Women like Chilina Kennedy are blazing new trails on Broadway. While founding a new theater company and developing her own show, she is also playing Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical eight times a week. Add the role of Mom to her already packed schedule and you’ll understand why she redefines what it means to be a “Natural Woman.”
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in theater?
I was four and I am not exaggerating. People are like “really, is that true?” My mom used to talk about when she was pregnant with me, she would play guitar. I am sure a lot of babies move around and rest against the vibration of the guitar and like ever since I came out of the womb, I was singing and dancing and it’s all I really ever wanted to do. I went to dance classes and started playing piano since I was four. I just loved it. So it really is kind of the only thing I ever wanted to do.
What is it like to play Carole King, who is such an iconic person on Broadway?
Oh, it’s incredible. I mean, I have played the role now for about over a thousand times. It’s maybe 1,100 times and just does not get old. I love it. I learn something new all the time. It’s hard to play somebody who is still alive and especially somebody who – I mean, listen, like everybody that I speak to is a fan of Carole King. They know every word to the Tapestry album and people have a great reverence for her. Gloria Steinem talks about her being the first female composer to give a downbeat. She paved the way for other women in her industry so there is a lot of pressure that comes with playing her because she has got a very unique way and sound and songwriting style. I think it’s important to be accurate about that, because that’s what people want to hear and see. Then of course, I have got to also make it my own. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s one that I love to do.
What is your favorite Carole King song that you get to perform?
I go through different ones all the time. Sometimes it’s “Natural Woman: and sometimes it’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” It depends, because those songs come in different parts of the show, they carry different kinds of weights to them. “Natural Woman” is what I view as coming into her own skin as not just a songwriter, but also a singer. So it’s got some gravitas to it. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is a very romantic time in her and Gerry’s marriage where they were very, very much in love with each other, so it’s an intimate and beautiful moment in the show.
What is it like being a leading lady on Broadway right now?
Oh, it’s incredible. I feel so honored. Honestly, we are going through a very interesting time in our world and in our culture. Things are shifting and so I think we can feel that and the audience feels that women are coming more into their power. It’s interesting to then pay tribute to the ones who have paved the way for us and it’s palpable out there. You see these generations of women coming to see theater, and especially to see our show. You see grandmothers bringing their daughters, bringing their daughters.
There are also a lot of really, really powerful women that I respect who are on Broadway right now. Stephanie J. Block, Jenn Colella, these powerhouses. It’s amazing to be in the same league as those people that I deeply, deeply admire.
Beautiful is a jukebox musical. Is there another jukebox musical you would want to be in?
Well, I was in Mamma Mia for two and a half years. I toured back in the day. I did Sophie for a long time and toured the US. It’s funny, because Beautiful isn’t really your sort of typical jukebox musical – it’s more of a play where you are witnessing those songs being written in the moment, as opposed to I am singing my feelings. That happens only twice in the whole show, whereas in Mamma Mia we are singing the songs as if they are coming out of the moment. So it’s kind of fascinating to do those two different versions of a jukebox musical.
There are some good ones out there. So I don’t know if I really have another example to give of one that I like off the top of my head, but I love Jersey Boys. It’s fantastic.
You got to sing with Carole King on stage a few weeks ago. What was that like?
Oh, it was fantastic. I got to do the Today Show with her and play her at the Kennedy Center Honors as well, so I got to meet her and work with her, but this one was special. I think because it was our five‑year anniversary and because of the nature of how it was a surprise to the audience and to the rest of the cast. Nobody knew except for myself and the producers and a couple of other people. We got to rehearse together and to block her into the show and I was excited for days because I was imagining what the audience was going to feel seeing her behind the piano instead of me. It happened in such an emotional part of the show. It was interesting to see her go through it and how emotional she was and how proud of the show she is after five years, because her relationship with the show has changed a lot from the beginning. She wasn’t a huge fan of the whole idea and then when she saw how great it was, she said “oh, I can get behind it.” To see that, the difference between that first moment to where we are now and celebrating our fifth‑year anniversary, it being so successful and a big hit and to see how proud she is of all of that, it’s really moving. For the first time I sort of watched her from backstage sing “Beautiful” live and I wept. I am not a very sentimental person, and I was really moved. I was really, really moved, I have to admit.
