It's not often that you get to meet the person you're playing onstage. It's even rarer to become friends. "We partied together last night," said Anika Larsen as she sat down next to legendary lyricist Cynthia Weil. Larsen plays Weil opposite Jarrod Spector (who portrays Barry Mann, Weil's husband of 53 years) in Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, currently breaking box office records at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Larsen and Weil had attended Jarrod Spector's show at 54 below the night before. Mann joined Spector onstage as his special guest. "One of the things that made me cry last night was when Barry sat down and played Somewhere Out There," said Larsen, referring to the ballad Mann penned for the 1986 animated film An American Tail. "We don't really know the names of people who write songs. Everyone is a fan of Cynthia and Barry, even if they don't know it."
Beautiful shines a spotlight on the people behind some of the greatest pop music of the last century: In the 1960s, husband-and-wife songwriting team Carole King (played by Jessie Mueller) and Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein) worked at Aldon Music, the same office that housed Weil and Mann. The two couples' friendship and professional rivalry garnered such memorable tunes as "One Fine Day," "On Broadway," "The Locomotion," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
TheaterMania spoke to Larsen and Weil about Beautiful, the changing scene for American songwriters, and the essence of being a writer.
Speaking of people not knowing who writes songs, Cynthia, you and your husband created and performed in They Wrote That?, an off-Broadway revue of your music that ran at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre ten years ago.
Cynthia Weil: I set up the stories behind the songs. Barry played piano and sang them. They let me sing backup a bit. Carole came and saw it and said, "You've finally achieved your goal of being a backup singer."
You had already told your own stories onstage, but were you always on board with the idea of turning this period of your life into a Broadway musical?
Cynthia Weil: Barry and I were always on board. This period of our lives wasn't as tumultuous as it was for Carole. We're the B-story, comic relief. It's really a docu-musical of our lives during our time with [record producer] Don Kirshner.
One of the most thrilling moments of the show is when we're introduced to Kirshner's office at 1650 Broadway. There's this energetic mash-up of pop music happening on multiple levels. Is that what it felt like to work there?
Cynthia Weil: It really did. It was just creativity gone wild. Everyone was a little young, a little crazy, and very ambitious. It was the heyday for songwriters.
Anika, you're also a writer. In 2009 you created a semiautobiographical musical based on your childhood called Shafrika, The White Girl. Was that an important experience to prepare you for originating a role on Broadway?
Anika Larsen: Absolutely. That changed the way I've done theater ever since. I saw so much of what happens before the actors even show up for rehearsal. It's ridiculous that we think we're important at all because, frankly, the majority of the work has already been done before we even get there. You make me nervous when you call me a writer, though. I don’t know if I would ever call myself a writer, but I am good at collaborative writing. I write well with other people. I don't know if I would ever be able to write on my own.
Cynthia, most of your work has been collaborative. Are you a writer?
Cynthia Weil: I am a writer. As a matter of fact, I just finished a young adult novel [I'm Glad I Did], a mystery for Soho Teen.
Anika Larsen: First of all, I want to read it. Second, as a lyricist, would you not call yourself a writer? What would you call yourself?
Cynthia Weil: A lyricist, which is very different. I don't think a lyricist is a poet. I think a lyricist is a lyricist. The work doesn't mean anything without the other half.
Cynthia, as Beautiful shows, the work of you and your husband was quite socially challenging for its day. Was that always important to you?
Cynthia Weil: I grew up on theater and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I always felt that pop music could be something more than I love you, and you don't love me. Why don't you take me to the prom? Please take me to the prom.
Is it true that your song "Only in America" was originally much more scathing, going after racism in America with lyrics like, "Only in America / Land of opportunity / Can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me?"
Cynthia Weil: Yes, it is true. We originally wanted to write it in a far angrier tone and have The Drifters sing it. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller said, "We will never get this on the air." He suggested that we write it the way we ended up writing it and said that the public would get that we were being sardonic. But they didn't get it at all. Nobody got it and the R&B DJs refused to play it. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic said it was ridiculous so they just took the track and put Jay and the Americans on it.
How did you feel about that?
Cynthia Weil: I was disappointed, but you have to be a realist. As much as I would have loved to hear the original version on the air, I don't think it would have made it on the air.
Do you think something similarly controversial would make it on the air today?
Cynthia Weil: I think it wouldn't matter, because you could always make a viral video. You have much more freedom today to deal directly with the public than you did in the sixties.
Is that a good thing for songwriters or a bad thing?
Cynthia Weil: Both. It's much easier to have an idea and bring it to fruition without going through the major companies now. On the other hand, if you have a major company, you have that support that you wouldn't have on your own.
Anika Larsen: I played a P!nk song for Liz Larsen, who plays Genie Klein in Beautiful, the other day because I thought she'd just love it. She asked, "Was it a hit?" And I said, "I don't know." How do you know these days? What's the measure?
Carole King surprised the cast by showing up at the curtain call recently. What was that moment like?
Anika Larsen: My first thought was, Uh oh, how's Jessie doing? And I turned to Jessie, who burst immediately into tears. So I sympathy-cried and then couldn't stop for about fifteen minutes. Then I realized, Oh…that means she watched the show. So I replayed the whole show in my mind: The audience was good tonight, right? I didn't mess up, did I? I didn't mess up and that was a relief, to know she had seen a good performance.
Cynthia, you've had a very fruitful personal and artistic relationship with your husband for almost fifty-four years. What's the secret to your longevity?
Cynthia Weil: Forgiveness. It isn't easy. It takes work. We had our tumultuous period in the eighties. We were separated for a year and a half. We got back together. We've appreciated each other more ever since.