How do you know if acting is your calling? When do you leap and make a career out of the performing arts? Have you ever wondered what it takes to be part of a musical performance? As a mother of three teens, I always love speaking with people in the arts to hear how their paths took shape. In between their multiple shows in Montreal, Darren Martens, Chase Winnicky, Mike Melino and Tess Benger took time to answer some questions for us.
I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in Montreal at the Segal Centre. It was the first show of the 2023-2024 season, and they could not have opened the season any better than with this musical. My son and I were gifted seats in the front row of this very intimate theatre. What a treat! My son is a big fan of musical performances, and while he didn’t know much about Carole King or her immense repertoire of music before that evening, when the night was over, he couldn’t wait to hear even more of her hit songs.
What is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical About?
The musical is based on the true story of Carole King. The musical follows her life from her humble beginnings as a teenager living in Brooklyn in the with a passion for songwriting, all the way up to her performance at Carnegie Hall, celebrating her award-winning album, Tapestry. For those unfamiliar with Carole King, many will recognize her collection of work that she created with then husband, Gerry Goffin, as well as the works of her friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The musical has over two dozen pop classics that for me, are engrained in my soul. I grew up listening to these songs at home thanks to my mom. And as some people have said, you are a fan of Carole King even if you don’t know it, because there are so many songs she wrote but did not perform herself.
The Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was on Broadway for six years, and just ended its run last month. The musical itself has been translated and performed all over the world. I think that is what made seeing the powerhouse musical in a local, smaller venue so special. The Segal Centre musical is a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Center and Montreal is so lucky to have this incredible show playing here. It didn’t take long before the show was extended another week and even less time after that before every single upcoming night was sold out. After their run in Montreal, the cast is heading to Winnipeg.
What Makes This Musical So Enjoyable?
Aside from the amazing songs, unbelievably talented cast, and beautiful set design and costumes, the musical gives you all the feels. Nostalgia is felt deeply since the play sweeps through different fashion and style eras that we all know and love. The original pop boy and girl bands give this musical an energy you cannot sit still for. When the Drifters and the Shirelles come on the stage and begin their choreographed numbers, it is pure joy. Not to mention the charming Neil Sedaka popping up and The Righteous Brothers singing their ever-so-popular number, exactly as it was recorded, serious faces and all.
I was in awe when the full cast made it on stage for certain numbers. The choreography and talent exuding from the stage was amazing. As an audience, we practically jumped to out feet. These are songs that make you want to move, and seeing them performed with this incredible cast was pure joy.
The storytelling that is made through the lives of Carole King and Gerry Goffin is deep and full of emotions. Being witness to the back and forth of a relationship that created the soundtrack of my childhood favourites was an emotional rollercoaster. These actors took me on quite a ride!
I wish I could have talked with the whole cast, to be honest. They were all absolutely incredible. I managed to hear from Tess Benger (who plays Carole King), Darren Martens (who plays Gerry Goffin), Chase Winnicky (who plays Neil Sedaka, BeeBop Guy and Ensemble), and Mike Melino (who plays Bary Mann). Enjoy!
Q: When did you know that performing was your career path? Was it an easy decision?
Darren: I grew up on a dairy/beef farm outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba. When I was in Grade 12, I thought I was going to go to University for Agriculture. But, I had an epiphany at a weekend choir camp that I wanted to do music instead. I was so joyful in that moment and knew that I had to continue in music somehow. This led me to believe that I wanted to be a choral conductor, and so I auditioned for Music School. In my third year of music school, I had begun to take education classes as well so that I could be a high school music teacher. I had another epiphany and realized that I did not want to teach but perform instead! SO, all that is to say that ultimately, my decision to perform was hard but also easy. It is scary to decide to be a performer because of the instability and vulnerability that the career demands; but when I listened to my intuition, it was screaming at me, telling me that there was no other option for me!
Chase: After years of doing sports as a kid, I finally did my first musical at the age of 10 and was immediately hooked. After that the rest was history 🙂
Mike: I knew I wanted to sing ever since I was a child. No matter what other path I wanted to take, music always called me back. I started acting when I did my first musical back in 2011 with a community theatre company. I discovered I had an interest in that as well, and worked on that skill ever since, by taking various workshops, coaching sessions and learning in the job.
Q: How was it getting that call telling you that you were going to be part of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical?
Tess: I was very excited! My parents were over the moon, they love Carole King! I was especially excited to spend the fall in Montreal!
Darren: I was very excited for this role. Gerry is demanding emotionally, and the role is deep and complicated. These roles are my favourite to play, so when I got the call, I was ecstatic!
Chase: Having always wanted to explore Montreal and work at the Segal Centre, getting the call from my agent with this offer was a dream. The cherry on top was getting to work with my director Kelly Thornton again (she directed me in last seasons Into the Woods at RMTC). Very grateful for this gig and all of the new friends it’s brought into my life.
Mike: I was actually called for the role of Donny Kirshner, and asked to do a cold read for the role of Barry. I was satisfied with how my audition for the role had panned out. I would have been very happy being part of the ensemble. I got the news I was offered the role of Barry while working on a voice-over contract. I actually couldn’t believe the news. It was a very big deal for me.
Q: What is it like stepping into this historic and monumental character for this play?
Tess: It means a lot! After reading Carole’s book Natural Woman, I felt so connected to her and I think she is an incredible artist and human. It is a real joy to step into her shoes every day.
Darren: It is an absolute honour to play Gerry Goffin. He was so influential and yet he stayed out of the limelight. There is remarkably little information about this genius man to research, but I believe that I understood who he was rather quickly.
Chase: I only get moments of it with my track, but it’s a blast watching old videos of these artists and trying to recreate their iconic personalities/physicality while bringing your own spin to it.
Mike: It’s first and foremost an honour and a privilege to tell this story. These four songwriters we portray are so iconic in the history of American music. All I wanted to do is give the best portrayal I can give. Everyone knows who Barry Mann is without even knowing who Barry Mann is. When people asked me who he is, I would quote one of the many famous songs he wrote, and they’d reply “oh yeah! I love that song”.
Q: Tess, you run through decades on stage, with costume changes, hairdos, etc. Did you find this difficult/challenging/exciting to go through the years on stage? What was your favourite decade to perform?
Tess: Oh I LOVE IT! I have spent a lot of my career playing kids on stage, so the earlier years come very naturally to me. The show is so well constructed, and I feel deeply supported by the play and people around me. I kind of just hop on a moving train and go through time. The costumes also really help!! Louise Bourret did an INCREDIBLE job and my costume fittings were incredibly collaborative so everyone felt like we were really representing the time period but also where Carole was at in her life.
Q: The songs you had to sing are so well-known. Did you find it fun or challenging to perform them? Do you have a favourite?
Darren: I love singing these songs and I stay as free with them as I can. There is different meaning to the songs when Gerry sings them, as opposed to when other artists do, because they were deeply personal for him. “Up on the Roof” is my favourite one, even though I only sing one verse of the song.
Chase: I think it’s a mixture of both! The best challenge as an actor is doing things that scare you a little bit, and portraying such iconic artists can be daunting.
Mike: As soon as I got the news, I did some research about Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s discography. I was amazed to find out that many of the songs I have loved throughout my childhood, teen years, and adulthood were written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. In BEAUTIFUL, my favourites are “Walkin’ In The Rain” and “We Got To Get Out Of This Place”, which I had never heard until I was learning them. They are so fun to learn and sing. The most challenging part was learning the piano part, since I play live on stage during “Walking In The Rain”.
Q: Tess, what was your most challenging song to learn in the Carole King repertoire?
Tess: I don’t think I considered any of the songs challenging. They are all so beautiful and her storytelling is so clear. Our music director Floydd Ricketts was so open to collaboration. It’s fun because Carole has done so many variations of her songs over the years so it kind of gave us permission to play around a bit. The hardest thing to learn was all the costume changes backstage!
Q: Darren, you had a full range of emotions on stage, was it difficult for you to portray your loss of clarity? And What do you hope the audience learns from your performance and the life of Gerry Goffin?
Darren: I surprisingly did not find it difficult to play the ultimate loss of clarity; but it was the moments leading up to the mental break that I found more challenging. I think those moments are a bit more nuanced and take a little more crafting than the moment of full explosion. I hope that people learn how complicated mental illness and generational traumas are for people, and have empathy for them, but that these issues don’t automatically forgive someone for mistreating the people they love.
Q: Tess, what did it mean to have your parents in the audience for your opening night? Have your parents been big supporters of your work and career in the arts?
Tess: It was very special. I could see them in the audience, and it meant so much that they were there. Singing “You’ve Got A Friend” hit harder for sure 🙂 My mom is an actress who grew up in Montreal. It was always very obvious to everyone that I was going to follow in her footsteps. The singing comes more from my dad and his side of the family. My dad is a brilliant journalist/documentary film producer, so my whole life I have been surrounded by brilliant artists. They have always been supportive but they also understand the hardships of being a freelance artist, so I think they worry about me, but it comes from a place of understanding and love. Although they do understand the wins in a very intimate way, so when those do happen, we all really try to sit in those moments together and acknowledge them.
A Message for Budding Artists and Their Parents
Q: And finally, everyone, What advice would you like to give budding artists (such as my son) about pursuing their love of the arts?
- get off the internet.
- read plays.
- see plays.
- develop your own standards.
- go where you are wanted but recognize the moments when to push.
- work hard.
- be careful with your words. be careful of jealously, fall in love with other people succeeding around you.
- become very good with your money.
- trust timing.
- rejection is protection.
- enjoy the empty space and unknown of the moments between.
- grow a garden.
- practice radical grace.
Darren: I would say that budding artists should be always striving to figure out who they are, and staying true to themselves and what their intuition tells them. This is no easy task, but what I hope is that their parents support them, and give them the space to play, find joy, and find themselves!
Chase: Stay true to who you are. There’s only one of you 🙂 Work hard and be kind. Those two things will always pay off!
Mike: For the aspiring artists, the best advice I would give is to trust yourself and not let anyone tell you you’re not good enough. Don’t pay attention to the haters, or negative comments, and surround yourself with people who share your passion, and want to see you succeed. Take classes, be curious, learn any new skill you can, and most all, have fun through the process.
For the parents, support your kids in their passions, and encourage them to be the best they can be. Let them take the path they want to follow while appreciating their uniqueness, even if that means letting go of what you had planned for them in your mind. Guide them, cheer for them, be their number one fan, but also, be honest with them. If they fail, help them through the rough patch, help them stand up again, and give them that extra push so they can continue on stronger than ever.
Congratulations to the whole cast and crew of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Thank you so much to Tess, Darren, Chase and Mike for answering these questions! I know your answers will inspire other parents to help their children follow their passion, no matter what it is!
By the end of this week, the cast will be headed to Winnipeg to continue their run of Beautiful. If you are nearby, I highly suggest grabbing tickets before they sell out. You will enjoy every minute of this musical with this fantastic cast.
Disclaimer: I was invited to the opening night of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical to facilitate some form of review. I took it upon myself to reach out to some cast members and create this post. I would have loved to speak to everyone, but time was limited for us all. All opinions are honest and my own.