BWW Feature: Nicolas King - Concentrated Awesome
The stroller sat off to one side, empty. Standing in the wings beside the stage manager, the boy watched his grandmother singing in the spotlight. He was two years old. This was neither the first nor the last time that the little one would accompany his Granny to a gig so that she could do double duty babysitting her grandson and singing for her supper; indeed, this was an average day in the life of the toddler
It reads like a page out of a novel, it plays like a scene from a movie, all about show business and a protagonist who was captured early in life by the thrill of live theater and the need to perform. It isn't a fictional story, though - it is as real as the man who tells it, and it is the foundation of a lifelong career in the arts for Nicolas King, now 28 and one of the most sought after crooners on the concert circuit today. When asked why he sings, Mr.King's long thought out answer is a simple one, much more simple than one would expect: "It's all I know how to do." Though parents Erik and Christina King are not musically inclined, the rest of the family is, and growing up around those musicians set the tone for the path King would take in his life, a path of which Mom and Dad were acutely aware from the moment the one and a half-year-old toddler picked up a television remote and began singing into it like a microphone. Never parents to discourage their only child from pursuing something that made him happy, they allowed the influence of maternal grandmother Angela Bacari to take a guiding hand with the boy. A popular singer on the nightclub scene, Ms. Bicari was also a voice teacher who would give lessons while the toddler was playing nearby, and it was by listening to her students either improve or flounder that Nicolas began to assimilate that which would create the voice that has served him throughout his career. Never once did the twosome sit down for a lesson, in fact, King has never taken a single class in singing - his technique is one obtained purely through osmosis, watching those lessons and Bacari's performances with her band, until the tot would fall asleep in his stroller in the middle of the noisy gig.
Raised as an adult, Nicolas entered the workforce at the age of 4, complicating his school life because while the other students played with their friends over the weekends, the tax-paying toddler was flying to other states to shoot commercials, a concept lost on other Kindergartners. King found useful the advice of his father, who told the precocious child "No one likes a big shot. When you go back to school, flip it around" so that when his classmates asked about his work trips to LA his reply would be a brief, "I had fun, what did you do this weekend?" For a while, the little boy balanced the life of a child actor with the existence of an elementary school kid, maintaining a small group of friends, but a year away from Rhode Island to play Chip in Beauty And The Beast on Broadway alienated him from those chums who believed he had abandoned them and who did not welcome him back into their circle when he returned to school at the age of 9, creating for King a dogma that has stayed with him for the rest of his life. Preferring to keep his personal and professional lives separate, Nicolas tends toward nurturing close relationships with people that he meets outside of the industry, his closest friends being two men to whom he refers as his "lumberjack best friend" and his "British brother in Bali" -- neither of whom could care less about the apparent glitz and glamor that comes with his work ("It's far from glamorous. Please, the dressing room at Don't Tell Mama?") Nothing about King's work-life affects these friendships, securely confirming that it is a genuine relationship based on shared core values, humor, and finding their being so different truly fascinating, much the same as it is with all of his "civilian" friends ("My happiness eggs are not just in the show business basket.") To that end when not at work, Nicolas King follows a strict rule: no shop talk. The King crew are open to discussions about life, their day, world affairs, their love lives, but no show biz prattle pervades their conversation, and it's a system that is working for him - all the shop talk happens within the industry, with the handful of friends there that he keeps close, some of them being people that might leave an innocent bystander awestruck, but people who, for Nicolas, are just his friends - one of whom acted as a cherished mentor to the young boy when he was making his way up the ladder of success.
"Mama, I wanna see Liza with the red ladies!" That was 2-year-old Nicolas King, bringing his mother the family DVD Liza at Radio City Music Hall, his favorite thing to look at on TV (the other being Thomas The Tank) and his youthful fascination with the legend led the King family to a Providence-based Liza Minnelli concert, the memory of which King describes as "this speck of red, dashing all over the stage!" The three-year-old responded so enthusiastically that Grandma Angela later took the tot to see Minnelli at Foxwoods Casino, where the tuxedo-clad four-year-old sat in the front row with a bouquet for his idol, who could not resist playing the concert directly to the child, winking at him, goofing with him, and eventually bringing him up on the stage to sit on her lap while she sang "Close Your Eyes" to him. A slyly arranged meeting orchestrated by Tom Selleck on their Broadway opening in A Thousand Clowns brought Ms. Minnelli back into King's life, and from there a friendship was made. Repeated encounters over the years created a bond between Minnelli and the King family, including a bit of vocal coaching from Bacari, until one day Liza called Nicolas with an offer of work: "Hi baby! I've got a show coming up in the Hamptons, would you open for me?" And 12-year-old Nicolas was such a hit in the Hamptons that when Liza Minnelli went on the road three years later, she took the 15-year-old with her. Nicolas King was living his best life.
The drought hit. Roles for teenagers transitioning into adulthood can be few and far between, even for a Broadway veteran who has worked with Carol Burnett, Linda Lavin and Tom Selleck, and young Nicolas found himself without work. Industriously doing all the right things to find employment, King and his team found themselves facing an exciting opportunity, a brand new play by King's favorite writer, Neil Simon, for which Nicolas was hand-picked by the author himself who, after seeing King's callback audition, told the young actor "There's no reason to belabor this, this is your part. I don't have any notes for you - you've read it the way I wrote it." Beginning the road to Broadway, the play was workshopped and funded and heading to Williamstown, when a major chunk of funding fell through, necessitating a year-long pause in production. That year over, 16-year-old Nicolas could still pull off the part, and a tour was planned. With Broadway on the horizon and contracts ready to be signed, Mr. Simon suffered a major healthcare setback, and the project was shelved, leaving a devastated King without opportunities and in need of an income; his 18th birthday on the horizon, Nicolas turned to his first love: music. Reaching out to booking agents in his Rhode Island hometown, the crooner began playing out, effectively making the transition of necessity from actor to nightclub singer, a natural one since, after all, he had made his cabaret debut at 11, playing Don't Tell Mama in a show directed by Liza Minnelli.
Yeah, that's right.
Upon hearing that her prepubescent prodigy was planning a cabaret debut, Ms. Minnelli grabbed a big pad, a pen, and her "Shirley Devore" glasses, hopped up on the bed and helped young Mr. King plan out his first show, a show that ended up being rather successful. Years later, when establishing himself in the industry as a male nightclub singer with a new show alongside Mike Renzi, Nicolas went directly to Minnelli to run the idea by her, only to have Liza turn his idea into an act he didn't even know was possible, all the while insisting that her contribution to his new show remain anonymous, as she did during that debut show, years earlier when he was only eleven. In a way, Liza Minnelli was to Nicolas King as Fred Ebb was to her, all of her own volition, not as a favor that was asked of her, but as a volunteer helping hand from mentor to mentee.
Did Nicolas King miss out on having a childhood? "No. My childhood was a blast. I had so much fun!" It is his parents to whom he attributes the experience, for their ability to both give him the freedom to fly but also keep him grounded. All the while that the entertainer was on sets, in clubs, at theaters, there was still homework to be done, there were familial obligations, social commitments, volunteer work, and Mom and Dad King never once let their only child lose the value of keeping his work ethic balanced with the notion that life is meant to be lived, one of the reasons that King so strictly observes his time off today, making a rigid point of spending time with friends, taking vacations, allowing himself downtime when he is away from his job as an entertainer. The values that Mr. and Mrs. King instilled in Nicolas guide him today: work is work but when it's done, it's time for family - and never, ever allow yourself to get too cool for school.
"I remember one time, I was doing one of the shows and I'd gotten a bit mouthy, I think I started using bad language, and my mother pulled me into the Sam Ash alleyway in 48th Street and she said 'Who do you think you're becoming? If you don't remember who you are and the type of person that you've been raised to be, I will pull out of the show tomorrow and we're moving back to Rhode Island. You remember that you are respectful, you are kind.' I think that my parents' values have helped me navigate. My parents gave me the most wonderful upbringing."
As for the work, Nicolas couldn't be more happy, though he admits he would like to get back to the acting. He has missed playing parts, though while singing in clubs, each set of 15 songs gets to be 15 different plays he performs a night, which he finds immensely satisfying. He confesses that he would take a movie role or a part in a play "in a nanosecond" if the right role came up, and that role might be in the making, as a famed artist has come to him with a wish that he play a role that they think is tailor-made for him, it is now a question of doing the work to bring that vision to fruition. In the meantime, Nicolas will travel the world doing shows with Mike Renzi ("I am so privileged to work with him, I love him so much"), perform his regular gigs in New York at Birdland in the musical revue NEW YORK: BIG CITY SONGBOOK, and crooning for the crowd at the Surrey Hotel. And when people ask why a man of his youthful years chooses to sing music created decades before he was even born, he simply says "Because it's good. It tells a story, it has a message to it. I'm drawn to this type of music because I love the stories that they tell." And what does Nicolas King want out of life? What's his next adventure?
"I could go for a hot fudge sundae but I'm allergic to milk, so that's not gonna happen. I just want to work. I'd like to do another show on Broadway, I'd love to do a really good film. I just want to surround myself with really good people. Liza always told me to never be the smartest person in the room - if you're the smartest person in the room, then you're in the wrong room. I always liked that idea. When you surround yourself with brilliant people you can learn from it. What I want to do is keep surrounding myself with really talented people, and just keep working. But it goes back to my attitude of not thinking that I'm owed it, so if things don't happen I'm never discontent. I'm not after fame. I've never been after fame since I'm two years old. To me, I'm still that little boy with the remote. I just want to sing, I just enjoy it. I love doing it, I like that it makes other people happy. Other people get so bent on fame that they forget what they love about the craft. First. You gotta love the craft more than you love the fame 'cause if you're focused on it, you'll never get it. If you love your craft and you're focused on doing a good job at your craft, you'll never be disappointed. You'll always put a hundred percent into it and you'll always do great."
It's fair to say that, at his craft and at life, Nicolas King is doing great.
Photos by Stephen Mosher