Although she had already performed in four Broadway shows before she joined the cast of “Beautiful,” Anika Larsen says that, without the Carole King musical, she would not now be 1. Pregnant, 2. Still an actress, 3. A new recording artist, and 4. About to make her New York cabaret debut.
“Beautiful” has been very good to Larsen, who received her first Tony nomination for her portrayal of Cynthia Weil, one-half the married songwriting team of Weil and Mann, composers of some 100 pop hits (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin Feelin”), and best friends of Carole King and her husband and partner Gerry Goffin during the period depicted in the musical.
The day before Larsen was cast in the show, she has said, “I had decided to quit the business. After 17 years of the relentless hustle, I simply couldn’t bear it anymore.”
At first, though, her luck did not seem to be improving. On the fourth day of rehearsal for the show, she got stomach pains that turned out to be an obstructed colon in need of emergency surgery, “or it would burst and I would die.”
That is why the name on the door of her dressing room deep in the bowels of the Stephen Sondheim Theater is spelled “An;ka Larsen” — with a semi-colon. (That’s what she had left after the surgery.)
The dressing room itself is meticulously decorated in a way that indicates somebody who, more than a year after the musical opened, has settled in: The walls are full of framed lyrics – “You’ve got to get up every morning” as a poster; “I felt the earth move under my feet” as an eye test (“opening night gifts”); a photograph of the real Weil and Barry Mann with the actors who play them, and Weil’s inscription: “You’re a better me than I ever was.”
“You get to a point after the critics come and after the awards season is over, it just settles into a much more comfortable routine,” Larsen says. “There’s a nice regularity to it, which is hard to come by in theater.”
At the same time, she says, “I don’t think people are worried about getting too comfortable. One of the nice things about working with Jessie Mueller and Jarrod Spector” – who play Carole King and Barry Mann – “is that they’re not theatrical robots. They don’t say the lines the same way each time. We spar. We sort of grow together. There’s been time to flesh out the characters more fully.” To pick a specific physical example: it was only recently that Larsen realized that, when her Cynthia is thinking, she plays with her nails.
A nearby corner of Larsen’s dressing room, with eight neatly arranged pairs of shoes and two pairs of boots that Larsen wears in the show offers a visual clue to one of Larsen’s life-changing events that has occurred thanks to “Beautiful.”
“My dresser set me up on a blind date,” Larsen says. He was a trumpet player with a gig at B. B King. “Freddie Maxwell is now the love of my life, and my baby daddy.” Larsen is due June 23rd.
The child will join a huge family – Larsen has nine brothers and sisters – which helps explain the birth of a new career. Shortly before “Beautiful” opened, a former dancer named Dan Watt attended a preview, and listened in the audience while Larsen and co-star Jarrod Spector sang a song in the second act called “Walking in the Rain.” He fell in love with her voice.
Having just launched a career as a record producer, Watt approached her after the show: Would she be interested in making an album with him?
“Absolutely not,” she replied.
“It felt uncomfortable a whole album being just me,” she says now. “It felt too self-indulgent.”
A few weeks later, however, she was singing lullabies to some of her nieces and nephews – she has 14 of them – and she suddenly realized an approach that would work for her. The result is the recently released “Sing You To Sleep,” the first CD on Watt’s Yellow Sound Label, with 12 unusual lullabies – by Bruno Mars, Sting, Bob Dylan, the Gershwins, James Taylor and John Denver, and one co-written by the songwriter she plays, Cynthia Weil, “Somewhere Out There,” from the animated film An American Tail.
Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight Someone's thinking of me and loving me tonight
There is even a song from a Broadway musical, Sleepy Man from The Robber Bridegroom
“I don’t think of the album as Broadway. I don’t think of me as Broadway. I don’t think of my career as doing typical Broadway. I still can’t believe I’m doing this for a living. I don’t honestly know how I got here.”
Growing up as one of ten children (“four by birth, six by adoption”) in Massachusetts, “some of the little one-to-one time I had with my father was in the theater. We shared that interest.”
When she was five years old, her family went to New York to see Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan. “She sprinkled glitter; it was magical.” Some 15 years later, Larsen returned to New York to live, having recently graduated from Yale with a major in theater, doing her senior thesis on “Falsettos,” and touring with an a cappella singing group called “Shades.” After spending some time temping and auditioning, she landed a role in “Rent.” “On a Tuesday, they said ‘can you join the LA company on Friday?” After touring with the musical, she briefly performed it on Broadway. Over the next decade, she was cast in the Broadway productions of Avenue Q, All Shook Up, and Xanadu, and appeared repeatedly Off-Broadway as well, including in a musical she herself wrote, entitled “Shafrika, The White Girl,” as well as “Zanna, Don’t.” As she puts it on her website, she is “the only person on the planet who can say she was in the original casts of both Xanadu and Zanna, Don’t!.”
The album she has put together is less a reflection of her theatrical career than her personal biography. The first song, Summertime, which “I’ve sung to kids for years,” she conceived as a duet between voice and trumpet, so that she could feature her partner Freddie Maxwell. “I wanted Freddie to play as much as possible.” The seventh song, “Four-Leaf Clover,” is one her mother always sang to her and her siblings. She sang the ninth song, Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” at the wedding of her brother Peik Irgens Larsen — “and then six years later at his funeral. We don’t know why he died.”
Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold
Anika Larsen will be appearing at Birdland Jazz Club on March 23, a debut cabaret concert she would never have made without the album, which would never have happened without Beautiful. “The show does feel charmed in some ways. But I’ve been laying the groundwork for all aspects of my life; it’s probably coincidental that a bunch of things blossomed at once.”
- Summertime (Music George Gershwin/ Lyrics Ira Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward)
2. Somewhere Out There (Music by James Horner & Barry Mann/Lyrics by Cynthia Weil)
3. Count On Me (Music and lyrics by Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine)
4. Sleepy Man (Music and lyrics by Robert Waldman and Alfred Uhry)
5. The Moon is Made of Gold (Music and lyrics by Richard Loris Jones)
6. You Can Close Your Eyes (Music and lyrics by James Taylor) – Duet with Jessie Mueller
7. Four-Leaf Clover (Music by Abra J. Moore / Lyrics by David Lewis and Wayne I. Lewis)
8. Al Otro Lado del Rio (Music and lyrics by Jorge Drexler)
9. Fields of Gold (Music by Sting / Lyrics by Gordon Sumner and Dusan Bogdanovic)
10. Baby Mine (Music by Frank Churchill / Lyrics by Ned Washington)
11. Annie’s Song (Music and lyrics by John Denver)
12. Make You Feel My Love (Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan)
A video of James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes, duet with Jessie Mueller: