First Look: Vanessa Carlton Makes Her Broadway Debut as Carole King in 'Beautiful'

Joan Marcus
Vanessa Carlton as Carole King in Beautiful.

On Thursday, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton will make her Broadway debut as another very famous piano woman, Carole King, in the acclaimed musical Beautiful. It's Carlton’s first foray into acting onstage, and the latest chapter in an eclectic, still-evolving career that kicked off in 2002 with her global hit “A Thousand Miles,” which hit the Billboard Hot 100 top five.

Since then, Carlton has released five well-received albums (her sixth is on the way), got married (her husband is Deer Tick's John McCauley) and started a family. Ahead of her opening night, Carlton caught up with Billboard about the intersections between King's lives and her own, and why she's particularly excited to embody her in the show: “She took risks, and usually that’s the only thing that leads to something new and something great.”

Congratulations on your Broadway debut! What’s going through your mind?

I’m just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Each day I get more comfortable, and it’s just been a ton of new territory for me. I want to bring something great to the show, and there are so many question marks I have about it. It’s the most exhilarating process I’ve ever been a part of. It’s terrifying and overwhelming-awesome in equal measure. 

What's been most thrilling about it so far?

You can only learn so much and you can only access so much within yourself, so it’s like jumping off a cliff once you do that first performance. The stage to me is familiar but it’s in a completely new context.  Even though I’ve been on stage since I was young,  I’ve never acted on stage before. There’s a lot of incredible songs in there, but it’s also a play and I’ve never done that. I want there to be an arc and I want to honor Carole and the incredible energy of the story. Right now, I’m just doing the work I can do, and then maybe I’ll come up for air like two weeks after I start.

How did Beautiful originally come on your radar?

One of the producers reached out to my agent out of the blue. It was one of those glorious things that just happens in a fairytale. I was in the midst of working on my new album with [producer] Dave Fridmann who is a wizard, and I couldn’t do the show when they first asked me about it. I was talking to my manager about what the chances were of them asking me again and he gave it about a 5 percent chance. But they wound up coming back and asking after I was done with my record. So then I went to Nashville for three weeks of acting coaching with this brilliant coach, Bridget Berger. She just cracked my shell; I stopped judging myself and got present. It’s a hearty script and  there’s a lot in there. It’s taken a lot of preparation but I’m ready.

When you were first starting to write songs, were there artists like Carole who you looked up to?

Well, similar to Carole I had other dreams at first. I didn’t see myself as a songwriter nor a musician. I wanted to be a dancer and that was that. I wanted to be like [the Russian ballerina] Natalia Makarova. I was studying tapes of ballet since I was young, it was an obsession that I’m pretty sure started out with that first Jane Fonda aerobics workout tape. (Laughs) Musically, I would say my overarching biggest influences to this day are classical artists: Debussy, Aaron Copland and Bach. There are so many musical patterns that I pull from their pieces, like chord or note combinations. You can hear that kind of stuff in what Carole plays too, as she’s very classical in some ways.

Do you feel a kinship with her? I'm sure you're one of the few people who might truly understand what she went through in her career.

Absolutely. I think there are some pretty specific similarities that made it a little easier for me to get a handle on it. For instance, our mothers both taught us piano and we were classically trained early on. Both of our first shows were at The Bitter End. And [former Atlantic Records co-founder and president] Ahmet Ertegun played a huge role in both of our carers. Aside from that, there’s also the universal things that she shares with all women and all humans. Things like going after a dream and it coming true in a way that was different that she thought it would. Or having her heart broken, experiencing betrayal, having a child when she’s 18 years-old in the early '60s, and trying to figure out how to be a mother and work at the same time. There’s so much in the story that we can all relate to, and I think she was really ahead of her time in so many beautiful ways. I love the opportunity to be able to tell her story.