial tour in 2016, King was played by Abby Mueller, the sister of the show’s original King, Jessie Mueller, the latter who won a Tony in 2014 for Best Actress in a Musical.

At that time, Bockel was [Abby] Mueller’s understudy. A dynamic that could have stirred an All About Eve type jealousy, instead Bockel loved watching and learning from Mueller’s performances. She was also sad when Mueller left the tour to play King on Broadway.

“I didn’t think I wanted to understudy for anyone else,” explained  Bockel. “I was just learning so much about not only being in the moment, but also consistency in performing every night, and what you can do and what you need to pull back on to be able to do a show eight times a week.”

But Bockel did understudy for someone else — Julia Knitel. Waiting in the wing, or more appropriately in the ensemble, Bockel gleaned what she could from Knitel’s deft performances. As the first two Kings showcased “consistency, honesty, presence and listening,” the ingénue was paying close attention and taking notes.

Before Bockel became the leading “Natural Woman,” a part she “felt prepared” for from watching Mueller and Knitel, she hit a wall. She was homesick.

After 18 months as an understudy, Bockel packed up her bags and headed home to Chicago. A couple days in, fate intervened when she received a call from the Broadway production of Beautiful to fill in for King’s understudy — essentially, the understudy’s understudy.

“I flew to New York, sublet my friend’s room, made my Broadway debut and was on Broadway for six weeks,” said Bockel. “And then directly after that, our Carole back on tour, Julia, got really sick and she needed some time off. So then I went back to the tour for two weeks and got to play Carole.”

Two months later than she expected, Bockel was at last able to go back home, a place that she ached for especially during the holidays on the road.

“I was home all summer,” recalled Bockel. “I was so happy to be home and so ready, because life on the road is hard.”

The only problem was that she couldn’t find work. After five months of being home, a familiar call came ringing — but this time with a different message. The national tour of Beautiful wanted Bockel to be the leading King.

“It was a no brainer, and I knew I was ready to go back on the road,” explained Bockel. “I had more lessons to learn.”

While grateful to have beaten the odds to earn her spotlight, she couldn’t deny that being back on the road has taken its toll. Whether going to physical therapy or eating a healthy dish and hitting the gym to fit into her Carole costumes, Bockel explained that it can feel like she is living for her job.

Yet, it is a job that has been her life for almost four years and that will be over in June when the tour ends. After that, she will once again be on the hunt for any opportunity to keep performing.

“Anytime I feel sick about it, I need to look out to the audience and be grateful and think, ‘Oh, these people are here and they need to hear this story,’” said Bockel. “It’s a really great, inspiring story, and I’m so lucky I get to be the one to tell it.”

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1-on-1 with the King

Sarah Bockel plays Carole King in the upcoming theater production of the legendary singer-songwriter’s life at the Academy of Music beginning Jan. 8. We sat down with Bockel to get some straight answers to a few burning questions.

How did you prepare for the role of Carole King?

I prepared with lots of YouTube. I probably watched everything on YouTube that had to do with Carole King. I read her memoir, and I think the best preparation for me was I was an understudy on the tour for the first year and a half so I got to just watch and really learn.

Have you ever met King?

I have met her a couple times.

Is there something she told you that sticks out in your memory?

She joked with me a little bit once, because I didn’t know she was coming to the show that night, thank god. And I was just wearing a flannel shirt and leggings and I said, “Oh, I’m so glad I wore my nice shirt.” She said, “That’s why I always wear black.” It was pretty funny.

I also travel two of her records, just in case she comes to see the show. And she was so surprised, and said, “Oh, you travel these!” [When I said I needed to grab a pen for her to autograph them], she responded, “That’s okay, I carry one in my purse, just in case this happens.” It is just an example of how gracious and kind she is. She has been essentially signing autographs for most of her life, and she’s not sick of it, she doesn’t get annoyed. She, in fact, brings a pen to make it easier for people.

What’s your favorite song of Carole King’s and why?

I have Tapestry on vinyl, and it changes. My favorite song before the show was “It’s Too Late,” because it was my breakup song. I always loved “I Feel the Earth Move,” that’s the most fun song and also to perform at the end of the show is really fun.

What about this musical makes it relevant for people to watch now?

It’s funny, I think we have some really great timing to be able to tell this story even though it takes place in the 60s and 70s. Now, during MeToo Movement, during this new wave of feminism and its renaissance, it’s great timing to tell the story of a woman where all the odds are against her, and it’s real, and she’s still with us.

You came to Philly in 2016 to perform in Beautiful. What are you excited to do coming back to the city?

I stayed in the Gayborhood last time, and I really want to go back to that neighborhood. It was so much fun.

I just love the cobblestone streets and all the history and just walking around. It feels like some old timey America to me. I know it’s going to be colder, but I’m still excited to walk around … You know these repeat cities that we get to come back to, it’s nice to have a little familiarity.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical | Jan. 8-20. Prices vary. Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets/201819/broadway-philadelphia/beautiful-the-carole-king-musical/

ANDREA CANTOR | @ANDREAJCANTOR