Did Carole give you any advice when you took on the role?
She was really great at helping me understand her playing style, her very specific way that she plays piano. She sat me down and she saw the show and we went backstage and she told stories. She was really, really generous. She is generous every time I see her. She is incredible, she is a really great lady. She is sort of everything you want her to be and more. She sat me down and she played “Beautiful” right alongside me so I can see the way she uses the pedal. And she uses her body to play, her whole body is playing the piano, not just her hands.
Are you playing the piano on stage? I thought it was fake.
Well, I don’t want to get into trouble by the show but how do I say this delicately? I am playing the piano, but you are not hearing what I am playing. I really do actually play the piano. I learned all the songs and played all the tunes for my audition. I really think it’s important – I mean, not every Carole has to be able to play like a classical pianist, but it’s good to be able to learn as part of the research what it is that she is actually doing.
If you could switch places with anyone on Broadway right now and play their role for one show, who would you choose?
That’s a tough one. Jeez. Honestly it would have been – I mean, she is not in it anymore, but like I mentioned before, I am such a huge fan of Stephanie J. Block and literally anything that she does I think is brilliant, so I would have loved to switch spots with her when she was doing Falsettos. Because I think that’s such a great show and what she did in that show was just beyond amazing. I also think she is brilliant in The Cher Show.
Can you tell us about Eclipse Theatre Company? When did you start that and why?
To make a long story short, it started about three years ago but we just had our launch recently in Toronto with Kiss of the Spider Woman. I think it’s important to give back to your community, the community that you came from and the community that you are living in at the moment. I feel very strongly about both, my New York community and also my community back home in Toronto. So I wanted to find a way to bridge our worlds as well because I think the world is also hungry for more partnerships, especially between countries in the age of polarity and black and white. I think it’s very important to develop partnerships and strong bonds between different communities. We have got Come From Away that’s so successful, and that came out of my college where I went to school in Canada. So I think it’s cool to be developing – like I am developing my own show. We are having the third reading of it in New Jersey. That is a show that started development in Canada but now is also being developed in New York. It’s great to be able to be fluid that way and to go back and forth. I think the world needs more of that, and so I want to be able to contribute to that.
How do you balance the theater company while you’re also performing in a Broadway show?
That’s a good question I am still asking myself. I mean, I have a four‑year‑old too so I just do my best. All you can do is do your best and he is in school from 9:00 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. So that gives me some hours to work on my theater company, and that’s the time I am not doing Beautiful. I sort of try to just compartmentalize and work on things when I can. It’s really rewarding. I play hard and I work hard so then I take three days and I go to Turks and Caicos and I relax on the side.
Your son came to see you in Beautiful. What was it like knowing he was in the audience?
He saw it a couple of times. We weren’t sure at first – his dad brought him to see the end. We wanted to see how he would react and he was so good. He was so quiet, respectful, just loves the music, loves watching everybody play on stage. He told me he wants to be in the band of Broadway shows. He wants to play in the pit and see people sing and dance. He is incredible. I didn’t know if he would be able to get through the whole show, but he did. He has seen Come From Away, and he has seen Aladdin. He saw Frozen twice. He is a regular theatergoer now. It’s pretty incredible.
It’s fun to have theater kids.
Yes, well, it’s also good to show people that kids actually can behave and do really well at the theater if you teach them well. I think sometimes we go “oh, they are not ready” and so we don’t give them a chance, but actually they are more ready than we think they are.
I was at Frozen yesterday, and there was a kid next to me talking the whole time. I don’t think the parents told them not to talk during the show.
Oh, it drives me crazy. All you have to do is have a conversation with your children and say it’s just like a rule, that you are not allowed to talk. If you have an emergency, you can whisper you need to go pee or something like that, but there is no need. Make sure they go to the bathroom beforehand and they have got water and they are fine.
If you had a show about your life, what would it be called?
That’s a great question. Oh, my God. Something about trying to do as much as possible as well as she possibly could. I don’t know what you would call that. That would be work hard, play hard, I guess is maybe what I would say.