BWW Interview: Jake Epstein Reflects On His Return to BEAUTIFUL and the Legacy of Gerry Goffin
The abundantly talented Jake Epstein returns to Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical this fall and is savoring the experience of stepping back into a role he originated almost three years ago, as one of rock and roll's top songwriters. Gerry Goffin wrote the lyrics to some of the most celebrated masterpieces that not only defined a generation, but also continue to pierce the hearts of human beings everywhere -- as they stem from themes that are most pertinent to our nature. Themes of love, loss, confusion, joy, and pain all bleed into the words and melodies that Goffin created with songwriting partner and first wife -- the beloved Carole King. With immortal hits such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" "Up on the Roof," and ""(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," among countless others, Goffin and King were able to explore the depths of the human experience - regardless of gender - and have produced a legacy that will continue to remain timeless and evoke nostalgia for years to come.
Epstein made his Broadway debut in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and has starred in the national tours of Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Billy Elliott. This gifted actor and singer also wrote a play with mom, Kathy Kacer, an award-winning author, called Therefore Choose Life, which debuted in Toronto in the spring of 2015 and focused on making the choices that lead to happiness in this life.
BWW had the incredible opportunity to catch up with Epstein about returning to Broadway and Beautiful, his memories and admiration of Gerry Goffin, the music that he grew up with that he has the chance to perform each night, and his hope for Goffin's legacy.
How does it feel stepping back into this role you originated almost 3 years ago? Does it feel like coming home again or do you anticipate making new discoveries?
It's been really fun! So many actors would love to go back and revisit parts that they've played; it's such a rare experience getting to bring a part back to life again. I'm totally relishing it!
While Beautiful deals with many personal issues, what do you want audiences to understand about Gerry's musical contributions? When you learn that he wrote the lyrics to "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Natural Woman" for example, you kind of have to stop and think about that and what it says about his understanding of human nature.
He was incredible, and the thing that always amazes me about Gerry is that he wrote these sort of female empowerment anthems. The fact that a man wrote the lyrics to "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman" or "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is incredible. His understanding of gender was way ahead of its time. He's the master of complex thought in a simple lyric. In the song, "Chains," in those lyrics, he has this whole story of what it means to be in love -- that's it's a chain, that's it's wonderful, that's it's a prison. It's really inspiring!
I was lucky enough to get to meet him a couple of times before he passed away. He came to see me in the show and I know it was very important for him to portray all the things that happened accurately. He apparently always apologized to Carole every time he saw her. He's really such a complicated, unique, wonderful person. When I first met him, he was having a bit of a hard day and was having a hard time communicating and pointed at me to come close to him and said, "You're good!" That meant the world to me, and I know the show meant the world to him - I'm very proud to continue his legacy with the show.
What do you think is most challenging about portraying a real person?
Since I'm portraying a real person whose work the public knows, but they don't really know him as a person - for me, it was about nailing the spirit of Gerry instead of trying to mimic him in any kind of way. Again, it's a piece of fiction and it's about being true to the person as well as true to the story that our playwright, Douglas McGrath, wanted to tell. It's always a bit of a balancing act, but fun! A lot of the research is right there for you and it was so fascinating to research Gerry and get into his head.
What has been the most exciting part about playing opposite Chilina Kennedy and working with some new faces in the cast?
I've loved stepping back into the show so much - working with Chilina Kennedy has been a highlight for me - she's the real deal! It's also kind of fun because we're both from Canada and grew up in and around Toronto so working with someone on Broadway and we each come from the same place, I think we both approach the work in a similar way and it's been a real joy to share the stage with her!
The songs in the show are just the best and to get to sing, "Up On the Roof" every night on Broadway is just a total thrill.
Being part of a young cast, how do you personally connect to this music - why do you think it continues to remain timeless?
I have a unique upbringing because my parents are huge folk music fans and until about high school, I didn't listen to anything besides bluegrass and folk music. My music growing up was this music. People used to joke that I was born in the wrong generation. I grew up a massive Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carole King, Beatles fan! For me, it's my music so I really feel comfortable singing these songs, I love it so much! Also, because of my parents, I have such a glimpse into what this music means to so many people. This is music that defined a generation and when people come to see the show, I can see how deeply this music hits them. There's something about the melodies and their sentiment -- the nostalgia level is always very high at the theater!
Is it fun for you to experience the music industry of the past come alive each night at 1650 Broadway?
It is really interesting! As a songwriter, I feel like I have a little bit of credibility playing a songwriter on stage because I do understand how to write a song and a lyric - not to the level of these songwriters - but feel like I have somewhat of an understanding of what they experienced.
Being a musician yourself, what would you say are the elements that make up a hit song?
I think there has to be a surprise element - like a taboo subject matter that's exciting to sing about. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is implying this night of passion with someone and asks will you love me tomorrow and without hitting the nail on the head is exciting what it's talking about. The subject matter needs to grab your attention. Also, the catchiness value that nails a melody and a lyric where you can't help but think they were born to go together. It's the catchiness of a melody and lyric with an important subject matter is what I think make up a hit song.
In thinking about Gerry's legacy, what do you hope will always stay with fans?
I hope people remember him as the brilliant lyricist that he was - he truly was ahead of his time in terms of a man understanding the mind of a woman. If you look at the content of his songs -- they are dark and fascinating and funny. For example, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" is this ironic song - it has a happy melody but he's talking about this hell he's experiencing from living in the suburbs - it's a beautiful piece of irony. I hope people think of him as ahead of his time.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus